Your PMS cravings hit like clockwork. A week or so before your period the desire for brownies and ice cream or chips and salsa kicks in with a vengeance. One day you’re perfectly satisfied all morning long with your protein bar and apple for breakfast and the next you’re reaching for your lunch at 10 am.

By mid afternoon your stomach is rumbling and your brain feels fuzzy. Without even realizing it, you’ve devoured enough Hersey’s snack bars to equal a full sized bar. (And you don’t even like milk chocolate!) Your normal solutions to stop the evening munchies just don’t cut it. Thank goodness you no longer keep emergency cookie dough in the freezer.

Then suddenly, just before your period starts, the hunger subsides and you start to feel like yourself again.

There has to be something wrong, you say to yourself. It can’t be normal to feel like you want to eat anything that isn’t nailed down.

Actually PMS cravings are very normal. Your hormones are just doing their jobs. Hormones are chemical messengers in the body, sending signals throughout the body to initiate a myriad of jobs. In the case of your monthly cravings, the hormone progesterone is peaking just after ovulation and telling the body to prepare the reproductive system…just in case.

Our basal metabolic rates are the highest just before our period starts. Research shows that the increase in progesterone and the changes it triggers increase our metabolic rate by about 900 calories over about a roughly three day period. Your cravings are a direct response to the body doing the work it was meant to do.

That doesn’t mean you have to be a slave to your cycle. If you understand what your body is doing you can set yourself up for a smoother hormonal ride all month long. Here’s my four-step plan to work with your hormones and not against them.

  1. Stop dieting. Being in a constant state of deprivation and starvation is the worst thing you can do for your hormones, health and happiness. If you’re already depleted when your body goes into overdrive it’s going to amplify the effect of your progesterone fueled hunger. Your body’s drive for survival will quickly overpower any willpower you have. Give yourself a fighting chance by making sure you are eating at least four times a day and not practicing severe caloric restriction. Research has also shown that eating as little as 300 calories per day under your maintenance level can cause a loss of muscle mass and negatively impact your metabolism.
  2. Balance your plate. I always ask clients, “Where is your protein?” but that doesn’t mean you don’t need fat and carbs as well. Fat is extremely important for healthy hormones because cholesterol is a hormone building block. Plus it helps increase satiety and doesn’t impact blood sugar. (That helps keep you off the insulin roller coaster.) Lose the fat free creamers and free cottage cheese and go for the real deal to help curb hunger. Carbs are an important source of energy, especially for the brain. The brain can’t store fuel the way muscles can. When glucose is diverted to the reproductive system for energy, your brain will drive you to find the quickest source of carbs possible. (Like the donuts someone left in break room.) You need to be proactive in eating plenty of whole food fiber rich carbs like oats, beans, fruit and vegetables so you’ll be less likely to mindlessly eat half a sleeve of Thin Mints while making dinner.
  3. Plan for the surge. You know it’s coming. Don’t let it take you by surprise. Track your cycle on an app or in your fitness journal so you can increase your calories for a few days. You might also consider altering your workouts that week too. The luteal phase of your cycle may not be the best time to do long steady state workout. (Meaning this is not the time for a four-hour hike or back-to-back classes at the gym.) Stick to your strength training plan but keep cardio short with interval workouts instead of extended sessions on the elliptical or long runs.
  4. Meditate daily. Stress always makes cravings worse, not just because you seek comfort food but because it depletes the brain. Stress is hard work on the brain and when the brain runs out of fuel it demands more – immediately! If we can lower stress we can preserve fuel and minimize emotional eating. Meditation doesn’t take all the stress in your world away. However, it is highly effective at helping you to be better prepared to deal with it and keep its effects in check. Schedule meditation time or put it on your daily to do list to help you form a consistent meditation practice. If you’re not sure how to start meditation I highly recommend the Buddhify app. It has a huge selection of guided meditations to get you started, some as short as four minutes. You can also check out the book 10% Happier (from my Refill Your Cup Reading List) to help you understand what meditation is and isn’t.

The struggle is real but it doesn’t have to be as much of a struggle. If you know what your body is trying to do and say than you can respond in kind, with kindness. Think of these steps as critical parts of your self care rituals. If you do, not only should your cravings be easier to navigate but you should also find some bonus benefits to your fitness results.

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