Periods can be many things: a blessing, a monthly nuisance, a relief, and, sometimes, absolute agony. They can bring on breakouts, cramps, mood swings, bloating and nausea. Through highs and lows, a period is something that most menstruating women think about once a month, at the very least.
While it might seem best to curl up on the couch with a hot water bottle and something sweet, managing your symptoms during your menstrual cycle is a month-round job. The good news is that there are lots of delicious things you can eat to help you feel your best during each phase of your cycle — including chocolate.
The menstrual cycle consists of three phases: the follicular (before ovulation), ovulatory and luteal (after ovulation) phases . The duration of each phase, as well as your menstrual cycle length as a whole, will vary from one person to the next. However, the sex hormones that govern our cycles tend to follow predictable patterns throughout, and it is these hormone fluctuations that are behind potentially experiencing symptoms as our cycles progress — including the dreaded premenstrual syndrome, also known as PMS.
To help us break down the best foods to eat during each phase of your menstrual cycle, we spoke with Kirsten Allen, BSc KIN, RD, P.H. Ec., registered dietician and professional home economist.
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Best foods to eat during the follicular phase: lentils
“Day one of your period is considered the start of a new cycle,” says Allen. “This is included in the follicular phase, which continues up until about the mid-point of your menstrual cycle, typically around day 14.” During this phase, blood loss is experienced and iron loss is decreased, meaning it may be beneficial to pay extra attention to incorporating more iron-rich foods into the diet. Lentils are a great source of iron, especially for vegetarians.
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Best foods to eat during the follicular phase: kale
“Pairing plant-sources of iron with a vitamin C source will help to enhance iron absorption further,” explains Allen. Kale is much higher in vitamin C than most other vegetables, containing about four-to-five times as much as spinach. Kale chips are perfect for if you’re craving a salty, crunchy snack.
Best foods to eat during the follicular phase: oranges
It’s no secret that oranges are high in vitamin C, but did you know orange juice also contains electrolytes? If your period is giving you tummy troubles such as nausea, diarrhea and upset stomach, orange juice can help maintain your hydration.
Best foods to eat during the follicular phase: walnuts
“Walnuts are another great source of iron as well as tryptophan, an amino acid that can help the body to produce serotonin,” says Allen. Serotonin is a mood-boosting amino acid that naturally decreases as we enter the latter half of our cycles, which may explain by we experience sweet or salty food cravings.
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Best foods to eat during the ovulatory phase: quinoa
The shortest phase of the cycle is ovulation, which typically lasts 1 to 2 days. During this phase, estrogen levels reach their peak and testosterone surges, which increases female libido and sexual energy. “You feel your best during the middle of your cycle.” says Allen, and your diet should shift to focus on proteins and fat to help sustain positive energy. Quinoa is a complete protein and a great base to added meat, vegetables and dairy.
Best foods to eat during the ovulatory phase: ginger
Ginger is loaded with antioxidants, which helps prevent stress and reduces inflammation. Preemptively taking ginger can help prevent or decrease the duration of pain such as menstrual cramps and nausea.
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Best foods to eat during the ovulatory phase: dark chocolate
“The hormone profile during this stage creates an environment where our stamina and energy levels will be highest,” explains Allen, “and naturally, makes our bodies want to procreate.” Dark chocolate is loaded with minerals that help maintain hormonal balance including magnesium, calcium, zinc, iron and potassium. These minerals are vital for factors like egg and sperm count health, ovulation, endometrial lining thickness and strong bones.
Best foods to eat during the luteal phase: papaya
“It goes without saying that you will likely feel your worst in the luteal phase as you near the end of your cycle,” says Allen. Meaning you could experience mood and sleep disturbances, GI upset, fatigue and bloating. Allen explains that getting enough potassium in your diet, as well as dietary fibre which improves gut health, can help combat bloat related to water retention and excess gas. Papaya contains an enzyme called papain that aids in digestion, and is high in both fibre and water content.
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Best foods to eat during the luteal phase: eggs
“During the second half of your cycle, in addition to experiencing possible PMS symptoms, our bodies also experience increased protein breakdown,” says Allen. Focus on consuming protein-rich foods, such as eggs, during this time.
Best foods to eat during the luteal phase: salmon
“Make sure that you have adequate vitamin D levels throughout your cycle but particularly during the luteal phase as this may help to reduce the severity of any PMS symptoms you might experience,” explains Allen. Salmon is a great source of vitamin D and healthy fats, containing 66 per cent of the daily recommended value of vitamin D in just one 3.5-ounce serving.
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