Ack! I need chocolate! The science of PMS food cravings

Premenstrual food cravings are the punchline of endless jokes. Like most good jokes, they're funny because they're true.

Certain parts of a woman's menstrual cycle do seem to go hand in hand with the desire for chocolate ice cream and potato chips. I hear about this every day from my OBGYN patients.

Researchers have studied food cravings for years; one of the most cited studies dates back to 1953. Scientists – and lots of others – want to know who has food cravings and why, what they crave, when they crave it and how to minimize the cravings. Here's what the research has found.

Craving and eating before a period

Food cravings are just one of the many symptoms of premenstrual syndrome, also known as PMS. PMS is likely caused by hormonal fluctuations and how they affect chemical messengers in the brain called neurotransmitters. Its symptoms are exclusive to the second half of the menstrual cycle. This luteal phase of the cycle starts with the release of the egg at ovulation and ends when a period begins. The symptoms usually resolve around the third or fourth day of menstruation.




Researchers have documented more than 150 different PMS symptoms in studies, ranging from physical to emotional to behavioral to cognitive. Food cravings are up there with the most commonly reported behavioral PMS symptoms, along with mood swings, irritability, anxiety and tension, and sad or depressed mood.

A woman doesn't need an official diagnosis of PMS to report hankering for sweets and chocolates, though. Eighty-five percent of women have some sort of perceptible premenstrual symptoms, while only somewhere in the range of 20% to 40% of all women meet the diagnostic criteria for PMS. Researchers find that cravings can occur during that premenstrual time period in normal, healthy individuals without a diagnosis of PMS or other disorder. In fact, one study showed that 97% of all women had previously experienced food cravings – independent of their menstrual cycle.

Research data confirm women tend to eat more during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle, compared to the follicular phase that leads up to ovulation. With or without the diagnosis of PMS, this increased food intake can be as high as 500 extra calories per day.

What foods are women reaching for? Carbs and fats and sweets. No surprise there. The most commonly reported food craving is chocolate, likely because it's a pleasantly sweet combination of carbs and fat.

And although the existence of any craving is similar across women with and without PMS, the craving itself may differ depending on if you have the diagnosis of PMS. In one study, women without PMS increased their intake of energy and fat, while women with PMS showed increase in total energy and all macronutrients.

What causes food cravings?

Researchers aren't exactly sure where these food cravings come from, but there are several leading theories.


One idea is that women are unconsciously using food as a pharmacological therapy. Many studies show that women in their luteal phase crave more carbohydrates compared to during their follicular phase. Eating carbs turns up levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system, which contributes to a general sense of well-being and happiness. By increasing carb intake, women may be self-medicating with food to cause that serotonin bump in order to feel better. In one study, when researchers increased serotonin neurotransmission in the brain, either through diet or drugs, people's food intake and mood went back to normal.

Another possible explanation for food cravings suggests that women intentionally turn to food for physical and psychological comfort. Food can play a sensory role, eliminating any uncomfortable feeling of hunger while tasting good and feeling pleasant to eat. Researchers find that "thinking" of a really tasty food is the most common provocation for wanting to consume it and that cravings are not solely hunger driven. Women also usually reported specific triggers for thinking of comforting food, like boredom or stress, further promoting the idea that the comfort of food helps mitigate unpleasant feelings – as one might experience with PMS.

Other researchers suggest that these food cravings are regulated by hormones. Scientists have observed that women tend to eat more when estrogen levels are low and progesterone levels are high – as occurs during the luteal phase. The reverse pattern is seen in rats during the follicular phase, when estrogen levels are high and progesterone levels are low. The fact that progesterone-only forms of contraception like Depo Provera are associated with weight gain, likely due to increased appetite, supports this theory as well.

How can you get rid of monthly cravings?

My general advice to women: be knowledgeable about your own body and how it changes in response to your monthly cycle. Your experience is different than your best friend's. Being in touch with your symptoms can help you acknowledge that they are normal for you at this point in time instead of worrying whether they're weird. If you feel unsure, ask your gynecologist.


Lifestyle changes can help balance and minimize unwanted symptoms related to your menstrual cycle. Things to try include regular exercise, relaxation and stress reduction techniques such as breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, massage, self-hypnosis and regular, good sleep.

Cognitive behavioral therapy and biofeedback may be options. They usually require support of a therapist or counselor to be most effective.

