It’s no surprise that PMS makes you hungry. Even the strongest-willed women among us give in to hormonal commands to load up on sugary, fatty foods in the days leading up to their periods. And while letting your healthy eating habits fall by the wayside may give you that quick mood boost you’re looking for, physically, it may end up making things worse.
“Most women suffering from PMS symptoms find immediate comfort in all the wrong foods,” Sherry A. Ross, M.D., an ob/gyn in Santa Monica, California, and author of She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health. Period., tells. Comforting foods are “wrong” when they just contribute to the very symptoms you’re trying to distract yourself from: bloating and GI discomfort.
For lots of women, the hormonal changes that happen pre-period lead to water retention. Water retention presents itself in a few uncomfortable ways: bloating, breast tenderness, and even swelling in the hands and feet. This is also why many of us feel like we magically gain (and then lose) weight during this time of the month. Loading up on sodium will just make water retention worse. Ross suggests avoiding foods that are known for being salty, like Chinese takeout (low-sodium soy sauce is still not really low-sodium) and canned soups.
Sugar’s problematic for its own reasons. “Hormonal changes around menstruation also affect digestion,” registered dietitian nutritionist Angela Lemond, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says. "A woman may notice that she has a tendency to have loose stool around the first days of her period. Adding high-fat and high-sugar foods can exacerbate this issue." The sugary and fatty foods we’re talking about are those that are void of other nutritional benefits, like cookies, donuts, and candy.
The fiber and protein in fruits and complex carbs (aka whole grains) help slow down sugar digestion, so you won’t experience the same upset as you would if you ate a whole box of donut holes. Also, this doesn’t mean fake sugar gets a free pass—many artificial sweeteners can overstimulate the colon and lead to cramping and diarrhea, aka, the last two things you need more of during PMS.
“There is some data to suggest foods that are high in B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, B12, and B6) can help relieve the intensity of cramps,” Lemond says. Fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, chicken, turkey, and salmon are all good sources.
“Foods that are high in anti-inflammatory nutrients like omega-3 fats, vitamins C, D, and E are also helpful,” Lemond adds. A few studies suggest omega-3s may help curb menstrual pain thanks to the fatty acid’s anti-inflammatory effects. Fatty fish like salmon and tuna, plus nuts, seeds, and beans, are all good sources of omega-3 fats.
Calcium may also help soothe cramps, Ross says. Lemond warns that excessive calcium can cause constipation, so you shouldn’t supplement heavily. “I would aim for 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams of calcium per day,” she says. Dairy, sunflower seeds, spinach, soybeans, kale, and tofu are all great sources of the nutrient.
Finally, eat foods with high water content, like cucumbers, onions, watermelon, tomatoes, and asparagus. “These are natural diuretics that help with the bloating,” Ross says. The more water you get, the less your body tries to retain it. “Drink as much water as possible, 2 to 3 liters a day is ideal,” Ross suggests. There may also be a benefit beyond beating bloat. “Drinking water, warm or hot, helps relax the uterine muscles,” Ross adds. Instead of straight H2O, try sipping on green tea, or just drinking warm water with lemon.
You should never totally deprive yourself of a treat here and there—especially when you’re PMSing to the max. “Have the chocolate, but stick to dark chocolate,” Ross says. And don’t feel guilty or defeated when you do. “The key is not to think you're ‘bad’ if you do indulge because that brings about guilt and guilt can bring on more binges,” Lemond says. “Indulge and move on.” You may bleed every month, but you only live once.