Exploring symptoms – 3. What causes food cravings with top tips on management.

Chocolate cravings? Sugary food? Carb cravings? These food cravings are completely normal and usually occur 7-14 days before your period is due.

What are food cravings?

An intense urge to eat a certain food or generally more food. This can be stimulated by your environment, emotions or physical needs.

Is it common with the menstrual cycle?

A study in 18-44-year-old women in the USA showed that there were significant increases in appetite, craving for chocolate and sweets in general, and craving for a salty flavour during the late luteal phase (Gorczyca et al., 2015).
In Brazil, it was shown that the desire for foods rich in sugar, salt and fat was increased during the premenstrual period among university students (Souza et al., 2018).
In Japan, 98% of nursing university students (mean age: 20.1 years) reported a desire for sweets and overeating as well as irritability and depression as the most frequent symptoms (Fukuoka et al., 2017).
Another study showed that 64.6% of high school students aged 15-19 years suffered from premenstrual symptoms and that the prevalences of anxiety/tension, anger/irritability, and overeating/food cravings were high (Takeda et al., 2010).

The proportion of students who increased the appetite was 70.4% during the menstruation cycle, and the highest period was before menstruation (85.8%)

Matsuura et al. (2020)

What are the causes ?

Sometimes it feels like your body is telling you it wants comfort foods or more food for both biological and psychological reasons and sometimes its due to your behaviour and the power of marketing and period myths…how many of us have been told we WILL crave chocolate around your period?


It is believed food cravings the week or 2 before your period are linked to fluctuating hormones and changes in serotonin levels. The exact science is unclear, however it is believed that when progesterone is high, it can cause blood sugar levels to be unstable. Progesterone can have an appetite enhancing affect, whilst also slowing down digestion along with affecting the release of ‘fuel’ or energy stored in the body – the body wants to find a way around this to get the energy it needs. Food cravings give the body a quick glucose fix from carb and sugary foods. It has been suggested that the increase in energy the body demands to replenish the lining of your uterus is also associated with the desire for sweet foods.

Oestrogen & Serotonin

Oestrogen levels have been associated with changes in serotonin (happy hormone), the decline in oestrogen before your period affects the levels of serotonin and therefore the body craves a ‘fix’ to make you feel better – this is usually associated with chocolate and biscuits. It can be difficult to manage as the more you have, the more you want…

This is also closely related to other menstrual related symptoms such as emotions, stress, anxiety or even tiredness – these are all really common and you seek ‘comfort’ food to make you feel better and ease these symptoms. Unfortunately this can sometimes put us in a vicious circle as food we associated with comfort eating can cause menstrual related symptoms, for example stomach cramps, to be worse!

Some people are more sensitive to hormonal fluctuations and everyone will have a unique experience of food cravings. However, there are lots of solutions to help manage or reduce food cravings.

How to manage and reduce food cravings

  • Missing meals and snacks can increase food cravings, if other menstrual related symptoms are making it harder to eat meals/snacks every 3-4h try liquid options e.g. milkshakes and smoothies
  • Aim to include 20g protein every 3-4h (i.e. with every meal and snack)
  • Tryptophan (a protein important for serotonin secretion) requires carbohydrates to move it into the brain. Try having carb sources with your protein snack. Tryptophan is found in chicken, dairy and nuts. Snack examples include chocolate milk, dried fruit and nuts, chicken sandwich
  • Think about the types of carbohydrates you are eating, beans/lentils, brown rice, oats – all examples of complex carbs can make you feel full for longer than simple carbs (chips, white bread)
  • If you do exercise – check you are fuelling around training sessions. Missing key fuelling timepoints can increase food cravings at any point in your cycle!
  • Exercise can help serotonin levels, 30mins a day of walking, swimming, yoga…anything that involves moving
  • Get outside, this can help improve your serotonin levels as well…double up with a walk, run, bike or climb outside to boost those levels
  • Address the cause – it may be you are stressed or tired which is causing food cravings, think about sleep strategies and ways to reduce stress
  • Ensure good hydration, 6-8 cups of water a day
  • If you have sugar cravings try smoothies, fruit and yogurt or dried fruit.

For more advice on how to manage food cravings GET IN TOUCH

References: Matsuura, Y., Inoue, A., Kidani, M. & Yasui, T. (2020). Change in appetite and food craving during menstrual cycle in young students. Int J Nutri & Metab, 12(2), 25-30.

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Dr Natalie Brown

Hey! I am Natalie, a research associate exploring all things menstrual cycle and sport related, whether that is Olympic performance or factors affecting participation in physical activity. When I am not talking about the menstrual cycle, I love climbing and being active outside. I have a background in physiology and research related to hormonal responses in athletes (male and female), combined with my own personal experience in sport, I am passionate to share information on the menstrual cycle with you.

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