During your period, your body is going through a lot—you’re losing blood, experiencing pain, and enduring mood-altering hormonal changes. The food you eat—and don’t eat—during your period can have a profound effect on the symptoms you experience.
“The impact of diet during periods starts in the two days and up to a week before the period actually starts,” says OB-GYN Cindy Duke, MD, PhD, and medical director of the Nevada Fertility Institute. Many people notice that they have strong cravings before and during menstruation. This is usually because your body lacks a certain nutrient and your brain interprets this as a craving for an associated food.
“Some research has suggested that a key mood hormone in the brain, which is known as serotonin, can be affected by foods such as white, processed sugars, chocolate, and carbonated drinks,” Duke says. If you indulge in these cravings, it can increase the mood swings you experience during your period. Duke says that a balanced diet can improve your mood while reducing cravings.
What you eat during your period is important—but which foods should you munch, and which ones should you avoid? Here’s a quick guide.
Foods to Indulge on During Menstruation
Protein-rich foods help maintain your body’s blood sugar levels according to OB-GYN Kecia Gaither, MD, MPH, who is double board certified in maternal-fetal medicine and is the director of perinatal services at Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center. Gaither recommends consuming protein-rich foods like eggs and tofu. A high protein diet can also reduce your sugar cravings, so it’s a win-win!
Fruit naturally contains fructose, a particularly sweet form of sugar. Gaither says your sweet tooth can be satisfied with a little fruit, which has the added benefit of providing vitamins, fiber, and micronutrients, making it a much better choice than processed candy or milk chocolate.
If you want to add more fruit into your diet, avoid processed fruit juices with added sugar. Instead, try to have a fruit-based smoothie each day of your period. Sliced fruits can also be convenient snacks to take on the go—perfect for when those sugar cravings hit.
Those with iron deficiencies are likely to face a range of problems during their periods. Since you’re losing blood, you might feel more light-headed and fatigued than usual. Consuming iron-rich foods all month long and especially during your period is a smart move.
Stock up on iron-rich foods like spinach, liver, quinoa, legumes, tofu, and dark chocolate with at least 70 percent cacao solids (yum!). One iron-rich food you’ll want to avoid is fatty red meats (read on to understand why).
Flaxseeds are a versatile ingredient that’s rich in omega 3 fatty acids. “Some research has revealed that consumption of omega 3s around your period helps to diminish those mood swings and other PMS symptoms,” Gaither notes.
Add some flaxseeds to your smoothie or sprinkle them over your salads. Alternatively, add some salmon or walnuts to your diet to increase your omega 3 intake.
It might seem obvious, but water is a key part of a balanced diet. When you’re losing a lot of fluids each day, it’s even more important to increase your water intake. Try to drink more than the usual suggestion of two liters a day.
Tired of the hollow taste of plain water? Mix it up by trying some tasty infused water, which can also contain trace amounts of vitamins and minerals.
Foods to Avoid During Menstruation
For many people, menstruation means bloating, and bloating means lethargy and discomfort. Foods high in salt don’t help with water retention since they can make you bloat even more according to Gaither. While it might be tempting to reach for a packet of chips, resist the urge to consume salty foods—your body will thank you!
Fatty Red Meats
Many of us crave red meat during our periods. Duke says that if you have an iron deficiency you might crave red meat to make up for the low iron levels you experience while menstruating. However, fatty red meats should be avoided. “Red meats high in fat can increase cramping by causing the release of substances called prostaglandins,” says Gaither.
You might want to comfort yourself by digging into a tub of ice cream, but Gaither suggests reducing your dairy intake during menstruation. Like fatty red meats, dairy increases your prostaglandin levels, which can increase cramping. Long story short? Keep dairy to a minimum. Consider replacing your dairy-based creamer with a non-dairy alternative like coconut milk.
Other than nutrition, there are a few things you can do to reduce the negative symptoms associated with menstruation. Herbal teas can be comforting and potentially healing. For example, peppermint tea might have an analgesic and anti-inflammatory effect, reducing the pain, swelling, and inflammation associated with periods. Ginger tea, on the other hand, can reduce nausea and stomach aches.
Exercise can also be beneficial during your period. Certain exercises can reduce bloating and cramps. When you’re achy and sore, exercise might be the last thing you want to do, but this counter-intuitive approach to menstrual cramp management is actually pretty effective, so when you know your monthly visitor’s on its way, pencil in some time for exercise and swing by the store for your favorite period-approved treats.