As someone who made the switch to a mostly clean diet last year, I’m hyper-aware of the foods I put into my body. I focus on fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats while trying to steer clear of foods that are overly processed, fried, sugary, or made with white flour. It has not only helped me to maintain a healthy weight and keep up with regular half-marathon training, but it has also helped me to combat the winter blues that typically plague me during these colder months.
One thing that surprised me most about this lifestyle is how easy it is to maintain: I don’t feel deprived when I skip a sugary bowl of ice cream to blend my own “nice cream” with frozen banana, coconut cream, and dark chocolate. It isn’t a struggle because it makes me feel better physically and more empowered mentally.
But—there is one caveat. Every month, the week before my period, something shifts inside of me. I transform from a lady who enjoys a good veggie stir fry followed by a snack of light-as-air popcorn into a creature who wants cheese pizza, chocolate cake, ice cream with pretzels, and artificially flavored cheese crackers, preferably all mixed together in a bowl big enough to dive into.
Enter Ilyse Schapiro, MS, RD, CDN, and alternaVites founder Hallie Rich, who coauthored Should I Scoop Out My Bagel? Experts in the realm of food, cravings, and strategies for healthy living, I asked them to explain what PMS does to our bodies and how we can prevent it from wreaking havoc on our normal healthy eating routines.
01. Why do I crave different foods at different times during my cycle?
“Blame it on your hormones,” say Schapiro and Rich (they answered all the questions for this article jointly). Hormones like estrogen, progesterone, cortisol, and serotonin, which are highly activated right before our periods, can affect the way we feel about food. As the hormones fluctuate and our blood-sugar levels change, we’re more likely to crave sugary and fatty foods. Schapiro and Rich also point out that some researchers think specific food cravings may be linked to the stress your body is about to undergo.
02. Why does it seem like I can endlessly eat without feeling full the week before my period?
Again, hormones come into play here—but also mood changes and a higher count of calories burned during the days leading up to our periods play a role. We generally burn about 100 extra daily calories right before our period, but keep in mind that’s a fairly small amount.
The best strategy for dealing with increased hunger? Stick to small meals every three to four hours, suggests Schapiro and Rich. This stabilizes blood sugar levels and keeps cravings under control. By staying on top of your hunger, you’re less likely to overeat.
Also, don’t treat PMS as a free-for-all pass to eat whatever you want. The types of food you choose are just as important as the quantity and timing. Schapiro and Rich recommend choosing satiating foods high in fiber, protein, or complex carbohydrates. “While it’s okay to give in to cravings every once in a while (moderation being key), if you constantly nosh on processed and packaged foods snacks, you’re just consuming empty calories,” warn Schapiro and Rich. When this happens, your blood sugar rises and falls, leaving you hungry all over again.
03. Help! I’m at work, and crazy PMS cravings just kicked in. What should I do?
If you find yourself stuck in the office when craving start, take stock of your options—limited as they may be. Don’t start with chocolate, warn Schapiro and Rich, because starting there and trying to stop can be a slippery slope. Instead, look around for healthy options nearby. Is there a place where you can grab a Greek yogurt, fruit, nuts or natural popcorn? Try to keep a stash of nuts or granola bar in your desk or purse so you have something to grab when those vending machine cravings strike.
04. Are there foods that will alleviate PMS symptoms?
Aim for a diet high in magnesium, B vitamins (especially B6), and calcium to counteract both the physical and mental symptoms of PMS. These nutrients can be found in chickpeas, wild salmon, chicken breast, oatmeal, spinach, broccoli, nuts, kale, and lentils.
05. Are there foods that will exacerbate PMS symptoms?
The very foods you’re craving (sugar, alcohol, caffeine, and salty foods) could actually make your PMS symptoms worse. Why? When you think of sugary foods, think: blood sugar spike followed by a crash. Salty foods with high sodium content lead to water retention (bloating). Caffeine can aggravate moodiness and cause insomnia. Alcohol is dehydrating and causes water retention (more bloating). If these are your usual PMS go-tos, it's time to rethink your strategy.
06. What are the best PMS snack choices?
Fear not. We have many options! No matter where we are in our cycles, Schapiro and Rich say that healthy snacks are always the best bet. Sugary and processed foods won’t satisfy hunger, but foods high in fiber, protein or complex carbs will. Here are some of their suggestions:
- hummus and whole-grain crackers or veggies
- string cheese
- light popcorn
- deli turkey rolled up
- cottage cheese
- fresh fruit
- whole-grain cereal
- handful of nuts
- an apple, banana, or rice cake with a nut butter
- avocado slices
- Greek yogurt with berries
- a few bites of dark chocolate
- an individual serving (150 calories) of vanilla ice cream
07. Wait, did you say ice cream? Is there a healthy way to indulge our PMS cravings?
“It’s better to eat a little bit of what you want and feel satisfied than to eat a ton of crap you didn’t need in the first place,” Schapiro and Rich say. “How many times have you ignored your craving for ice cream just to eat a handful of fat-free cookies that leave you unfulfilled and diving for a bag of M&M’s? When that doesn’t work, you end up with pretzels, chips, and anything you can find in your pantry. At the end of this sampling, you’re still unsatisfied even though you probably consumed more calories than you would have if you’d just had a few spoonfuls of ice cream to begin with. The key is moderation and being smart.”
If that ice cream craving just isn’t going away, the ladies suggest going for it but sticking to a single serving size, which is generally about half a cup, and skipping any toppings. Can’t stop thinking about pizza? Order yours with a whole-wheat crust and savor a single slice. If you’re not going to make it through the day without chocolate, look for dark chocolate or chocolate with nuts.
“Whatever is the key to your current craving, enjoy a little bit of it, and don’t feel too guilty,” Schapiro and Rich say. “The healthy small meals you’re eating throughout the day should allow you the luxury to enjoy a few bites of your favorite food.”
PMS: It’s an annoying part of life, but it doesn’t need to derail a healthy lifestyle. By stocking up on healthy snacks and keeping yourself fed with mini meals every three to four hours, you can kick cravings to the curb without buying out your grocery store’s cookies or chips aisles.
Think of a PMS-fueled day as you would any other day. Aim to make mostly healthy choices, but listen to your body when it just won’t let the idea of ice cream go. Like Schapiro and Rich said, it’s better to have a few spoonfuls, enjoy yourself thoroughly, and get on with your day. No guilt, no deprivation, no worries.
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