And you can optimize your diet to fight cravings:

  • Choose complex carbohydrates, including whole grains, brown rice, barley, beans and lentils. Choose whole wheat over white flour.
  • Reduce fat, salt and sugar – all of which can leave you craving more.
  • Minimize or avoid caffeine and alcohol.
  • Eat more calcium-rich foods, including green leafy vegetables and dairy. One study showed women who consumed milk, cheese and yogurt had less abdominal bloating, cramps, appetite and cravings for some foods, possibly because the calcium they contain helped reverse an imbalance of feel-good serotonin. Women who are sensitive to dairy can take a calcium supplement of 1200 mg daily.
  • Try magnesium supplements. This mineral can help reduce water retention and bloating, breast tenderness and mood symptoms.
  • Vitamin B6 (50 mg daily), in addition to magnesium, may have some benefit as well.
  • Vitamin E (150-300 IU daily) may be helpful to reduce cravings.

When food cravings are part of a PMS diagnosis, treatment for premenstrual syndrome in general may help minimize them.

Sara Twogood is an Assistant Professor of Obstetrics & Gynecology, University of Southern California

This article originally appeared on The Conversation. You can read it here.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

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"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

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2020 was difficult (to say the least). The year was full of life changes, losses, and lessons as we learned to navigate the "new normal." You may have questions about what the changes and challenges of 2020 mean for your taxes. That's where TurboTax Live comes in, making it easy to connect with real tax experts to help with your taxes – or even do them for you, start to finish.

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Julz, hairdresser and salon owner

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Julz had to shut down her salon and go on unemployment benefits for the first time. She also had to figure out how she was going to support herself, her staff and her business during this difficult time. But many other beauty industry professionals didn't have access to the resources they needed, so Julz decided to help.

"My business partner and I began teaching basic financial literacy to other beauty industry professionals," she says. "Transitioning our business from behind the chair to an online academy was a challenge we tackled head-on so that we could move hairdressers into this new space of education, and create a more accessible curriculum to better serve our industry.

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Alana, new mom

Alana welcomed her first child in 2020. "I think my biggest challenge was figuring out how to be a mom, with no guidance," she says. "My original plan was to have my mom by my side, teaching me the ropes, but because of COVID, she wasn't able to come out here."

She was also without a job for most of 2020 and struggled to find something new.

So, Alana took it as a sign: she decided to launch her own business so she could support her new baby, and that's exactly what she did. She started a feel-good company that specializes in creating affirmation card decks — and she's currently in the process of starting a second, video-editing business.

TurboTax Live answered Alana's questions about her taxes and gave her some much-needed advice as she prepared to launch her businesses. Thanks to their "little lift," they provided her with a little emotional support too.

"I got my mom a plane ticket to finally [have her] meet [my daughter] for her first birthday," Alana says. "I was also able to get a new computer," which helped her invest in her new business and work on her video editing skills. "It's helped my family and me so much," she says.


Michael, science teacher

When schools shut down across the country last year, Michael had to learn how to adapt to a virtual classroom.

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Ricky, motivational youth speaker

As a motivational speaker, Ricky was used to doing his job in person, but, he says, "when COVID-19 hit, it altered my ability to travel and visit schools in person [because] schools moved to fully virtual or hybrid models."

He knew he had to pivot — so he began offering small virtual group workshops for student leadership groups at middle and high schools.

"This allowed me to work with student leaders to plan how they would continue making a positive impact on their school community," he says. He wasn't sure how being remote would affect his taxes, but TurboTax Live Self-Employed gave him the advice and answers that he needed to keep more money in his pocket at tax time — and the little lift he received from them has helped him serve even more students.

"[It] has been a major blessing," he says "There will be multiple schools and student groups from across the country that I can hold leadership workshops with to empower them with the tools to be inspirational leaders in their school, community, and world."

Plus, he says, it was great knowing he had an expert to help him figure out how being remote affected his taxes. "I felt confident and assured in the process of filing my taxes knowing I had an expert working with me, says Ricky. "There were things my expert knew that I would not have considered when filing on my own."

Filing your taxes doesn't have to be intimidating, especially after a year like 2020. TurboTax Live experts can give you the "little lift" you need to get your taxes done. File with the help of an expert or let an expert file for you! Go to TurboTax Live to get started.