Home Q&A Wednesday Q&A Wednesday: Menstrual Cravings & Defeating The Sugar Demon

Q&A Wednesday: Menstrual Cravings & Defeating The Sugar Demon

by Erika Nicole Kendall

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.)

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Vee March 28, 2012 - 2:24 PM

Wow this was totally on point today. I am experiencing the same thing however I am not giving in LOL I have not had processed sugar in 6 weeks. I am also near my cycle date as well..so I know woke up bloated LOL.
I agree Erika we are heavy marketed with ‘enjoy a coke and smile’ and ‘you can’t eat just one’ I know my limits so I stay away it is not easy but a work in progress.

I make sure I keep plenty of raw almonds, Greek non-fat plain yogurt and fresh berries & melons for snacks.

Lethal Astronaut March 28, 2012 - 8:44 PM

Are they real? Absolutely.

I don’t bother marking on the calendar when my period is due – I can literally tell by when the cravings hit. It’s that clockwork-reliable: I get cravings in the afternoon, and start bleeding the following morning.

When the cravings hit, it’s bad. I suddenly go from “in controlly girl” to “eat everything in sight monster”.

How I *deal* with the cravings is another thing altogether. Pretty quickly I clue on that it’s cravings that are making me want to eat, and I use strategies like sitting down and having a proper evening meal an hour or two early, so I don’t give myself the chance to get hungry and binge.

I also force myself to drink a few extra glasses of water. And I take a couple of serves of metamucil, to help fill me up, so there’s no chance I’ll be hungry and think about food.

Then I just make sure I’m out of the house, without cash to spend on food, as much as possible for the next day or two until the cravings subside, and my appetite returns to normal. When I’m out, I take small portions of dark chocolate (85% cocoa, low sugar) with me, so I get a bit of the good stuff, enough to kill cravings but not put weight back on me. That helps too.

So yeah, cravings are very, very real for me. I’ve been more aware of them since eating a completely clean, junk-food free diet, which I’v been doing all year. They *are* manageable, with planning, but they’re not the nicest thing to deal with. I’m glad when they end.

Thanks for talking about this topic 🙂

mimi March 28, 2012 - 10:45 PM

I read a lot of your posts but this one got me to comment. I like most of what you write (or find them informative) because you take the time to research this. However, I don’t really agree with this to a point. Yes we do associate some food with certain feelings (at least our brains do). I think when they talk about “emotional eating” that’s what they are referring too.
However, from a purely personal and anecdotal pov (much like what you said about pms) cravings and appetite before a period are 100% real for me and have nothing to do with emotions.
I know this because I don’t say “oh, my period is coming” (because even at my age I really keep track) so therefore I need something to comfort me. Its more like, i get to a point where I’m like, why am I hungry, 1 hour after eating a good meal? Why do I want to Just.Keep.Eating…then I decide to look at this period app i have on my ipod and i’m like…oooooo, period is due next week.

It’s not as bad everymonth… but it never fails. I’ll wonder WHY i am eating so much and be confused….then like 2 days later be like oooooo. so the “craving” comes before my mind even realizes it’s that time…..

The funny thing is, once my period actually comes, my appetite goes down a lot.

Anyway, that’s my 22 cents. I can see some of what you are saying in relation to “cravings” for chocolate etc… u might just be trying to numb ur brain from feeling whatever emotion…and like you said some foods are designed for you to keep going….but it’s worth looking into the biology behind ovulation. I know your metabolism goes up so maybe some other things change just like with pregnancy.

ok i’ll stop my epistle now.

Erika Nicole Kendall March 29, 2012 - 10:33 AM

“Yes we do associate some food with certain feelings (at least our brains do). I think when they talk about “emotional eating” that’s what they are referring too.”

No, that’s only part of it.

The brain reacts to certain combinations of sugars, fats and salts which produce a dopaminergic reaction in the brain, releasing serotonin and causing the euphoric feeling many people report when eating said foods. The “brain associating certain feelings with certain foods” aspect of that isn’t the same, but it’s relevant because the foods often trigger the euphoria, thereby resulting in using foods to “cure” feelings. It’s important to parse all that out because foods can trigger feelings without the sugar/fat/salt trifecta; foods can contain sugar/fat/salt without without triggering that feeling; and all of this can happen with or without the memory component. It all hapens at rapid fire in the brain, and it’s not a slow-enough process for you to be able to parse it out yourself, as individuals. The science behind that DOES exist.

“However, from a purely personal pov cravings and appetite before a period are 100% real for me and have nothing to do with emotions.”

I’m not entirely certain that’s accurate. Any time you can eat – against your personal, long-standing desire to not do so – and not actively work to control yourself, there’s emotion tied to the reason why you’re making that choice. Sorry. I mean, if you want to just binge, then you don’t need to explain that to anyone… that’s your business. But any time you eat without restraint, there’s a reason why… and it’s, more often than not, emotional. (We can often tell this by the lack of people out there binging on broccoli and kale.) The lack of consistency with your “cravings” and how they don’t come at the same force every month signifies such, to me.

