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Is your cycle derailing your diet?

Have you ever wondered how much influence your cycle really has on your cravings and metabolism? We asked an expert to set the record straight. 

There’s really no sugar-coating it: periods aren’t fun for anyone. Sure, they’re a natural bi-product of owning a uterus, representing the possibility of conceiving, carrying and birthing a child one day, but I’m not sure that’s at the top of most young womens’ minds when they’re curled around a hot water bottle watching reruns of The OC. 

Now granted, when I compare my monthly cycle to some of my friends’ experiences, I definitely feel as though I’ve gotten off pretty easily. I’m fortunate to not know what it feels like to be bed-bound with excruciating menstrual cramps, or to have to deal with an intensely heavy flow. Occasionally I’ll break out with a few new spots the week before my period starts, but it’s nothing a good face mask and concealer can’t fix. 

The only really frustrating symptom I seem to experience is a burst of intense cravings and insatiable hunger about a week before my period, and I know I’m not alone.

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It can feel like we’re going off the rails during this time, undoing all the hard work we’ve put in sticking to a healthy routine and nutritious diet the other 75 percent of the time.

Equalutions‘ head dietitian and lead recipe developer, Greer Calabro, shares some of the most common misconceptions women have when it comes to nutrition throughout their menstrual cycle, as well as how to best match your nutrition to each phase. 

According to the nutrition expert, women have been falsely guided by diet fads and incorrect weight loss tips for far too long. We’ve been told to ‘ditch the carbohydrates’ and ‘avoid dairy’, fearing the impact they’ll have on our weight loss attempts and PMS symptoms.  

“Carbs are a key source of energy and can help with managing mood swings and fatigue,” Calabro says. “And whilst some individuals may experience sensitivities to dairy it is important to include for those that don’t have sensitivities”. 

The dietician also warns against the common misconception that your period calls for an increase in your caloric intake, saying it’s only necessary to consider a slight increase of 400 to 600 kilojoules. FYI, that means an extra piece of fruit, not an entire pizza. 

Is consistency really key?

So torrent of cravings aside, should we be aiming to keep a consistent diet throughout each phase of our cycle? If maintaining or losing weight is your goal, the dietician actually recommends a slightly bespoke approach to each phase, while still ensuring your diet consists of a balance of proteins, healthy fats and carbohydrates throughout the month. 

“During the Late Luteal phase our body’s energy requirement is increased, and it is very common to feel increased hunger during this time,” she says. “Reaching for calorie dense, processed foods like take away pizza, chips and lollies, can hugely increase your calorie intake for the day”. 

Furthermore, increasing your intake of foods high in salt, or consuming too much alcohol can increase fluid retention, making you look and feel bloated. 

What foods are best for each phase?

Follicular phase 

During the follicular phase (after menstruation), oestrogen levels begin to climb. To help balance excess oestrogen, the dietician outlines the importance of including a daily serving of cruciferous vegetables such as kale, cabbage, cauliflower or broccoli, and healthy fats such avocado, olive oil, seeds and nuts.

Ovulatory phase 

Following the follicular period, this phase sees our oestrogen levels at their peak.

“Ensure you continue to include a range of cruciferous vegetables and ensure you are drinking enough water to support liver detoxification of excess oestrogen,” Calabro says.

Luteal phase

According to the dietician, this phase (roughly a week prior to menstruation) can be particularly tricky to navigate when it comes to nutrition, with a lot of us experiencing PMS, food cravings and increased hunger. 

“To help with the increase in appetite be sure to include a good range of complex carbohydrates including rolled oats, quinoa, brown rice, wholegrain bread and pasta,” says Calabro. “These will not only keep you feeling fuller then more processed alternatives they will also provide a great source of fibre.”

Menstrual phase

During menstruation, it can feel impossible not to reach for heavily processed comfort foods such as take away and sweets. According to Calabro, your nutritional choices during this phase can have more benefits than simply keeping you fuller for longer.

“Whilst I always advocate for balance and don’t believe any food is off limits, reducing your intake of these foods during this time and including Omega-3 rich foods can help reduce inflammation and abdominal cramping during this time,” she says, urging people to try incorporate fatty fish such as salmon or tuna, nuts and seeds into their meals. 

She also advocates for iron-rich foods like dark leafy greens and red meat, and recommends including a source of Vitamin C (such as berries, citrus fruits, capsicum) in your diet to your body to absorb iron better. 

Can we ever ‚give in‘ to our cravings? 

Calabro says it’s important not to brand ‘giving in’ to our cravings in a negative light, as doing so can lead to unhealthy bingeing. 

“Enjoying a balanced diet with 80 percent wholefoods and 20 percent soul foods is an approach that we practise at Equalution as it stops the yo-yo diet cycle,” explains Calabro. “Understanding this is key to not only achieving your weight loss goals but maintaining them long term.”

And giving in to cravings doesn’t necessarily need to involve greasy takeout. The dietician recommends opting for homemade, healthier versions of your favourite comfort foods, such as burgers, pizza or nachos. 

“If you are on a weight loss journey, it is important to not deny yourself the foods you crave, but plan them into your day, balanced with nutritious, well balanced meals to ensure you are fueling your body with all it needs for successful weight loss,” shares the dietician. 

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