You know the scenario: It’s the second half of your menstrual cycle–your Week 3 or Week 4–and the cravings for crunchy, gooey, sweet, fatty and/or salty high-calorie foods are kicking in. You try your best to resist, but you cave to the crave and soon find yourself surrounded by an entourage of empty chip bags, ice cream buckets, pizza boxes, candy wrappers and fast food containers.
You get disappointed with yourself for your lack of willpower, then disgusted with the way you look, convinced you’ve put on 10 pounds overnight. So, right then and there you decide you’re going to cut yourself off from all snacks for the rest of your cycle. Then, you go one step further and decide that to make up for all the extra fat and calories you consumed in your Week 3 or Week 4 snack attack, you’re going to go on a crash diet and eat as little as humanly possible.
I’m here to advise you–and even to plead with you–don’t do it! Here’s why:
During the second half of your cycle, progesterone makes many women more sensitive to drops in blood sugar between meals. This means you can experience sudden anger, irritation, frustration, sadness, teariness, fatigue and fuzzy-headedness out of the blue–all because you didn’t eat. Even if you don’t become more sensitive to blood sugar drops from progesterone, chances are, once you go without eating long enough, your blood sugar will eventually hit the skids, causing the same symptoms.
Oh, you might think it’s just PMS rearing its ugly, misshapen head. But, if you’re cutting yourself off from food, then it’s likely bottomed-out blood sugar to blame.
I should know. I just made this exact mistake.
During this cycle, my Week 3 and Week 4 cravings have gone into overdrive and I’ve found myself hoovering every snack food from every corner of our kitchen. Add to that, I just discovered this show on the Cooking Channel, Carnival Eats, that features irresistibly naughty food sold at carnivals (like a doughnut ice cream sandwich–genius!–and deep-fried pizza–because why not?) and my progesterone-fueled food cravings are trying to convince me to use the show as inspiration for my next 20 meals.
Since I was getting sick of my lack of willpower and feeling as bloated as a pufferfish, I decided that to make up for my excessive snacking I’d go in the other direction and rein in my food intake. Bad idea. It took just a few hours of reduced eating before I wanted to punch someone in the throat for no good reason. Once I realized the problem–lack of food–I ate a sensible, healthy meal and within minutes, I was back to my cheery self.
So, if overeating makes you feel bad and undereating makes you feel bad, what’s the best thing to do in this phase of your cycle when cravings spike?
First, understand what’s happening in your body and brain:
During your Week 3 and Week 4, progesterone revs your appetite and cravings for high-calorie foods. Researchers theorize that this hormone does this as a way to get you to eat more in case you got pregnant during ovulation and now need calories for two.
Also during this time, you have less willpower to resist these food cravings because of two dips in estrogen–one that occurs in the first half of your Week 3 and another that occurs throughout your Week 4. Research shows that when estrogen is on the downswing, it saps your resolve, making it more difficult to stick to good-for-you goals.
On top of all that, this double-dip in estrogen has a tendency to drag down your self-esteem by lowering mood-moderating chemicals in the brain, such as serotonin. As a result, it’s easier to find and focus in on flaws in your appearance–so when you overindulge it tends to fuel negative self-perceptions, such as the “I’m so fat” type of self-talk.
Now that you know when you’re going to be hit with cravings, why you get these food urges, that you’re not going to have the willpower to resist every one of them and you might feel bad about yourself if you go overboard and even worse by overcorrecting and restricting food intake, here’s what I recommend:
Consider pre-planning indulgent snacks. To do this, carefully select your favorite treats ahead of time so you don’t suck up whatever’s nearby willy-nilly without fully enjoying it. And, dole out the portion you feel comfortable eating rather than eat straight from the container. On these cycle weeks, your inner “stop” button gets disconnected, so despite your best intentions you’re more likely to find yourself scraping the bottom of the bag or carton before even realizing you just ate the whole. entire. thing.
I don’t recommend avoiding snacking altogether. Research shows that this tends to make you feel deprived, which can make you want to give up on your snack-free plan and do a complete 180-degree reversal and eat yourself into a snack food coma. Not that this is surprising news. I’ve done it. And, I’m pretty sure at some point, you and every single person you know has, too.
Also key: Keep in mind that if–okay, when–you feel heavier than usual, just like with the amped-up food cravings on these cycle weeks, this is also a side effect of progesterone. This hormone is making you retain water and it can trigger constipation–a duo that can make anyone feel like they’ve packed on a few pounds. So, don’t take it too seriously when you see a bulge in the mirror or the scale goes up slightly.
And, if one day you do end scarfing up more than you intended, don’t beat yourself up. Research shows you typically don’t gain weight from a single blow-out. Just return to more sensible, healthy meals that keep your blood sugar stable punctuated with occasional special, pre-portioned treats that fulfill your progesterone-fueled cravings and you’ll be back on track to having a happier Week 3 and Week 4.