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Craving carbs before your period – Is there any science?

By Polly Neve Registered Dietitian & Katherine Kimber Registered Dietitian | February 26, 2018
Ice Lolly Melting Like a Period

Article edited & republished March 16th 2021

Do you find yourself craving carbs before your period? Is PMS sabotaging your ability to eat well? So many people who menstruate experience food cravings and an increased appetite around menstruation. Is there actually a science-backed link between periods and food cravings or is it all just in our heads? Let’s #StripTheNonsense and discuss what might be causing those food cravings, as well as some strategies to manage them.

Do you find yourself craving carbs before your period? Is PMS sabotaging your ability to eat well? So many people who menstruate experience food cravings and an increased appetite around menstruation. Is there actually a science-backed link between periods and food cravings or is it all just in our heads? Let’s #StripTheNonsense and discuss what might be causing those food cravings, as well as some strategies to manage them.

PMS Explained

Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS) can be characterised by various symptoms in the 1-2 weeks before your period. They are usually relieved a day or so after bleeding begins. These include mood swings, irritability, increased appetite, carbohydrate and alcohol cravings, breast tenderness, headaches and bloating. Some of us get intense symptoms and lots of them, whilst other people won’t notice any.

Prior to menstruation, progesterone and oestrogen levels fall; this is what causes our uterine lining to shed and bleeding to occur. The sudden drop in hormones is associated with the onset of PMS symptoms. 

Do all people with cycles tend to eat more around their period?

You are not alone if you find yourself with a ferocious appetite or craving carbs before your period. Below, some of my clients describe their experiences around that time of the month:

“I definitely have a week of my cycle where I am much hungrier and also much more emotional at the same time – which when I am judging myself does not always end in kindness…”

“When my hormones change throughout the month I notice I’m grumpy/sad/tired. I’ve also noticed a link between my mood and not eating intuitively or (more accurately) numbing my feelings with food”

A review of 30 studies (Dye et al. 1997) looked at women’s energy intake at different phases of the menstrual cycle. They identified, that in 27 out of 37 groups of women, energy intake was higher in the second half of the menstrual cycle (day 14-28), before their period was due.

It demonstrates how common increased appetite and food cravings are around our periods. Some research suggests that this could be because calorie requirements may be slightly higher at this time. However, the results are varied and further studies need to be conducted in humans. More research is also required to determine whether sex hormones interact with hunger hormones to control changes in appetite over the course of the menstrual cycle. Hunger hormones tell us when we are hungry, and when to stop eating.

Craving carbs before your period – what types of food are we most likely to crave?

Can’t stop thinking about sugar or find yourself craving carbs before your period? This is certainly the case for many of my clients so if you find yourself in the same boat, rest assured you’re not alone.

The science on the types of foods we tend to crave is inconsistent (Davidsen et al. 2007). Different studies have determined that in the build-up to our period (1-2 weeks), our intake of all three macronutrients (carbohydrate, proteins, and fats) is increased.  Two studies have identified that chocolate cravings seem to be more frequent in the build-up to a period, than at any other time of the cycle (Hetherington et al. 1993, Rozin et al. 1991).

In reality, it is challenging to interpret data when it comes to what type of foods we crave.  For example, say we crave and end up eating a doughnut, was it the carbohydrate, or fat in the doughnut that we were after? Who knows!

 

4 Tips to combat increased appetite and cravings 

  1. Keep those blood sugar levels steady:

Our blood sugar levels are influenced by what, and how regularly we eat as well as certain hormones. Levels of hormones that affect our blood sugar levels change throughout our menstrual cycle. This may contribute to wanting more food and cravings around our periods. We can help to combat blood sugar fluctuations and craving carbs before your period by:

  • a) Eating regularly: Try to eat something every 3-4 hours to help prevent dips in your blood sugar. Most people find that leaving more than 4 hours between meals can result in feeling overly hungry, which may result in overeating later in the day. 
  • b) Choosing Low Glycaemic Index (Low GI) foods–  Ensuring each meal and snack contains low GI carbohydrates may help with PMS symptoms by maintaining an even blood sugar level and lowering inflammation. Such a diet may also help reduce food cravings. See here if you would like to learn more about GI.

  • c) Eating protein and fats with your meals – and ideally your snacks too. When a meal contains protein, fat and low GI carbohydrates, this contributes to keeping blood sugar levels stable. It also promotes feelings of satisfaction after eating. Protein can keep us feeling fuller for longer as they mix with the carbohydrates in your stomach, and slow down their absorption. Fats provide flavour and contribute to satiation. If you feel satisfied and full from your meals and snacks, you’ll be less likely to experience cravings.

2. Don’t restrict yourself

Restricting the amount or types of food we eat is guaranteed to lead to eating past the point of comfortable fullness down the line. It can lead on to feelings of guilt and shame and feeds into the diet cycle. 

Labelling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is also a big factor that can lead to feelings of restriction. Of course some foods are more nutritious than others, but labelling foods as bad and good can make you feel good for eating the ‘good food’ and bad for eating the ‘bad foods’. This can again fuelling into the diet cycle.

Rather than labelling foods as ‘good or bad’. try using ‘every day foods’ and ‘celebratory/occasional foods’. Or just call the food by its name. E.g. an apple, or a croissant.  It’s normal and healthy to enjoy delicious celebratory or comforting foods alongside nourishing your body with good quality foods that you enjoy.

    3. Give yourself some grace

    We have already seen how normal PMS symptoms, including appetite changes and cravings, are. We can certainly take the steps above to minimise contributing hormone fluctuations but remember, people with menstrual cycles are cyclical creatures. We can choose to see our fluctuating moods, emotions and appetites as curses. But the end of the day they are natural.

    What if, we chose to see these symptoms as an invitation to slow down, rest, listen to and be with our bodies?

    When we try to resist what we are feeling and will it away, often we actually create more tension. This may lead to us feeling worse and perhaps increase our desire to eat emotionally which can lead to more feelings of guilt and shame and the cycle continues. Conversely, when we give ourselves some time (even just a couple of minutes) to pause, tune-in and sit with our feelings, they will usually pass. For more information on emotional eating see here.

    4. Take steps to reduce stress levels

    Stress is also a big one that can affect pretty much all of our bodily functions, including our menstrual cycle hormones. Stress reduction techniques like diaphragmatic breathing, mindfulness meditation and nature walks alongside regular physical activity and getting 7-8 hours sleep each night can help reduce stress and the severity of PMS symptoms.

    So in summary…

    When it comes to periods and in particular, craving carbs before your period, you are not on your own. Whilst in the two weeks lead up to your period, you may find that you feel a little more hungry, we do not know whether this is the body actually needing more energy, or whether it’s just our hormones causing cravings. More research is required. But don’t worry, there are still things you can do, and I have provided you with some top tips to ensure you feel equipped to nourish your body with what it needs and take care of yourself around that time of the month.

    If you battle with PMS-related food cravings, click here to download my free Period Self Care Guide, to learn more strategies to nourish yourself during that time of the month.

    Welcome to Nude Nutrition

    I am Katherine Kimber, a Registered Dietitian, and Certified Intuitive Eating Counsellor with a first-class Undergraduate and Masters’s degree from Kings College London.

    Are you fed up with not knowing what you should or shouldn’t be eating? Perhaps relying on external tools such as the time of day, points systems, calorie tracking or rigid rules to show you the way.

    If you’re ready to get out of your head when it comes to food decisions, and more into your body then you’ve come to the right place. I’m here to strip the nonsense, so you can feel better in your body and figure out a sustainable approach to movement and nutrition.

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