Period cravings are something that the vast majority of women experience. Common period cravings include chocolate, carbs and salty foods. When we bring awareness and understanding to our cravings, and why they happen, we can tackle them in holistic, therapeutic ways that support our health. PMS (Premenstrual syndrome) cravings or ovulation cravings can often lead to overconsumption of highly palatable energy-dense foods, leaving us feeling flat and potentially affecting our weight management in the long term. Read on to gain an in-depth understanding of period cravings and the best foods to opt for during this time. 

Book a consultation with a women’s health dietitian here.

What are period cravings?  

Period cravings aka ovulation cravings or PMS cravings are something which over 70% of women deal with, according to well-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Dr Judith Wutman. Period cravings refer to the desire to seek high-reward foods such as chocolate, sweets, crips and white carbohydrates to satisfy the symptoms associated with this time. It is thought to be closely linked to the change in hormonal profile (Figure 1). 

Hormones across the menstrual cycle

Figure 1- Hormones across the menstrual cycle [Source –] 

Is it normal to have cravings before and during your period? 

Absolutely – you are not alone – over 85% of women report PMS symptoms, a significant one of which is period cravings. Other symptoms of PMS may include mood swings, irritability, feeling low/ anxious, skin changes and breast tenderness. Interestingly, research from the US in 2017, discusses the link between culture and cravings, stating that our culture plays a significant role in what and if we may crave certain foods. For example, 90% of US women report chocolate cravings, whereas only 28% of Spanish women report this phenomenon, and a trivial 6% of Egyptian women report this craving. This could therefore suggest that our environment surrounding period culture and cravings is just as powerful as the physiology driving them. It is this environmental element that we can learn to use to our advantage, as discussed later when it comes to curbing and managing cravings effectively.  

Why do you get cravings before your period? 

The mechanism behind period cravings is linked to the change in hormone profile in the second phase of the cycle, known as the luteal phase. During this time, the rise in oestrogen and progesterone levels affects our nervous system, in particular the release of serotonin, which is thought to drive the manifestation of PMS. Other factors are at play too. Research published in the Advanced Endocrine Metabolism Journal has shown that the activity of our stress hormone, cortisol, mirrors that of oestrogen, so as oestrogen levels rise at the start of this phase, so does cortisol. Cortisol drives the fight or flight response in the body which requires fuel quickly, the best option of which is simple carbohydrates such as pasta and bread – so it is not a myth to crave carbs at this time. According to research, blood glucose levels, aka blood sugar levels can also play a part, as insulin sensitivity is lower. Interestingly, blood sugar levels have been shown to be significantly lower during the second half of the cycle, meaning food cravings circulate back around hours earlier than normal, enhancing cravings. So, please do not fret, period cravings are very real and very normal – science can prove it! 

Does ovulation cause cravings? 

Some researchers such as Ebhrahimi at al, believe that cravings are apparent during ovulation due to the shedding of the uterus lining. The loss of this is thought to trigger the desire to seek magnesium-based foods – unsurprisingly one of which is cocoa beans aka chocolate! 

Overall, however, given the hormonal profile at this point in the cycle, ie oestrogen levels peaking and progesterone levels are at their lowest, cravings for high-sugar foods in general are expected to be less apparent. 

When do period cravings start?

Period cravings typically start in the week leading up to your period but can start up to 10 days before. Alongside period cravings are other PMS symptoms, such as loose bowels aka period poops, as well as bloating, headaches and acne. Resting metabolic rate rises during the luteal phase (when progesterone and oestrogen are high), which means that the body requires more calories at rest, potentially up to 300 calories more per day according to a systematic review by Benton et al. Therefore, the body will naturally drive higher appetite signal release.

During your period itself, you are also likely to have cravings – these may be more acute than the lead-up, potentially due to the acute physically of the experience. Lower moods and physical feelings of weakness can lead to a greater sense of emotional weakness encompassing feelings such as sadness, low self-esteem and loneliness. These feelings in turn can cause us to crave high-sugar high-fat foods for an immediate dopamine boost. Sometimes, indulging mindfully is necessary but regular reliance on food to curb emotions can lead to lower self-esteem in the long run potentially due to weight gain or simply the long term consequences of a poor diet. Read on to discover practical, healthy ways to manage emotional eating. 

What factors affect period cravings? 

A myriad of factors affect our period cravings. It can be helpful to associate this with either your physical or emotional health. 

Factors that affect period cravings

Physical or physiological causes of period cravings

  • Increase in the levels of oestrogen and  progesterone
  • Increased insulin sensitivity
  • Lower serotonin levels 
  • Kidney health/infection 
  • Eating disorders including binge-eating 
  • Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD)

Emotional causes of period cravings

  • Feeling low/lonely 
  • Poor body image 
  • Stress levels

What are the most common period cravings? 

Chocolate is the most common craving associated with period cravings both beforehand and during the menstrual cycle. Despite large public endorsement and engagement in the aetiology of chocolate craving during these periods, the empirical evidence simply fails to back this, as exemplified by Hormes JM et al who wrote the ‘Handbook of Diet and Nutrition in the Menstrual Cycle, Conception, and Fertility’. 

The other prevalent craving is foods containing carbohydrates, in particular salty carbohydrates. As discussed, it is thought that simple carbohydrates like bread, rice and pasta are sought out more readily than the complex carbohydrates like vegetables and whole grain carbohydrates, as these trigger the release of insulin and thereby serotonin more quickly. The tendency for this food is also driven by the added desire for sodium aka salt – this is due to a fall in serotonin, which in turn stimulates salt-based food desires. 

Salty foods in general are a common period craving and include foods like crisps, fries, roast potatoes, pizzas and prepared meals as these are salty in nature due to the food production relying partially on salt for preservation.

