How to eat during your menstrual cycle

Written by Lucie Villeneuve, nutritionist, M.Sc.

Approximately one-fourth of the population has to deal with periods every month, yet there’s just not enough information on the subject.

Thankfully, things are slowly starting to change, and I wanted to add my contribution by writing about nutrition on your period and which foods to eat during your menstrual cycle.

First of all, let’s talk a little bit about the menstrual cycle.

how to eat during your menstrual cycle

What is the menstrual cycle?

The menstrual cycle describes the sequence of events that enables women’s bodies to prepare for pregnancy each month. It lasts around 28 days and has three different phases. 

The first is the follicular phase, which begins on the first day of your period. Your period marks the evacuation of the uterus lining which was preparing for a possible pregnancy. During this phase, your estrogen and progesterone levels will be low, and your iron levels may be lower from the loss of blood. All of this may make you feel tired and energy-deprived.

Around two weeks into the cycle is the ovulation phase, which is the release of a mature egg from the ovary. During this phase, your estrogen levels will rise, as well as other hormones like LH and FSH, and you’ll typically feel better and more energized.

A few days later, you will enter the luteal phase, which is the last phase of the cycle. Your progesterone levels will rise and then fall if the released egg doesn’t get fertilized and implanted. Your hormone high will start to decline for estrogen, LH, and FSH as well, and you’ll typically experience premenstrual syndrome and have to deal with things like cramps, headaches, mood swings, and food cravings.

So as we’ve just seen, your menstrual cycle involves a lot of hormones that can definitely affect the way you eat. I’m going to focus more on the first few days of the cycle— your period— and the last few days— your premenstrual syndrome— because that’s where your nutrition is most likely to be affected.

How to eat during your menstrual cycle

I would typically recommend keeping on eating mainly healthy, balanced meals throughout your entire menstrual cycle, but here are a few foods that work extra well during your period.

Iron-rich foods

Since you are losing red blood cells that contain iron, you can prevent iron deficiency by eating plenty of iron-rich foods (oyster, mussels, spinach, beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, dark chocolate…) Make sure to pair them with a source of vitamin C to boost their absorption! Check out my article on iron-rich foods if you’re interested in more information.

Omega-3 rich foods

Omega-3s can help reduce period pain so try to boost their intake![1] Fatty fish, algae, nuts, and flax +chia seeds can be good sources of omega 3. Supplementing can be useful if you aren’t able to hit the requirements.

Probiotic-rich foods

To keep your gut microbiome healthy and help prevent vaginal infections that are more likely to happen during your period, make sure to eat plenty of probiotic-rich foods. Yogurt, kefir, kombucha, tempeh, kimchi … they’re all really good options. Check out my article on probiotic-rich foods if you’re interested in more information.

Herbs and spices

herbs and spices

You want to eat in an anti-inflammatory manner all the time but especially on your period. Aside from eating plenty of fruit and veggies, make sure that you’re adding herbs and spices that fight inflammation and have antioxidant effects [2], like ginger, turmeric, black pepper, garlic, rosemary, cinnamon, etc.

Also, make sure to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated in spite of the fluids you’re losing!

To avoid PMS, consuming more calcium-rich foods [3] may also be helpful.

Are there foods you should avoid during your period?

During your period you want to avoid triggering inflammation, so you want to reduce foods like refined sugars, fried foods, and red meat. If you’re intolerant to gluten or dairy, they are good to avoid as well.

As for avoiding PMS, there were some suggestions that coffee could cause more cramping and worse PMS, but studies are mixed on the subject [4,5] so it’s up to you.

Some people also encourage you to increase your fiber intake, decrease your carb intake, and increase your protein intake to prevent PMS, but studies [6,7] showed this to be unnecessary. 

Other than that, if you feel like eating a certain type of food during your period, I would say go for it as it’s not the time to be restricting.

This brings me to my next point:

How to deal with period cravings

woman eating a donut

People mainly experience cravings at the end of their menstrual cycle or right before their period.

This is completely normal: studies [8] actually show that estrogen is inversely associated with leptin, which is the hormone that signals to your body that you are full. Also, leptin is inversely associated with a regular intake of sweet foods and positively correlated with craving sweet carb-rich foods. So when estrogen levels are high, leptin levels are low, so the cravings for sweet foods are high. 

If you’re looking for how to deal with these period cravings and you’re looking for ways to curb them, I think the best way to deal with them is to actually give in to them.  It’s important to understand that your body is going through a complex process. There are major shifts happening in your hormone levels, your mood, and the way you feel, so now is not the time to prevent yourself from eating the food you crave.

I’m never for restricting your cravings and preventing yourself from having the food you desire, but I’m especially against it when it comes to your period cycle. More than ever, ignoring your cravings could lead to an unwanted cycle of restricting and then binging.

You need to honor your body’s needs and signals and enjoy the foods that you are craving.  Now, this doesn’t mean that you should automatically wolf down every pack of chips or cookies you find— you can be mindful about these cravings, enjoy the foods you desire in a focused and portioned manner.

You can also try to figure out what they could mean. For instance, if you’re craving a ton of sweets, you might actually not be giving your body enough whole carb sources.

tiny spoon of pasta

In short…

Your menstrual cycle involves a lot of hormones that can definitely affect the way you eat. Some foods can be helpful to eat during this time, like iron-rich foods, omega-3-rich foods, probiotic-rich foods, herbs and spices…

You may also want to avoid foods that trigger inflammation like overly processed refined high-fat, high-sugar foods.  When it comes to cravings, it’s best to honor them and to eat the foods your body wants in a mindful manner. 


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