You’re not alone if your diet gets seriously derailed in the days leading up to and during your period. That time of the month—particularly for those coping with premenstrual syndrome (PMS)—can cause us to indulge in some seriously unhealthy cravings (French fries and ice cream for dinner, anyone?).
If you’re in that boat, don’t despair. There’s a scientific reason women jones for junk food in the days preceding and during that time of the month. Estrogen, testosterone and progesterone—the main reproductive hormones—plummet in the days leading up to your period and remain low for the first few days of it, according to gynecologist Rebecca Booth, M.D., author of “The Venus Week: Discover the Powerful Secret of Your Cycle…at Any Age.”
“This sharp decline in hormones results in falling levels of mood-supporting brain chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine, causing cravings for foods that elevate them, like chocolate (dopamine) and starchy foods (serotonin),” explains Dr. Booth.
Watch what you eat
If you’re already suffering from period-fueled cravings and can’t step away from the chocolate-covered, peanut butter-filled pretzels, Keri Glassman, R.D., author of “Slim Calm Sexy Diet: 365 Proven Food Strategies for Mind/Body Bliss,” says it’s not too late to get back on track with healthy, tasty foods. Glassman recommends kick starting your day with a hearty breakfast rich in fiber and protein, such as six ounces of yogurt and one-half cup of fiber cereal, which will keep you feeling full for longer and less likely to reach for a sugar-filled treat.Next, start snacking. “Snacking gets a bad rap, so depriving yourself between meals might feel virtuous,” says Glassman. “But by the time dinner rolls around, you’re ravenous.”
Keep healthy, nutrient-dense snacks prepped and at your fingertips. Glassman is a fan of popcorn and trail mix. Three cups of air-popped popcorn have almost 4 grams of fiber but less than 100 calories. You can make your own trail mix by combining unsweetened whole-grain cereal, sunflower seeds and dried blueberries.At mealtime, boost your consumption of essential fatty acids, which Booth says may “improve the brain’s processing of dopamine and serotonin.” In fact, Brazilian researchers have found that giving women 2-gram capsules containing a combination of gamma linolenic acid, oleic acid, linoleic acid, other polyunsaturated acids and vitamin E resulted in significantly eased PMS symptoms three and six months after they begin the regimen.
“Foods and supplements that boost essential fatty acids may ease the withdrawal-like symptoms that can leave a woman feeling uneasy and anxious during the premenstrual phase,” says Booth. “Gamma linolenic acid has long been associated with an anti-inflammatory effect in the body, paradoxically lessening the effect of prostaglandins, the chemicals that cause cramping and bloating before and during menstruation.”
Go for walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, fatty fish such as salmon, or fish oil supplements—all of which are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids, notes YouBeauty Nutrition Advisor Kristin Kirkpatrick, R.D.
Booth also recommends women make an effort to eat foods that contain iron to help replace the loss of this nutrient during menstruation, plant proteins to stabilize blood sugar and B vitamins and polyphenols to help offset hormonal and mood changes caused by menstruation.
Try the following:
- Nuts, nut butters, seeds and soybeans to stabilize your blood sugar.
- Spinach, lentils and chickpeas to boost your iron level.
- Blueberries and raspberries to help offset the symptoms of low estrogen.
- Dark chocolate, packed with polyphenols, to elevate mood.
Avoid PMS in the first place
According to Glassman, “Studies show that women who consume adequate amounts of B vitamins riboflavin and thiamine have significantly lower risk of experiencing PMS.”
Add leafy greens and dairy to your diet for good sources of riboflavin, and load up on thiamine with whole grains such as oats, wheat and brown rice, as well as beans, peas and lentils.Calcium and vitamin D provide extra benefits for women with PMS. “Women who consume the recommended 1,200 milligrams of calcium per day and the recommended 400 IU of vitamin D per day have a 30 percent lower chance of PMS symptoms,” says Glassman.
You’ll find calcium in low-fat sources such as yogurt, milk and cheese, and vitamin D in wild salmon, tuna and sardines.