It's like clockwork: you're about to get your period and suddenly your body has zero control over what you eat. Chocolate, doughnuts, salty chips, ice cream, greasy burgers, fries -- basically every form of fatty carb imaginable.
Then your period comes and you
need want these foods to get you through the irritability, low mood and pain.
Although it's important to be kind to yourself during this time, not overdoing it when it comes to junk food can actually help you feel better before and during your period.
But how do we deal with period food cravings? And why are we more hungry in the first place?
Why do women feel more hungry around their period?
There are a few possible reasons why people feel more hungry, or crave junk foods, around their period. As every person is different, the types of symptoms and cravings women experience before and during their period vary a great deal.
One reason for appetite changes and food cravings is a change in hormones. As Clare Ballingall, GP and chair of RACGP Tasmania, told HuffPost Australia, "oestrogen and progesterone go up and then they drop off just before the period, and this is a theory for increased hunger".
Another possible reason for period food cravings is a change in the body's response to insulin in the premenstrual phase, meaning some women can experience mild alterations in their blood sugar and crave sweet foods.
And, of course, there's the fact that we often feel low, irritable and stressed before and during the period, and turn to enjoyable sugary or fatty foods to make us feel better, Alexandra Parker, accredited practising dietitian from The Biting Truth, told HuffPost Australia.
"Cortisol (the 'stress hormone') tends to spike right before your period. At the same time, serotonin (the 'mood balance hormone') tends to dip," Parker said.
"This combo can result in cravings for sweets and carbs as well as fatty foods. Carbohydrates are known to promote serotonin release, so women crave them to make themselves feel better."
There are also cultural and social factors at play when it comes to period food cravings. Think about it: what do movies prescribe in times of sadness? A tub of ice cream.
"As a society we're reinforced that chocolate and other sweets are a way to deal with stress as they are comforting and make us feel better," Parker said.
Do you burn more calories on your period?
Another theory for increased hunger and food cravings is the body burns more energy before and during the period. Unfortunately, this isn't scientifically backed and even if it were the case, the energy difference doesn't equal a cheeseburger.
"During menstruation, a lot happens in a female's body. Our nutritional needs may change in relation to hormonal changes -- however, our energy needs do not change enough to warrant an increased food intake," Anna Debenham, accredited practising dietitian from The Biting Truth, told HuffPost Australia.
"It is important to ensure you are getting enough iron in your diet to make up for the mineral loss from your period. Good iron sources include meat, fish, poultry, lentils, tofu, some fruits and veg."
How to deal with period cravings
Now that we know why we experience increased hunger and food cravings, here are strategies to help deal with them.
"The bottom line is that over-indulging in excess junk foods during these periods may result in unwanted weight gain over time," Parker said.
"It happens every month, so it is best to have some tips and tricks under your belt so that you can deal with the food cravings when they hit, or prevent them from happening at all."
1. Eat healthy carbs
When it comes to carbohydrates, the ones we usually crave are those which are also refined, sugary and fatty (looking at you, chocolate-filled doughnut). Instead, choose healthy, slow-release carbohydrates, which will give you the same carby satisfaction, minus the junk.
"Recognise that your body wants more food and allow yourself a few more carbs," Debenham said. "Rather than chowing down on a burger and fries, choose nutritious foods that are filling as well as comforting. Think wholemeal pasta, rice, whole grain bread, vegetables."
2. Don't skip meals
Although it might seem counter-intuitive, restricting food intake after eating pizza, ice cream or chocolate can lead to increased appetite and food cravings.
"You don't want to let yourself get too hungry as this often results in overeating at the next meal. Try and have small meals throughout the day to avoid cravings," Parker said.
3. Eat a healthy, balanced breakfast (and snacks)
"Enjoy protein and whole grains at each meal as these will help stabilise blood sugar levels and keep you feeling fuller for longer," Parker said.
"Have healthy snacks on hand so when you do feel hungry, or crave a certain food, you have something healthy you can go to first."
4. Move your body
Let's face it, not everyone wants to exercise, let alone get out of bed, during PMS or the period. However, gentle exercise like walking or yoga can be one of the best strategies to cope with bloating, mood and cravings.
"Try doing something you love like a yoga class or short walk with a friend," Debenham said.
"Exercise can also reduce bloating, fatigue and the moodiness that can arise when you have your period. It also helps to alleviate stress, which is related to food cravings."
5. Plan ahead
In this instance, planning ahead doesn't mean stocking the kitchen with family-sized ice cream, chocolate and chips.
"If you know you get cravings when you have your period, don't buy blocks of chocolate that you can work your way through. Instead, buy small Freddo Frog-sized amounts," Debenham said.
6. Treat yourself to a little bit
As much as we try, when we're feeling unwell and irritable thanks to PMS and periods, it's unrealistic to go without a crumb of biscuit.
"Allow yourself to enjoy a small portion of it. This is one of the main secrets to overcoming cravings," Parker said.
"Don't restrain yourself from eating or worry about weight gain as this will often make it worse. Remember to eat mindfully and savour each mouthful."
Healthier food swaps and snack ideas:
- Swap a handful of lollies for some fresh dates or unsalted nuts
- Swap a tub of frozen yoghurt or ice cream for a blended frozen banana ice cream
- Swap a chocolate bar for some dark chocolate-dipped strawberries
- Swap a bag of potato chips for some unsalted popcorn and flavour yourself with paprika or cinnamon
- Opt for fresh fruit over fruit juice or dried fruit
If you struggle with PMS (or PMDD) and severe food cravings, check in with your GP who can help with symptoms.