When we think about the words ‘nutrition’ and ‘period’, we commonly think about the cravings that are normally associated with periods, but there is a lot more to our menstrual cycle than just our periods, and our nutritional needs can change throughout this cycle.
Over the course of the menstrual cycle, energy and nutrient needs vary due to the changes in hormones, which influence metabolism and hunger. During the luteal phase, which occurs after ovulation and before menstruation, there is an increase in metabolism1.This means that after ovulation, women may require up to 300kcal more per day, but this of course will vary among women, and will be influenced by other factors such as body composition, genetics, and physical activity levels.
Progesterone is a hormone thought to increase appetite and this peaks during the luteal phase2.In an attempt by the body to acquire this increase in energy, it is common to experience increased levels of hunger in the lead-up to menstruation. Many women can find this increase in hunger frustrating, as it may show up as cravings for specific foods (…hello chocolate!). Cravings for high carb and fat foods3 are common, and it is because these foods are typically energy dense, which is what the body needs. So ladies, please have some self-compassion and honour the increase in hunger during this time. Not honouring this hunger is likely to increase cravings further.
It is expected that up to 90% of women experience pre-menstrual symptoms (PMS)4. Aside from the cravings influenced by the metabolic changes in the body at this time, it is common to veer more towards highly palatable foods and easy to prepare foods when you are not feeling great. However, nutrition can actually play a role in easing symptoms (there is, unfortunately, no cure for PMS) which is a reason why prioritising certain foods and nutrients at this time is important.
Carbohydrates are our bodies preferred source of fuel, and quite often when people experience cravings for carbohydrates, it’s because they are not consuming enough of them. Opting for high-fibre carbohydrates, like wholegrains, oats, and root vegetables, can help regulate bowel function, which is often impacted by the hormone changes in the lead up to the period. Choosing more high-fibre carbohydrates provides longer-lasting energy which can keep blood sugar levels stable, which is important for preventing cravings too.
Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of essential fatty acid; meaning that we must obtain it through food as we cannot make it in the body. Omega-3 fatty acids help to regulate inflammation in the body and there is some evidence that omega-3 supplementation can reduce symptoms of PMS. However, there are no exact recommendations for supplementation. Including foods like oily fish and walnuts can provide a source of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet.
One of the common symptoms of PMS is bloating, or fluid retention. The body likes to obtain an equilibrium of electrolytes within the body, and so when you consume more salt, it will retain more water to maintain this balance. If you commonly experience fluid retention, it may help to limit excess salt within your diet. High-salt foods include crisps, salted nuts, processed meats like bacon or chorizo, and sauces like soy sauce. Salt is used as a natural preservative in many foods too so can be higher in packaged or convenience foods.
There is evidence to support that magnesium supplementation can reduce the symptoms of PMS5. Cacao is a source of magnesium, so high-quality dark chocolate can certainly have a place, and even a purpose, in the diet. Other sources of magnesium include nuts and wholegrains.
The follicular phase begins when bleeding starts and continues for about 14 days before ovulation. During this phase, metabolic rate returns to baseline, and a balanced diet is recommended. However, iron is a nutrient that should be considered throughout the entire cycle, not just menstruation.
Women are naturally at a higher risk of iron-deficiency anaemia due to the loss of blood throughout menstruation, this affects approx. 25% of women globally6. Those who have particularly heavy periods are at a higher risk. Iron supplementation is often associated with constipation, and can have other side effects, so ensure to seek advice from your GP or another health professional before taking these.
Iron is not only important throughout the menstrual cycle because women are at risk of having low levels of it, but also because there is evidence to suggest that iron can reduce the risk of PMS. One study found that women who had a high intake of dietary iron were up to 40% less likely to experience PMS7.
Written by Elle Kelly, R.D., Sports and Specialist Eating Disorder Dietitian at COACH LONDON. If you would like to make an appointment with Elle to discuss your dietary concerns please call us on +44 (0) 207 315 4260 or email firstname.lastname@example.org .
1 – Benton, M. J., Hutchins, A. M., & Dawes, J. J. (2020). Effect of menstrual cycle on resting metabolism: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One, 15 (7), e0236025
2 – Hallam, J., Boswell, R. G., DeVito, E. E., & Kober, H. (2016). Focus: sex and gender health: gender-related differences in food craving and obesity. The Yale journal of biology and medicine, 89(2), 161
3 – Davidsen, L., Vistisen, B., & Astrup, A. (2007). Impact of the menstrual cycle on determinants of energy balance: a putative role in weight loss attempts. International journal of obesity, 31(12), 1777-1785.
4 – Chumpalova, P., Iakimova, R., Stoimenova-Popova, M., Aptalidis, D., Pandova, M., Stoyanova, M., & Fountoulakis, K. N. (2020). Prevalence and clinical picture of premenstrual syndrome in females from Bulgaria. Annals of general psychiatry, 19, 3. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12991-019-0255-1
5 – Parazzini, F., Di Martino, M., & Pellegrino, P. (2017). Magnesium in the gynecological practice: a literature review. Magnesium in the gynecological practice: a literature review. Magnesium research, 30(1), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1684/mrh.2017.0419
6 – Global anaemia prevalence and number of individuals affected. World Health Organization Web site. http://www.who.int/vmnis/anaemia/prevalence/summary/anaemia_data_status_t2/en/.
7 – University of Massachusetts at Amherst. (2013, February 26). Women’s iron intake may help to protect against PMS. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 20, 2022 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130226101448.htm