Is your menstrual cycle sabotaging your healthy eating plan?

Words by Christine Bailey

Do you find yourself eating healthily most of the time, only to succumb to uncontrollable cravings the week before your period? You’re not alone. As many as 95 per cent of menstruating women suffer from PMS symptoms, including bloating, food cravings and weight gain. But don’t resign yourself to going up a dress size. By understanding the causes, you can tackle those cravings for good.

Hormonal havoc

Imbalances in oestrogen and progesterone appear to be the major culprits in PMS. These hormones exert an influence on mood-regulating neurotransmitters, including the feel-good hormone serotonin and the stress hormone cortisol. Low serotonin levels before your period can lead to carbohydrate cravings – especially for simple carbs, such as bread and biscuits – as carb-rich foods promote tryptophan, which converts into serotonin. Rising cortisol levels also trigger cravings, as it disrupts blood sugar, causing insulin imbalances. This can result in strong cravings for sugary foods. Unfortunately, by giving in to cravings, you create further blood-sugar imbalances, and the vicious cycle of craving and eating sugary foods continues. If you find your cravings are for salty foods, such as crisps or pretzels, it may be because oestrogen interacts with the hormone aldosterone, which helps to regulate electrolyte and fluid balance. If you’re stressed, your PMT cravings may be even more pronounced, as this also influences aldosterone. And the reason women find it hard to resist chocolate around their period? Chocolate is a good source of magnesium, which can often be low in women suffering with PMS.

Curb those cravings

So, how can you beat those cravings without blowing your diet?

Here are some top tips:

Eat little and often

Cut your portion sizes and eat five to six small meals throughout the day instead of three larger ones. This will help to balance blood-sugar levels, which will stop you feeling hungry and reduce cravings. Include a little protein with slower-releasing carbohydrate. For example, try cottage cheese with a few oatcakes, a protein shake with a piece of fruit, or a slice of rye bread with smoked salmon.

Include tryptophan-rich foods

Tryptophan helps boost serotonin levels, which can ease cravings and improve mood. Good examples include baked potatoes, bananas, milk or soy milk, tofu, turkey, chicken, tuna and salmon.

Get active
Exercise boosts serotonin levels. Even if you can’t face a run, try a brisk walk, swim or gentle jog around the park. Just 20 minutes a day can help improve your mood.

Opt for complex carbs

Swap refined white foods for the wholegrain equivalent, to stabilize blood sugar. Try including oatcakes, porridge, wholegrains, vegetables and beans in your diet – many of these are rich in phytoestrogens, which can help balance oestrogen levels.

Visit the dark side

If you’re going to eat chocolate, eat the pure, dark organic stuff instead of cheap confectionery that’s full of fat and sugar.

Take a supplement

Vitamin B6 is an important nutrient involved in the production of neurotransmitters, particularly serotonin and dopamine, so taking a supplement can be useful. Try and increase your calcium and magnesium intake, too. Good sources of calcium include green leafy vegetables, almonds, dairy products and fortified soy. For magnesium, include more quinoa, nuts, seeds, lentils and green leafy vegetables in your diet.

Cut back on stimulants and sugar

These disrupt your blood sugar, which can exacerbate cravings. The week before your period, limit alcohol intake to a couple of units a week, and instead of your usual cappuccino, switch to red bush and herbal teas, or chicory and dandelion coffees. If you need a sugar alternative, choose xylitol (available from supermarkets) to sweeten food. It’s a natural sugar rather than an artificial sweetener, with fewer kilojoules and a low Glycaemic Index, so will not disrupt blood-sugar levels.

Limit your salt intake

Salt encourages fluid retention, so keep it to a minimum in the days before your period and drink plenty of water. To satisfy salt cravings, try tomato juice, which has a good ratio of sodium and potassium to help balance electrolytes.