Yes, your metabolism may increase, but it doesn’t compel you to go seek out sweets nor does it cause what happened in the question. In the case of increased metabolism, you’d simply eat some extra veggies. It’s not that deep, and even if there was some biochemical explanation for menstrual cravings, it doesn’t change the unhealthiness of giving in to them NOR does it change the fact that giving in to them can actually cultivate a sugar habit. So, really, regardless of what causes them… you need to actively fight them.

mimi March 29, 2012 - 10:47 PM

I’m not entirely certain that’s accurate. Any time you can eat – against your personal, long-standing desire to not do so – and not actively work to control yourself, there’s emotion tied to the reason why you’re making that choice. Sorry. I mean, if you want to just binge, then you don’t need to explain that to anyone… that’s your business. But any time you eat without restraint, there’s a reason why… and it’s, more often than not, emotional. (We can often tell this by the lack of people out there binging on broccoli and kale.) The lack of consistency with your “cravings” and how they don’t come at the same force every month signifies such, to me.

Excerpted from Q&A Wednesday: Menstrual Cravings & Defeating The Sugar Demon | A Black Girl’s Guide To Weight Loss

But I’m not referring to binging. I’m referring to being extra hungry without even knowing why. I think it’ odd at first because normally what I ate would have filled me but this time it’s not. I eat my toast and eggs and veggie saussage and then an hr later, I’m like dang…I’m hungry again. And it happens for a couple of days. I’m not like “sugarrrrrrrr, can not stop”.

This happens BEFORE i realize my period is coming so it really has no emotional basis. Anyway, I’m just saying what happens to me. Maybe it doesn’t happen to you, afterall some people don’t get cramps…doesn’t really mean the people that get them are exaggerating their pain. If anyone else can relate to what I’m saying or knows what I’m trying to say (but maybe failing at) then chime in.
I know my appetite goes up before my period much in the same way it goes up when I start weight training (but oddly doesn’t when I do lots of cardio).

This is all to say that yes, advertisers have pushed this chocolate and period correlation (much like pms in my opinion) but there is some basis in truth (just like pms).

C’est finis.

Erika Nicole Kendall March 30, 2012 - 9:18 AM

“But I’m not referring to binging.”

…but that’s what THIS Q&A is referring to, though. Look at the question again.

Having a craving for sugar around that time of the month is in no way the same as a simple increase in metabolic activity. You’re talking about something else entirely.

I understand what you’re saying, but we’re talking about dogs and cats here – both are pets, but very different kinds.

Lakisha July 12, 2012 - 1:29 AM

Wow Mimi, girl I co-sign on EVERYTHING that you wrote. Everything you wrote is what I experience when its a week or two before my period comes. I too get these strong cravings right before my period and as soon as my period comes the cravings are no more. I am very clean eating, mostly raw vegan and I workout 5-7 times a week,but I’m like a sluggish, junk food eating monster when its that time of month. lol and when i get the strong cravings I too look at my Period Tacker app and realize that its almost that time…..Its good to know that someone else goes through what I go through. Thanks so much for sharing that Mimi.

Diandra March 29, 2012 - 4:28 AM

Menstrual cravings *are* real, but there are ways to re-wire them. I have switched from chocolate to broccoli. ^^

sabina March 29, 2012 - 9:48 AM

on my period i usually crave cold sweet things like ice cream! I keep grapes in the freezer and I munch on those constantly. I also want salty things too which I curb by ants on a log ( peanut butter, raisins and celery). my thing is… my periods have always been irregular since I am a big girl, but since I started working out and I work out a hr a day every day of the week, I noticed my period was super late. Is this normal for first time fitness?

Dawn April 11, 2012 - 11:26 AM

When the cravings hit and I start that “I deserve to reward myself with *insert awful, sugary thing” I am reminded of something a good friend of mine says. She says “we are not dogs, we should not reward ourselves with food”

Ashley J August 8, 2012 - 9:16 PM

Heck yeah the cravings are real!!!! However I handle my cravenings a little differently from most of the other ppl responding…I allow myself to indulge especially if I’ve been on track prior to my period. I believe that its okay to allow myself to have a bad moment every once in a while especially if its only “every once in a while.” In doing this, I’ve been able to stay on track with my weight loss efforts and I honestly don’t have any other binge moments becuase I allow myself to have a guilty pleasure.

marie March 5, 2013 - 8:15 AM

I agree with Mimi regarding the strong hunger before the periods. It’s terrible, i’m always like I haven’t eaten in aaages! Lol.
As per cravings (chocolate in my case, I’m learning to fight them and for that I needed to identity them: they mostly come when i’m hungry (ie during the periods! When i’m frustrated or irritated).
When I know the period are approaching I make sure good food is in the house, I let my wallet home and bring lots of nuts to snack on and try to do more exercise (to keep myself busy lol).

Jennifer Wycoff July 14, 2013 - 10:28 PM

When I do my overnight oats I put brown sugar into them, is that like eating sweets? I mean I know that it’s sugar but how does it match up to plain granulated white sugar? Is it just as bad?

Erika Nicole Kendall July 15, 2013 - 10:13 AM

I mean, sugar is sugar is sugar. If it’s pure brown sugar, it might affect your blood sugar less, but sugar is sugar is sugar.

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