Nutrition during our menstrual cycle
Have you ever wondered why you crave chocolate and sweet food in the later half of your cycle? Have you wondered why you feel a bit lighter just after your period finishes? Well ladies, this is all to do with our hormones and is VERY normal! And we are going to run through why this might be happening to you, some tips on how you can work with your cycle and optimise your nutrition to help achieve your goals!
Firstly, we need to recap on what our hormones are doing across our cycle to help with the discussion of our diet. Firstly, our cycle starts with our period, which is where our female hormones (most specifically estrogen and progesterone) are at baseline. After our period ends, estrogen starts to rise in our follicular phase until we reach our fertile window. During this ovulatory phase of our cycle, our progesterone starts to rise before it reaches a peak at ovulation. Once we ovulate, our estrogen drops and our progesterone stays elevated during our luteal phase until we either confirm we are pregnant or our uterine lining shreds and we get our period, only to start the process over again.
Please note also, that all of these recommendations are being made with the intent that no hormonal contraception is being taken and is generalised for a female that has no hormonal issues or imbalances. If you are experiencing any issues or imbalances, it is recommended to seek advice from a medical practitioner.
So what should we eat during these changes in our cycle to optimise our results?
It is important to remember that every woman will experience different changes and cravings during their cycle, and it is encouraged to firstly listen to your body and the feelings you have during this time. Also, focusing on eating a well-balanced diet each day regardless of the day in your cycle is encouraged. However, to optimise your results during your cycle, there is some recommendations and minor changes that may help with any adverse experiences a female may be going through during this time.
The Follicular Phase
This is the first phase of the cycle, straight after menstruation commences, and is where progesterone is low and estrogen is starting to rise. Many females report that they feel energised, stronger and have more clarity when it comes to work and day to day tasks. As estrogen is high during this time, there are some nutritional recommendations that can be made to support this phase, including:
- As the body prepares to release an egg, focusing on complex carbohydrates can be supportive to aid the development of the endometrial lining. We are also a lot more insulin sensitive, so having adequate levels of carbohydrates can support our energy levels during this time.
- Wholegrains such as quinoa, oats, rice and pasta
- Starchy vegetables such as potatoes, carrots and beetroot
- Fruit such as kiwis, oranges and pears
- Healthy fats are important as part of a holistically healthy diet, however during the follicular
phase aiming for omega-3 fatty acids can support a healthy balance of estrogen.
- Fatty fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel
- Natural nuts including Brazil nuts, walnuts and cashews
- Natural seeds such as flaxseeds and pumpkin seeds
- Focusing on protein across the entirety of your cycle is important, and during this phase, focusing on spacing your protein out across your main meals to support your recovery and balancing the macronutrients on your plate is key. We recommend using a variety of leaner protein options such as chicken breast, turkey breast and leaner cuts of pork, beef and white fish.
If you are in a dieting phase, post menstruation is when you will likely see a large shift on the scale and measurements will drop due to the potential water retention you were experiencing in the later part of your previous cycle. This is also a great time to increase the intensity of your training and potentially reduce your calories to push a bit harder with your dieting phase as your cravings may not be as intense.
It is important to always recognise however that increasing your exercise too much or reducing your calories significantly can have a negative impact as you transition into your ovulatory phase and so it is recommended that you make minor adjustments.
This is the phase where progesterone is beginning to rise and the identification of cervical fluid is
starting to present as the egg is released from an ovary and is making its way towards the potential of
fertilisation. As progesterone is rising, it peaks with estrogen, our body temperature increases and we
can confirm ovulation. There are a number of nutritional interventions that can support this process
into the luteal phase, such as:
- Focusing on your lower glycemic index carbohydrate options is ideal, so aiming to increase your intake of cruciferous and antioxidant rich fruits and vegetables, legumes and wholegrains is recommended.
- Make sure your fat intake is high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids such as oils, seeds, avocado and nuts to stabilise blood sugars and enhance folic acid production for
optimal egg quality.
- Opting for some higher fatty acid-based protein sources such as sardines, salmon and eggs
are great to ensure adequate protein levels are met to prevent injury and aid recovery during
Many women experience different symptoms during this time in their cycle and it is important to listen to your body when it comes to your nutrition and whether you are in a dieting phase or not. To optimise your ovulation and egg quality and manage any symptoms that may not be optimal, perhaps focusing on a diet break or increasing your calories during this time may help to ease any uncomfortable symptoms that may be experienced.
The Luteal Phase
This is the phase where progesterone is high, our body temperature is elevated and is the time where our body is getting prepared for either menstruation or working to prepare for pregnancy. Focusing on our nutrition intake during this time is likely to help with minimising symptoms, as it is the most sensitive time for our bodies due to many of the premenstrual symptoms that we can experience, that may be (however are not limited to):
- Changes in appetite
- Weight gain
- Abdominal pain
- Mood swings
To help manage these symptoms, some nutritional interventions can be established, such as:
- Ensure that you are eating consistently during the day; avoid skipping meals and ensure you
have a healthy balanced plate of macronutrients with a hearty serving of fibrous vegetables
- Potentially increase your fat intake and reduce your carbohydrate intake, noting your body is
tending towards fat as an energy source in comparison to carbohydrates during this time. This
will aid in minimising any cortisol spikes that may lead to increasing the intensity of the
symptoms you may be experiencing.
- Increasing your intake of calcium, zinc and magnesium rich foods can help to manage food cravings and ease painful symptoms. Options could include dark chocolate, white beans, pumpkin seeds, oysters and cashew nuts.
- Ensuring snacks have an appropriate amount of protein is important as protein is being broken down at a higher rate due to the elevation in your body temperature.
It is important to remember that during our luteal phase, our body temperature is elevated and therefore our body can be burning up to 300kcals more per day – so it is no wonder our body is having more cravings! If you are in a dieting phase and experience intense cravings during this time, have a think about whether you could implement a diet break to help keep consistent with your nutrition without major restrictions that could lead to potential overeating or binge tendencies.
As we hit menstruation, the time in which a bleed occurs as the uterine lining is shredding, it is important to think about how we minimise any potential reductions to our iron levels; an essential mineral that can be depleted through loss of blood. So if you do have a heavy flow and loose a considerable amount of blood during this time, it may be helpful to think about increasing your intake of iron rich foods such as dark leafy greens, beef, chicken, dark chocolate and natural nuts during this time.
So is it optimal to plan our nutrition around our cycle?
As always, optimal is different for everyone and every woman will experience different symptoms and cravings throughout their menstrual cycle. However, the main take away is that implementing a predominately wholefoods-based diet for majority of meals across the female cycle is important for
overall health. Implementing some minor changes across the month to optimise certain vitamin and
mineral deficiencies that can occur during this time might be a good idea for you and is encouraged to
be considered in moderation.
Making sure you listen to your body, find a routine that works for you and know when you can push
and need to pull back for training and any dietary goals is important during this time. This helps to
work with your cycle as much as you can instead of working against it!
Written By Paige: Female fitness expert at MotivatePT – Reps Level 3 Qualified / Pre & Post Natal