The fact that women should eat differently according to their cycle seems obvious when spoken out loud. But when in the thralls of emotional dietary struggles, it’s hard to remember key factors. Such as how the menstrual cycle affects what our bodies need on a nutritional level.
Table of contents
- The Female Cycle and Diet
- Early Follicular or Menstrual Phase
- Proliferative or Later Follicular Phase
- Ovulation or Early Luteal Phase
- Luteal Phase
- To Conclude
As a woman, I had totally forgotten about this. And during the early stages of my struggles with food addictions, at certain points in the month, it felt like all my cravings would team up against me and hit as hard as they could. No matter how “good” I had been. It felt like starting all over again each time and I would despair.
Funny thing is that I still have those days, but simply understanding what is happening in my body made the world of difference for my coping ability. And of course, realising what the cause was also allowed me to further research and find means of fueling my body in a natural, healthy way. Once my body gets what it needs, it stops demanding things from me. Things that my brain would interpret as sugar, gluten, and whatever other “nonsense” food I had recently been exposed to. Plus, adapting my diet according to my cycle has also been a great way of ensuring variety.
The Female Cycle and Diet
The female cycle consists of four phases:
- Early Follicular Phase (The bloodloss phase, days 1-6)
- Later Follicular Phase (The feel-good phase, days 7-14)
- Early Luteal Phase (The hungry phase, days 15-22)
- Late Luteal Phase (The… um… less pleasant phase, days 23-28)
The days mentioned above are a loose guideline. Everyone has different cycles and the time frames can vary from woman to woman. This breakdown is also based on the average female cycle of 28 days. In reality, a woman’s menstrual cycle could be between 21 and 35. But the length of time is not as important as the consistency. As long as a woman’s cycle is normal for her, she should not have to worry about anything.
With regards to how a woman should eat throughout her cycle, there are many factors to take into account and appetite will differ from woman to woman. However, as a guideline, we can look at extra nutrient loss or requirements, as well as the rise and fall of oestrogen and progesterone levels. Two of the key appetite-affecting hormones. Generally, oestrogen is a mood booster and appetite reducer. Whereas progesterone, also known as a balancing hormone, relaxes the body while increasing metabolism and appetite.
I also just want to add that supplements, while useful for occasional nutrient shortfalls, can never compensate for an unbalanced diet. So rather than spending resources on finding a supplement, use that time, energy and money on getting the correct whole foods into your diet.
Early Follicular or Menstrual Phase
What is Happening in the Body
The start of bleeding marks day one of the cycle. During this phase of the cycle, a woman’s body is enduring a controlled inflammatory response while shedding the uterine lining, and a need to eat might come with extra nutrient loss and lower hormone levels. So don’t be afraid to fuel your body with some supportive foods if that’s what it is asking for. Although some may instead experience a loss of appetite, as a result of possible symptoms such as nausea, fatigue and pain. So the best thing one can do during this phase is to just be kind to the body. Rest, listen and replenish.
Here are the key points to remember:
- Inflammation is common, causing bloating, pain and general discomfort.
- Blood loss results in extra nutrient loss, such as iron and zinc.
- Oestrogen and progesterone levels are at their lowest.
Ideal foods to Eat During Menstration
Once you realise what is happening, you can sustain yourself accordingly. If the body is experiencing inflammation, it makes sense to eat anti-inflammatory foods. If you are losing a bit more iron through blood loss, then again, it’s logical to eat iron-rich foods during this time.
It’s also a good idea to support your mind. So feel free to add some healthy comfort foods to your days. But it is very important that these are “no-nonsense” comfort foods. Foods that are sugary, fried or processed have inflammatory effects and if you relapse at this point the side effects of menstruation could just get worse.
Some examples of beneficial foods to eat during this phase are:
- Anti-Inflammatory foods: Leafy greens, spices such as turmeric, almonds and walnuts, fatty fish such as salmon, tuna or sardines, olive oil, avos.
- Iron-rich foods: Free-range eggs, organic red meat, organs such as liver, some leafy greens like spinach and kale, seafood, legumes such as lentils or white beans (if in your diet).
- Healthy comfort foods: Sweet potatoes, warm bowl of oats, dark chocolate (not dark milk chocolate, real dark chocolate, remember that there are no loopholes when it comes to diet!).
Proliferative or Later Follicular Phase
What is Happening in the Body
The body is done shedding and is moving on to start building a new uterine wall lining. Oestrogen levels start going up as the body prepares an egg to be released during the mid-cycle ovulation. Inflammation and its side effects are gone and testosterone is also on the rise, making the body feel energized and confident.
