Exactly What Causes Period Food Cravings, According to Research

If you’ve noticed that you have cravings before your period (think: sugar, carbs, or salt), it’s not just you. Research shows that period cravings are legit. We spoke to experts about what to know about these cravings—and how to curb them.

Along with cramps and mood swings, food cravings are one of the main symptoms that women associate with “that time of the month.” In fact, many women claim that right before their period starts, they have a sudden hankering for particular foods they might not yearn for the rest of the month. 

Whether it is carby food like bread or pasta, salty snacks such as chips, popcorn, or Chinese food, or sugary sweets like candy and chocolate, that satiate your taste buds before or during your menstrual cycle, know that you aren’t alone. Period cravings are a real thing, and we spoke to the experts to get the lowdown on what exactly causes them, when they start, and how you should handle them. 

Are Period Cravings Real?

period food cravings cake

Period cravings are most definitely not in your imagination, says Laurence Orbuch, MD, Director of GYN Laparoscopic/Robotic Associates LA located in Beverly Hills, California. And, similar to pregnancy cravings, they’re linked to the hormonal fluctuations that happen during your cycle. 

“There is research to support that cravings are indeed a real side effect for many women during their menstrual cycle,” says Keri Gans, RDN, a nutrition consultant and the author of The Small Change Diet. A 2016 study published in the The FASEB Journal found the changes in hormone levels that happen during the menstruation cycle are responsible for period cravings. As estrogen and progesterone levels rise, your cravings for sweets and carbs increase too.

They also discovered that specific cravings, including sweet versus savory, correlate with changes in different hormones. Per the research, estradiol (aka estrogen) is responsible for your carbohydrate cravings, while progesterone makes you yearn for sweets. 

When Do Period Cravings Start? 

period food cravings dark chocolate

For some women, period food cravings can begin anywhere from seven to 14 days before their period actually starts, explains Gans. “This part of the cycle, known as the luteal phase, is when levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone start to change, causing many side effects that are part of PMS (premenstrual syndrome).”

However, you may also have cravings later on. “The latter half of a woman’s menstrual cycle is progesterone predominant, and progesterone has an appetite-enhancing effect,” notes Dr. Orbuch. So whether you’re craving pizza on your period (or some other specific food) or simply craving more food at certain times of the month, it’s entirely normal.

How to Stop Period Cravings

Foods to Satisfy Period Cravings Infographic

While period cravings can be annoying, it may not be the best idea to try and curb them (in fact, it might not even be possible). Gans says the best thing you can do is to actually give into your cravings. “If you try and avoid it, you actually might end up eating more calories by eating so many different foods that aren’t satisfying,” she explains. “It is impossible to curb the cravings, but smart choices of foods to satisfy the cravings are recommended,” agrees Dr. Orbuch. 

One strategy to potentially mitigate period cravings is to not deprive yourself of foods you like the other days of the month, says Gans. In fact, she maintains it is best to try and enjoy the foods you typically crave other times throughout the month. “The more you deprive yourself of a certain food, the more you are simply going to want it.”

However, there are ways to indulge your period cravings without compromising your health. Below, Gans offers some tips and tricks for satisfying common period cravings.

If You’re Craving Chocolate on Your Period…

Fact: Nearly half of women in the United States crave chocolate around their period, but women in other countries are less likely to experience this. In a 2017 study published in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers suggest that it might be the actual concept of “period cravings” embraced in western culture and the idea that menstruation is a “perceived trigger or cause of chocolate cravings, perhaps in an effort to justify consumption of an otherwise ‘forbidden’ food.” 

While there may be some truth to it, that’s likely not the only reason so many women are craving chocolate on their period. Right before your period, magnesium levels drop—and chocolate happens to be a good source of it. In fact, in a study of 32 women with PMS, oral supplementation of 360 mg of magnesium three times a day starting on the 15th day of their cycle reduced some PMS symptoms.

If you’re wondering what to eat when you’re craving chocolate on your period, the answer may surprise you. Gans says it’s typically best to succumb to the actual craving and have a small piece of chocolate (like a square, a mini chocolate bar, or a few small Hershey kisses). Try and stick to healthier versions of chocolate, like a dark, antioxidant-rich piece versus a more processed version. And, if you can’t stick to small servings, Gans suggests trying a low-fat chocolate milk or hot chocolate, a trail mix with cocoa nibs, oatmeal with cocoa powder, or a couple of frozen chocolate-covered strawberries.

If You’re Craving Salt Before or During Your Period…

Craving sodium before or during your period? “A pickle is always a great choice for salt cravings,” Gans says. Her other go-tos for healthy salty snacks are popcorn mixed with roasted nuts or edamame, and pretzels dipped in hummus or a tablespoon of nut butter. Each savory option has protein and fiber to aid in satiety.

If You’re Craving Sugar Before or During Your Period…

If you’re experiencing sugar cravings during your period, try and reach for something nutritious first. Gans recommends starting with a piece of fruit or flavored Greek yogurt. If that doesn’t do the trick, she suggests aiming for a small serving of dark chocolate for a sweet treat.

If You’re Craving Carbs Before or During Your Period…

If you’re craving carbs, Gans suggests trying any of the suggestions above since they contain carbs and vary in sweet and savory taste profiles. However, keep in mind that not all carbs are created equal. 

Per the American Heart Association, complex carbohydrates–whole grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables–are rich in fiber, which your body digests more slowly, gradually releasing glucose into the bloodstream. This makes you feel full and less likely to overconsume.

Simple carbohydrates on the other hand, including white flour and sugar, boast less nutrients and fiber because they have been processed. This makes them hit the bloodstream faster, making you more likely to keep eating. 

If you do crave carbohydrates, try indulging in less processed foods that contain little to no simple sugar. For example, try a piece of fruit or bowl of oatmeal (with some chocolate chips, of course!). 

The Takeaway

If you are experiencing period cravings, don’t fight them. Instead, lean into them in the healthiest way possible. “Eating a well-balanced, mostly organic and no-preservative diet is the best way to go,” says Dr. Orbuch. However, indulging in some cravings is also acceptable–especially when it’s that time of the month!

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