Let’s face it: periods suck. Not only can they be an inconvenience, but they can come with a host of bothersome PMS symptoms and make you feel generally crummy. Anything you can do to ease period discomfort is a welcome addition to your self-care routine, whether it’s reaching for a heating pad to ease cramps, taking a supplement to ease PMS symptoms, cycle syncing your exercise, or just curling up with a cup of tea. Chances are you’ve also indulged in some comfort food during your period.
While food is often seen as an indulgence during your menstrual cycle or written off as just a period craving (we see you, mac and cheese!), the truth is that nutrition can be a helpful tool for feeling your best on your period.
Though the same hormones, estrogen and progesterone, are behind everyone’s menstrual cycle functioning, each person’s experience will be different, in that you might feel those cravings very strongly, or you may be super crampy and not feel like eating, or both. The common thread between all cycles is that menstrual nutrition is key: Having balanced meals of healthy fats, protein, and carbohydrates will keep you full, energized, and keep your hormones as balanced as possible so PMS can’t throw you as much for a loop, according to nutritionists.
Read on to understand what to eat on your period (and when you should genuinely go for that chocolate) to optimize your hormones and ease symptoms.
How Your Nutritional Needs Change During Your Period
Eating a healthy, balanced diet throughout your entire cycle is important not just for your hormonal health, but your overall health. But you may feel like you need a boost during your period specifically because your estrogen levels drop. “Estrogen helps to regulate the immune system and the low levels produced during the time of menstruation can result in more inflammation, along with memory and mood issues,” explains Felice Gersh, MD, an OB-GYN and founder and director of the Integrative Medical Group of Irvine, in California. When estrogen is low, the goal is to eat a highly anti-inflammatory diet packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber to keep both your mood and your energy high, adds Dr. Gersh.
In the phase right before your period (aka the luteal phase), your body is prepping for a potential pregnancy by thickening the uterine lining, and the hormone progesterone peaks (which may affect period food cravings before it drops again during menstruation). “Increased progesterone may increase insulin resistance, or glucose intolerance, making the body more likely to crave sugar and turn toward sources of higher calorie foods,” says Anisa Woodall, MS, CN, a certified nutritionist based in Washington. “This can happen because blood sugar levels are more unstable, due to progesterone, but also because of decreased mood from low estrogen, since estrogen supports serotonin, the ‘happy hormone,’ production.” Good news: an anti-inflammatory diet can also help balance your blood sugars.
In general, the key to supporting hormone production is to get enough calories and the right blend of carbohydrates and healthy fats. The tactics below will help you get the right dietary balance you need for a healthy, happy flow.
What to Eat on Your Period
Eat the Rainbow
When you’re thinking about an anti-inflammatory diet, go for as many colorful antioxidant-filled foods as you can. A 2020 study found that eating those anti-inflammatory, antioxidant-filled foods can help with period pain. Woodall recommends focusing on whole-food carbohydrates with meals like a cup of seasonal fruits and healthy, anti-inflammatory fats like olives and avocados. Protein (from as many whole food sources as possible) is also key to balancing things out, Woodall adds.
Load Up on Fiber-Filled Foods
When you’re on your period, the name of the game is fiber. “During your period, your energy is at its lowest, so you want to focus on nutrient-dense foods that are quick and easy to prepare, like smoothies, one-pot meals, and sheet pan dinners, so you can nourish yourself and not end up relying on takeout and convenience foods,” says Melissa Groves Azzaro, RDN, LD, founder of The Hormone Dietitian and host of Hormonally Yours with The Hormone Dietitian. Some of those nutrient-dense, energizing, high-fiber foods include oats, sweet potatoes, and avocados—Azzaro adds that the fiber intake can also help manage any digestive issues you have right now, including those dreaded period poops.
Some other high-fiber foods you should aim for during your period include Brussels sprouts, carrots, broccoli, quinoa, and brown rice, according to Chrissy Williams, MS, RD, LDN, a women’s health registered dietitian.
Don’t Forget Carbs
Complex carbs like fruits, veggies, and some of the high-fiber foods we just mentioned, are crucial for immediate energy and also liver detoxification (which helps break down estrogen), Williams says.
Look for Lean Protein
Don’t forget to round out your meals with both lean protein like salmon, chicken, grass-fed beef, and beans to promote muscle mass and healthy fats to signal hormone production, Williams adds. That balance of hormones can help keep your PMS and period symptoms more mild.
Eat More Iron-Rich Foods
Your body loses iron through the blood loss you experience during your period, so you need additional iron during this time. If you eat meat, it’s not a bad idea to have some red meat like a steak or a burger when you have your period. Eggs are also high in iron, Azzaro says. Eating vegan? You can load up on plant-based sources of iron like lentils, along with foods high in B vitamins, like whole grains and leafy greens, to restart your energy levels that might dip with a loss in iron and blood, says Azzaro. HUM’s Base Control multi-vitamin also contains 100 percent of your daily value of iron to help you get your fix.
Make Sure You Have Magnesium in Your Diet
According to research published in 2020, either 150 milligrams or better yet 300 milligrams of magnesium could help reduce menstrual cramping and improve mood, including your ability to cope with depression. One of the culprits is prostaglandins, lipid compounds that cause inflammation, contributing to cramps and mood swings; magnesium can reduce prostaglandins and help you better manage your PMS symptoms.
To get extra magnesium in your diet, Dr. Gersh suggests a magnesium glycinate supplement of about 500 milligrams daily, or if you want to go the dietary route, start eating pumpkin seeds and walnuts for significant amounts of magnesium. And good news if you crave chocolate during your period: “Dark chocolate, which is rich in magnesium, can also help boost mood and decrease cramping,” Azzaro says. There are about 64 milligrams of magnesium in one ounce of dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa, so it’s not a bad deal.
Balance Your Blood Sugar
We’ve already established that the fluctuation in hormones could throw your blood sugar off. For the best hormonal balance and a smooth transition from PMS to your period, Williams recommends balancing your blood sugar on the daily, basically by building meals that are as healthy as possible, with components of high protein, high fiber, and healthy fats. You have to make sure you’re getting enough food in throughout the day, too. “This signals our body that it’s ‘safe’ to produce adequate hormones and our body can function optimally,” Williams says. And if you’re having severe PMS symptoms, it’s worth checking in with an OB-GYN as well as a dietitian to figure out the root cause, which could involve an issue with how your body processes hormones like estrogen.
Cave to Your Cravings
So yes, your unstable blood sugar and a dip in serotonin from low estrogen could add to those sugar cravings, but haven’t you noticed that you’re way hungrier right before and when you’re on your period? “During PMS, our body’s basal metabolic rate (the amount of calories we burn at rest) naturally increases, so it’s completely normal to feel more hungry during this time of your cycle and more importantly, it’s *okay* to honor those hunger cues and eat more,” Williams says.
The trick is meeting your cravings where they are, while supporting balanced blood sugar as much as possible, according to Williams. Sweets like chocolate can actually boost your serotonin (which absolutely makes sense), she adds, so lean into that: Have some chocolate-dipped fruit, whip up some dark chocolate and oat energy bits, or snack on some dark chocolate almonds throughout your period.
The Best Foods to Eat on Your Period
With all that in mind, take this list of period-friendly foods with you next time you grocery shop before your period:
- Brown rice
- Brussels sprouts
- Dark chocolate (at least 70 percent cocoa)
- Grass-fed beef
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sweet potatoes