Q: I’ve been transitioning to a vegan diet for the past 3 weeks or so, completely cutting out dairy, and only having one meal with meat a day while I empty out my current supply. Everything has been going WELL: I’ve been losing weight, my skin has cleared up, and my energy has increased exponentially! Two days ago however, things got really weird when I went to Whole Foods and could NOT. TAKE. MYSELF. AWAY from the tea cookie display. This wasn’t my first time around sweets during this period, but that particular day the cravings were ridiculous! I gave in and got myself two vegan ginger snap icing-filled cookies, which were amazing and worth the effort…until those cookies turned into a whole piece of chocolate cake the day after. There I was, again, minding my own business with my healthy lunch when the craving hit, and officially took a downturn when halfway through the 2nd half of the cake (which was high quality, but still) I realized I wasn’t gonna stop eating it even if I WANTED to. *smh* I feel like things went wrong for me Erika, and I don’t understand why; I know relapsing into sugar addiction was part of the 2nd half of that, but what about the first? I wasn’t especially hungry, and I wasn’t thirsty; the only thing I could fathom it might be is that my period is coming soon (other telltale signs suggest it as well), but I don’t want to use that as an excuse, especially since I want to avoid it happening again. Before I even go there though I have to ask: are menstrual cravings even REAL?! LOL

Man, no one likes when I talk about cravings… which is why I don’t do it often.

The thing is… it’s encouraged in marketing to “give in” to cravings. They’ve “got a hold on us.” You “can’t eat just one.” Buy my bottle and “open happiness.” Have “a coke and a smile.” Both emotional eating – which is what cravings are, let’s face it – and a lack of will power (more on that later) are encouraged because they are profitable.

So… to answer the question “are menstrual cravings even real?” I’d have to respond with “Sort of.” Unfortunately, to explain that, I have to start around the corner from my point to get there.

When marketers talk about food being so good that “you can’t resist,” it’s normalizing stuffing yourself. It also, in an accidental kind of way, encourages you to only seek out food that is “so good, you can’t resist scarfing it down and stuffing yourself.” Any food that elicits that kind of feeling from you probably has an exorbitant amount of the stuff that triggers the most problems in our bodies: sugar, fat and salt. That’s not to say that clean dishes can’t elicit that feeling from you – as evidenced by the cake mentioned – but that is to say that if you can’t or don’t have that kind of control to know when to cut it out, then don’t test it. And, at three weeks, you’re not in a position to test anything.

Are menstrual cravings real? Let’s look at cravings in general, first.

Cravings, generally, have much less to do with a physiological response the body is having to a specific need – like in the way a craving for chewing metal can signify a bodily need for iron – and more to do with an emotion triggering a need for a food that can bring about certain feelings in the body. If you’re barely handling work stress and your brain knows that a sweet, sticky bun from the Cinnabon next to your job will make you feel better – namely because you go there often anyway, and your body is quite familiar with the euphoric feeling you get from all that sugar and salt – then guess what? Your body begins to pair “that stressor” with “this cure for stress,” because that cinnabon is so adept at making you feel better. What happens now, is every time you feel that kind of stress, you crave that kind of cure for stress.

The same happens with women and break-ups. In fact, it’s a running joke in commercials that a woman should be sitting nose-first in a pint of ice cream when her boo doesn’t call her back. You start connecting “this stressor” to “this cure for stress.”

The same also happens with familial problems. If your parent passes away, and you start to feel that lonely feeling that can come with losing a parent, your brain reaches back to a memory of you with that parent, and it can – and will often – involve food… especially since food is a current and immediate way to connect you to that lost parent. You connect curing that feeling with that food. It’s self-medication with items that easily affect the brain’s chemistry.

That’s where the menstrual part comes in. So many of us are emotional in so many different ways – some of us are perpetually sad and teary eyed, some of us are hyper-sensitive to the point where everything angers us, some of us are easily frustrated, some of us are easily broken during that time and while many of us handle it successfully, we also sometimes self-medicate. We might not break down when the stressor is right in our faces, but when we get to ourselves? Might be time to go hard in the twinkie – or the $1.50 cookie – paint.

I also tend to believe that, much like “succumbing to cravings” is marketed to overexaggeration by advertisers eager to get you to binge on their product, I also believe that “menstrual cravings” and “hyper-menstrual psychosis” or whatever they call it is overexaggerated, too. No, we are not all hyper-hormonal nutjobs who eat every chocolate bar in sight, and we don’t have to be, either.

So, are menstrual cravings real? Yes, of course, because they happen and are a reality for many of us. They’re not, however, real in the sense that they’re this unavoidable thing that you can’t escape succumbing to just because you’re a woman.

As I’ve said before, will power isn’t something you’re innately born with, especially if you’ve never really had any experience with exercising it. The same goes for using will power when you’re in an extremely vulnerable situation like being on your period. You have to give yourself time to develop that, and by “time” I mean time. I’m talking months, maybe even years depending upon how bad it gets for you.

There are two components to emotional eating – the feelings triggering the craving, and the food actually being craved. You have to address the feeling triggering the craving – are you sad? Are you bored? Lonely? Stressed out? Frustrated? Disappointed? Understand that none of those feelings can be truly assuaged by food. The only feeling that can be managed properly by food is “hunger,” and even then you know better than to try to “de-hunger-ify” yourself with sweets. (Yes, I made that word up. Fight me.)

The second component, while simple, is not so easy. You just have to do what you can to develop the internal dialogue that can coach you away from making poor choices. “No, I don’t need any doggone cookies, cupcakes, whoopie pies, cakes, or anything. I brought my behind in here to get some soap and some brussel sprouts, and damn it that’s all I’m gonna buy!” You also have to task yourself with making sure that internal dialogue wins. So if you should happen to respond back to yourself with “No, it’s just one cookie…” then you’ve got to reinforce your original goal and your final demand – “It is never just one cookie! You will not buy any cookies! You will keep walking and get your arugula! And you better not even think about buying a damn cookie!”

You must be vigilant. Not because one cookie is sooo bad for your diet (and, depending on how small you are, it actually could be), but because if you are breaking from a sugar habit, even the slightest act of submission can result in it coming back full force. If you’ve gone weeks without sweets, you’re training your mind to forget that sweets work as a means of making you “feel better.” When you give in – even the slightest bit – you remind your brain again, and you give the compulsion more power. You can’t do that… which is why I say it may take months or even years to fully defeat. I don’t get cravings for sweets at this point and can go to parties without eating the cake offered there. I can even bite into a cookie, and not eat the other half (especially if it’s a crap cookie, and you can usually tell.) It just requires a lot of thought, a lot of vulnerability – you’ll now be dealing with lots of emotions, especially during your cycle – and a lot… and I mean lot of honesty. If you’re only “a few weeks in,” you’re not ready to test yourself.

Just prepare yourself to say “No!” an awful lot… and be glad you can’t throw anything at yourself after you hear that “No.” (And yes, I tried one day. Even with my great aim, I couldn’t do it.)