Period cravings

Unusual period cravings

Not all of us crave the same things and would class them as period cravings but some of the following are unusual cravings reported by women at this time: 

  • Jalapenos 
  • Vanilla frosting 
  • Ketchup 
  • Fruits and vegetables 

Just like the variety of cravings experienced during pregnancy, women can seek a variety of foods during the lead-up and during the period! 

What foods are good for period cravings? 

You still want to opt for carbohydrates to replenish your energy stores and support the hormonal changes but the type of carbohydrate is important. Opt for complex carbs and less simple carbs.

What foods are good for period cravings?

Great fibre-based carbs  – this not only provides slow release energy keeping your blood sugars happy, but also fibre which helps fullness and gut health:

  • Whole grain pasta, brown rice
  • Oats, quinoa 
  • Seeded sourdough bread, rye bread 
  • Starchy veggies – butternut squash, peas, parsnips, sweet potatoes
  • Fruits – mangoes, bananas, grapes, apples, figs, pineapples 
  • Beans & Pulses – chickpeas, butter beans, kidney beans, cannellini beans, lentils

Healthy fats – some research has shown that consumption of omega-3 fatty acids present in these foods, may reduce PMS symptoms, but further good-quality research is required to confirm this:

  • Nuts – almonds, cashews, walnuts etc
  • Oily fish – salmon, mackerel, sardines
  • Extra virgin olive oil 
  • Avocados

Sources of Protein– protein is a filling macronutrient and is therefore a great way to mediate the increased appetite signals during period craving and may help to curb your cravings effectively. 

  • Meat, fish 
  • Eggs, dairy products like yoghurt 
  • Beans, pulses, legumes
  • Tofu and other soy products

Magnesium-rich foods – Magnesium supplement studies published in Nursing & Midwifery journals, have been shown to reduce PMS symptoms, mainly by helping to reduce bloating. Despite the researchers using supplements, food sources can be sort out too; 

  • Nuts, seeds, soya beans, spinach, dark chocolate, potatoes, wholegrains 

Iron-rich foods – some epidemiologists have shown that increasing iron can reduce period symptoms, particularly non-haem iron (iron found in plant sources); 

  • Beans, pulses, soya beans, nuts, seeds, red meat, fortified cereals 
  • Pair with vitamin C to help absorption (such as tomatoes or peppers or citrus fruits)

Healthy snacks for period cravings

A snack is all about having elements of the craving but packing it with other elements that help you stay full and satisfied. 

The following are great to help curb those cravings:

  • Yoghurt and berries 
  • Hummus and veggie sticks 
  • Apple slices with nut butter (tsp) 
  • Sliced boiled egg on high-fibre crackers 
  • Seaweed crisps

Some quick-fire recipes include-

  • Roasted chickpeas great for salt cravings!
  1. Place a can of drained chickpeas on a baking tray – pat them down so they are nice and dry. 
  2. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle a flavoured salt of choice 
  3. Cook for approx. 25 minutes at 200 degrees until nice and crispy! 
  • Energy bites – great for chocolate cravings!
    • Blend 50g of almonds and cashews.
    • To the blender at 200g dates, 2tbsp of cocoa powder, 1tsbp of nut butter and 1bsp of coconut oil and blend until a sticky mix forms
    • Roll the mixture into balls and place in the fridge for 20 mins until firm. 

Energy bites

Food to avoid during the period cravings

Sometimes it is necessary to avoid your craving for your future self and sometimes it may be necessary to indulge in a small portion. This is something that you will have to learn over time by adopting mindful eating techniques and knowing yourself – a great way to track this is by having a food and mood diary. Generally though, staying away from the following food will avoid blood sugar crashes and longer-term lower mood;

  • Chocolate, sweets, typical confectionary 
  • Crisps, salty nuts, white bread, pretzels 
  • Baked goods – pastries, doughnuts
  • Takeaways/convenience meals – pizza, curries etc 

How do you stop period cravings? 

Managing emotional eating is no easy feat, one which takes inner knowing and self-compassion. One way to improve your emotional eating is to engage in mindful eating practices, according to what you are struggling with – pick from the list below, along with the appropriate solution; 

  • No portion control? Try and follow portion sizes on packets to guide your servings and provide a reference point
  • Craving snacks late at night? Establish a routine with your meals during the day. This also applies if you are snacking often and not having adequate meals
  • Eating on the go or on the sofa – have an established place at work/home that you associate with eating. So at home a dining table and perhaps the canteen at work (aka away from your desk to avoid mindless eating whilst working).
  • Not chewing your food properly? Establish set times in which you will eat your meals to allow you to engage in sensations such as flavour, textures and smells. 
  • Eating in response to your emotions?
    Keep a food and mood diary – try and identify patterns and then find a replacement technique to soothe emotion
    Other activities may include calling a friend, going on a walk, spending some time on the yoga mat, reading or engaging in your favourite hobby. 

      In a nutshell, bring awareness to your eating habits and find techniques which help cope with the emotions at hand which you can rely on instead – both your mind and body will thank you. This is far easier said than done so we would encourage you to seek help from one of our mindful eating specialist dietitians.

      Self care

      Differentiating between normal cravings and symptoms of possible health issues

      If your PMS symptoms are debilitating and affecting your day-to-day life it may be appropriate to seek support. Conditions such as PMDD (Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder) are characterised by cramps, headaches, joint and muscle pain, binge eating and problems sleeping, as well as acute feelings of anxiety, anger or depression. 

      Furthermore, should you have irregular periods or an absence of periods altogether it is important to seek support from your GP.  This is a reflection of suboptimal hormone health and may result in a condition diagnosis. 

      Book a consultation with a women’s health dietitian here.

      Written by Grace Arrowsmith, dietitian. Reviewed by Reema Pillai, dietitian.