Higher oestrogen levels during this stage of the women’s cycles may result in a lighter appetite, so they may eat less. However, a healthy nutrient intake is still important in order to promote healthy ovulation and progesterone production for the following phase. Some women may also experience dehydration as a result of higher hormone levels. So remember to drink plenty of water and incorporate nutrient-rich sea salt into the diet.
Ideal Foods to Eat During the Proliferative Phase
Although the appetite might feel a bit more suppressed, your body generally uses carbohydrates more efficiently during this phase. Part of the reason you may feel more energized. So adding some yummy, healthy carbs at this point is a good idea. Natural hormone stabilising nutrients, such as flaxseed, will aid the body in producing and excreting the right quantities of oestrogen and progesterone. And of course, any nourishing that you can provide for the uterine lining and ovarian follicles, such as through consuming extra zinc, will be well received by the body.
Here are some ideas for beneficial foods:
- Quality carbohydrates: Sweet potatoes, whole grain oats, quinoa, bananas, beetroot, apples and many vegetables and fruits. Remember, the best carbs for your health are the ones that are eaten in the closest-to-nature state as possible.
- Flaxseed: Can be added to most meals either whole or ground up and will assist in balancing oestrogen levels.
- Zinc: Poultry, red meats, nuts and many legumes are a good source of zinc. But if you really want to treat yourself, oysters contain more zinc per serving than any other food. (It is possible that oysters are a bit of an aphrodisiac as well, but that’s a topic for another article!)
Ovulation or Early Luteal Phase
What is Happening in the Body
The uterine lining is continuing to grow as it prepares for implantation, and progesterone levels start to climb while oestrogen levels decline. The climb in progesterone means that the body’s core temperature will rise, resulting in a faster metabolism. So at this point in the cycle women will most likely start wanting to eat more than before and at the same time experience lower energy levels. And as oestrogen levels rise our carbohydrate tolerance drops so the body starts to want fats for fuel instead.
Another very important element of this phase is that any excess or used hormones created during the previous phase will need to be eliminated.
Ideal Foods to Eat During the Early Luteal Phase
According to what is happening, the body wants more fuel in the form of fats. Plus, it could probably use some antioxidant support to help eliminate the unnecessary hormones left from the previous phase. Then of course, when we see the word “eliminate” we should automatically think “fibre”, especially now when the relaxation effect of progesterone could slow down bowel movement. And likewise, when we see the word “fibre” we should think about water intake.
So, examples of great foods to bear in mind now are:
- Healthy fats: Avo (this dairy-free avo cocoa mousse recipe might make your day ), nuts, olive or coconut oil (avoid vegetable oils as a standard), salmon.
- Antioxidant rich foods: Berries, cabbage, kale, beetroot, spinach, dark chocolate.
- Fibre foods: Raspberries, pears, green peas, broccoli, potato, quinoa, oatmeal, chia seeds.
- Lots of clean, healthy water.
What is Happening in the Body
These are the days before your period. The body has realised that it is not been successfully impregnated and is starting to prepare itself for another round. Both oestrogen and progesterone levels are dropping, generally with oestrogen leading the decline, leaving progesterone as the more dominant hormone.
As the hormone levels plummet, so can energy levels and general mood. PMS and all its aunties, such as headaches and cramps, may pay a visit, while appetite levels are also high. So during this section of the cycle, many women end up feeling like they want to eat more but are also feeling lazy. At this point, it is especially important to remember what is happening and that the body is simply in need of some nourishing downtime.
Ideal Foods to Eat During the Luteal Phase
The appetite is likely to be high as the body prepares for hormone level drops and bleeding. And PMS could be at the forefront of the entire movement. Foods rich in calcium have been known to play a role in PMS symptom relief. Magnesium (along with vitamin D) is also needed to help the body absorb calcium. Plus it assists the calming effects of the progesterone left in the body. And at this stage, the body is still working on metabolizing and removing hormones, so keep eating those antioxidant containing foods.
Lastly, eating good sources of protein during the Luteal phase is highly recommended. Especially, poultry and seafood which also fuels the body with vitamin B6, aiding in the creation of serotonin or the happy hormone.
Some food examples are:
- Calcium rich foods: Milk, yogurt and many dairy products (although try to keep it as unprocessed as possible), and many dark green leafy vegetables, such as kale and spinach.
- Magnesium rich foods: Avo, cacao, nuts and seeds, dark green leafy vegetables.
- Quality protein: Most free range organic meats, poultry and eggs. Wild caught seafood and legumes.
As young children, the male and female dietary requirements are much the same. But as we age our bodies go through different physical and hormonal changes resulting in the development of unique nutritional requirements. And our diets need to evolve to meet these ever-changing nutritional necessities.
And remember, the human body is actually pretty smart. It knows what it is doing and what it needs. All we need to do is learn to trust and listen to it.