Being a woman is pretty darn great—just ask famous Saturday Night Live comedian Gilda Radner. "Women can cry, they can wear cute clothes, and they're the first to be rescued off sinking ships," she joked in one of her best-remembered monologs. Even so, you'd be hard pressed to find a woman who wouldn't trade in all those awesome perks the day her period rolls around. And that's because PMS side effects aren't just pesky; for many, they're downright debilitating—so much so that one British company recently announced their plans to create an official "period policy" where women staffers can take time off to nurse their cramps and relax without dipping into their sick or personal days. (PSA: If your cramps are crazy-extreme, though, you should consider speaking to your doctor. Excruciating cramps can be a sign of endometriosis.) There is a silver lining, though. Experts have identified a number of things you should avoid because they can make symptoms like bloating and cramps worse. Aside from things like smoking and stress, consuming certain foods — many of which you likely crave during that time of the month — can make your period matters worse.
To help you better cope with the most painful and annoying aspect of your period, we checked in with the experts to find out which foods are most apt to leave women feeling miserable during Mother Nature's monthly visit. Read on to find out which foods you should avoid during your period — and discover some tasty swaps to quell your cravings, too!
"You may have heard that calcium helps with cramps, but that's not the case when it comes from dairy," warns registered dietitian Isabel Smith. "Dairy naturally contains arachidonic acids, that stimulate prostaglandins (hormone-like substances) that can intensify menstrual cramps." So if Advil tends to be your BFF, ditch the yogurt and milk à la Khloe Kardashian and load up on other sources of the nutrient like edamame, greens, nuts, and chia seeds, suggests Smith.
When you're craving milk in your smoothie or cereal…
One cup fortified soymilk
Calcium content: 30% daily value
One cup cow's milk
Calcium content: 30% daily value
And if your go-to PMS treat is something cold and sweet like ice cream, pick up a pint of our favorite dairy-free frozen desserts!
"When women lose blood during their period, they're also losing iron, which is why many ladies are left feeling rundown and tired," Smith tells us. But fight back the urge to size up to a venti to fight the fatigue. "Caffeine causes blood vessels to constrict, and that includes those that feed the uterus. When this happens, it can bring on more intense cramps," Smith explains. Aside from steering clear of things like coffee, tea, and soda, be sure to avoid hidden sources of caffeine (like chocolate, coffee- and chocolate-flavored snacks, as well as certain nutrition bars, multivitamins, and vitamin-infused beverages)—especially if you're period often leaves you doubled over in pain. If you can't perk up without a dietary crutch, at least make the switch to half-caf or decaf beverages (both of which still contain a bit of caffeine).
When you're craving a coffee…
Starbucks tall decaf coffee
Caffeine content: 13-19 milligrams
Starbucks tall regular coffee
Caffeine content: 260 milligrams
Does your period leave you looking more bloated than a pufferfish that just guzzled a gallon of water? Your love for all things salty may be to blame. "In the days leading up to your period, your body begins storing sodium and fluids—and when you're already bloated, eating high-salt foods will only result in more water retention," warns Smith. If your hankering for salty deliciousness is too hard to ignore, pair it with an extra cup of water (or better yet, some slimming detox water) and a second food that's a natural diuretic (like asparagus, parsley, beets, lettuce, and ginger). Looking for low-sodium alternatives to some of your favorite foods can be another effective way to keep your stomach flat, especially during your period.
When you're craving fries…
McDonald's Medium World Famous Fries
Salt content: 190 milligrams
Arby's Medium Curly Fries
Salt content: 1,250 milligrams
Eat This! Tip
Since fast food fries can be laden with carbs (another nutrient that can make your period more hellish), consider sizing down to a small or kid's size order.
CARB LADEN DISHES
"A week or two before your period, hormone levels change. Estrogen levels increase and progesterone levels decrease. These changing hormone levels can cause your body to retain more water than normal, explains Alissa Rumsey, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "And like excess salt, consuming too many carby foods can make the period bloating worse."
When you're craving a big bowl of pasta…
One cup of zucchini noodles
Carb content: 4 grams
One cup conventional pasta
Carb content: 29 – 46 grams
If your period often leaves your energy zapped, you may have heard that upping your intake of iron-rich foods can help. But before you load up on red meat (one of the most potent sources of the stuff), consider this: Like dairy, burgers, meatballs, and taco meat all contains arachidonic acids. That means you may be boosting your energy while simultaneously worsening your cramps. Ouch! "Something like a chickpea burger or a fresh wild salmon filet will provide some iron along with anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, too, making it a smart swap," Smith tells us. Pair either option with some green leafy vegetables for an additional dose of energy-boosting iron.
When you're craving a burger…
Chickpea burger (made with ¼ cup chickpeas) on a whole grain Sandwich Thin and ½ cup broccoli
Iron content: 22%
Beef burger on a conventional bun with a side salad
Iron content: 20%
"Large amounts of alcohol can slow stomach emptying, which can contribute to feeling heavy and bloated you may already experience during your period," warns Rumsey. "Plus, alcohol also can cause you to retain water, so you can feel more puffy and bloated. This is exacerbated by alcohol's diuretic effect, as a dehydrated body will retain more water than a hydrated one. Counteract this by keeping your alcohol intake to a moderate amount of one or two drinks per night, and alternating each boozy drink with a glass of water," she adds.
When you're craving an indulgent drink…
One of these hydrating, healthy weight loss smoothies.
Shots, beer, wine, bubbly, mixed drinks, etc.
HIGH SUGAR FOODS
Processed, sugary foods like cake, cookies, candy bars, and soda (and even hidden sugar bombs like flavored yogurts and BBQ sauce) can shift levels of estrogen and testosterone, decreasing serotonin levels, explains Smith. "Pair that with the fact that sugar causes blood sugar levels to rise and drop, and you've got the perfect recipe for some crazy mood swings. Plus, too much sugar also makes you feel extra run-down and tired."
When you're craving a sweet chocolaty treat…
12 pieces (40 grams) of Green & Black's 85% Cacao Bar
Sugar content: 8 grams
Dove Dark Chocolate bar (40.8 grams)
Sugar content: 19 grams