Periods and food cravings

women watching tv on bed and eating snacks

Do you get a strong urge for chocolate, bread, ice cream or burgers every month? You wonder why you are onto your sixth piece of toast for the evening when you realise “that time of the month” is coming. 

Evidence shows that our hormones may be to blame for these carby cravings. Particularly oestrogen and progesterone. Let’s take a look at how oestrogen and progesterone levels fluctuate during our menstrual cycle, what this means for cravings and what you can do about it.

Hormones during menstruation

The menstrual is your body preparing for pregnancy and includes the time from your last period up until the day before your next period. The number of days in a menstrual cycle varies between people but it is commonly referred to as a 28-day cycle. The menstrual cycle consists of four phases:

  • Menstruation: also called your period, is the time when you are bleeding. It involves the shedding of your uterine lining in the absence of pregnancy.
  • Follicular phase: this is the period where follicles in your ovaries grow. One follicle is chosen as the dominant follicle and will end up releasing an egg. The number of days our body spends on the follicular phase varies for each person.
  • Ovulation: occurs when the mature egg is released from the ovaries.
  • Luteal phase: is when the mature egg travels down the fallopian tubes, into the uterus, ready for fertilisation and pregnancy. This phase is usually the 14 days before your next period begins.

Now that we understand the four main phases of our menstrual cycle lets discuss how oestrogen and progesterone change during these phases. Check out the graph below for a visual representation.

Oestrogen has two main peaks. It rises during the follicular phase then has a sudden drop right before ovulation. During the luteal phase it gently rises again before dropping during menstruation.

On the other hand, progesterone is low during the follicular phase but begins to rise during ovulation. It peaks mid-way through the luteal phase and then decreases as you approach menstruation. The drop in progesterone which occurs at the end of the luteal phase signals no pregnancy occurred and the lining of the uterus is shed.

Graph showing changes to oestrogen and progesterone throughout the menstrual cycle

How hormones impact cravings

Now we understand the hormone changes, how does this impact cravings? Well, a study involveing 196 menstruating women measured hormone levels, emotional eating and poor mood across 45 consecutive days. Emotional eating (or cravings) was highest during the mid-luteal phase when progesterone and oestrogen levels were both elevated. This is why those intense food cravings often occur in the week before our next period.

Another study of 237 females found the same thing. In the 3-10 days before menstruation, 86% of women experiences an increase in their appetite. Compare this to only 3% of women reporting an increased appetite in the days after their period. This study also found an association between certain pre-menstrual symptoms and increased appetite. Participants who experienced depression, anger and sleepiness before their period were more likely to have food cravings. The most common food cravings were for sweet foods, carbohydrate rich foods and salty foods.

We know that everyone experiences their menstrual cycle and PMS symptoms differently. You may find that you get food cravings at other times during your menstrual cycle or maybe you do not get cravings at all. These studies simply highlight when emotional eating and cravings were highest in women with regular periods. Also, the strategies discussed below on how to manage cravings can be used at any time!


How to manage these cravings

Now we know why we might be experiencing these food cravings what can we do about it? If you find yourself overeating these delicious foods and then feeling bloated, uncomfortable, and guilty, these tips are for you. 

1. Permission to eat

Give yourself permission to have the food or drink you are craving. When we deny ourselves a craving the intensity of that craving often grows until we find ourselves unable to resist it and we wind up eating a whole lot more than we planned. So, if you really want chocolate, allow yourself to eat the chocolate. If you are dreaming of hot chips, go and get yourself some warm, salty chips. And enjoy every bite.

2. Mindful eating strategies

We often feel guilty for indulging a craving. But using mindful eating strategies can make it an enjoyable experience and help you to feel in control. Mindful eating is about being aware of how you are feeling before, during and after the eating experience. It is also about being present and avoiding distractions while you enjoy the delicious food. Being present for the full experience helps you to recognise cues from your body such as feelings of fullness or a desire for a different food.

3. Eating enough during the day

Yes, oestrogen and progesterone impact our cravings, but let’s not mistake cravings for what may actually be intense hunger. Other hormones in our body, such as ghrelin and leptin, are responsible for telling us when we are hungry or full. Ensuring we eat enough nutritious and filling food during the day balances these hunger hormones and means we won’t arrive home only capable of ordering a pizza. Eating regular meals and snacks means we can satisfy our craving without going overboard.

4. Look after your other symptoms

Remember, an increase in appetite and cravings can also be linked to other pre-menstrual symptoms like poor mood and sleepiness. It is important to check in with yourself and notice how you are feeling. Maybe eating a whole lot of sugar won’t actually make you feel better. Instead, you could try:

  •  Going for a walk
  • Talking to a friend or loved one
  • Taking a nice warm bath
  • Having a good night’s sleep

Next time you notice the period cravings creeping up, remember they are normal and try out these tips to satisfy your craving without feeling guilty.




Note: If you are someone who frequently experiences emotional eating or intense cravings frequently you may need some extra support. Talking to your GP, a psychologist or a dietitian can be a great first step. 

Learn more about eating disorders and disordered eating.