Craving Chocolate to Ease PMS? Blame Society, Not Biology
That insane desire for triple fudge brownies right before your period appears to be a cultural thing, according to an intriguing new study.
You know that crazy-intense choclate bar craving that hits you hard around the time your period is due? You're in good company in the candy aisle; almost 50% of women in the United States say they crave chocolate during their PMS week as well.
Scientists have hypothesized that hormonal fluctuations or nutritional deficiencies may play a role. But new research suggests that a period-related hankering for chocolate is more about the cultural norms of where you live than anything going on in your body.
The new study, published in PLOS ONE, compared survey responses about chocolate cravings, culture, and PMS from 275 undergraduate women at the University at Albany, the State University of New York. The woman were from more than 25 different countries and had diverse backgrounds; researchers specifically recruited participants who were born outside the United States, had parents born outside of the United States, had spent time living in other countries, or primarily spoke a language other than English while growing up.
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When it came to the women’s responses, that diversity made a difference. Foreign-born women weren’t any less likely to say they experienced chocolate cravings in general—but they were significantly less likely than U.S.-born women to believe their menstrual cycle had anything to do with them.
Specifically, 41% of U.S.-born women who grew up speaking another language, and 33% of U.S.-born women who grew up speaking English, reported experiencing chocolate cravings at specific times during their menstrual cycle, compared to only 17% of foreign-born women. What’s more, the foreign-born and second-generation Americans who did report PMS-related chocolate cravings also tended to feel more immersed in U.S. culture than those who did not.
“We are learning more and more that cravings, or at least certain elements of them, may be unique to North America,” says lead author Julia Hormes, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University at Albany, State University of New York.
This isn’t the first study to suggest that PMS-related food cravings are a product of American living, either. Previous research has found that only 28% of Spanish women crave chocolate around the time of their periods, and that only 6% of Egyptian women crave chocolate at all. (Some languages don’t even have a word for cravings, Hormes says.)
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It’s also not the first research to cast doubt on the idea that cravings, in general, are biological. In 2014, Hormes published a similar study, which found that pregnancy cravings seem to be a largely a cultural phenomenon as well. Last year, she also published research showing that pregnancy cravings are a strong predictor of excess weight gain.
All of this doesn’t mean your intense desire for Triple Fudge Chunk brownies on or around the first day of your period isn’t real, Hormes says. But it does probably mean it’s more in your head—and the heads of others around you—than in your hormones or any other part of your body.
“The response isn’t usually very enthusiastic when I tell people it’s nothing physiological,” Hormes jokes. “People tend to prefer that explanation, because it kind of takes away the personal responsibility.” (It is worth pointing out that Hormes’ research focuses specifically on chocolate—and that some experts do believe that fluctuating estrogen and progesterone levels may play a role in feeling extra hungry the week before your period.)
Hormes hopes that by pointing to culture as a major contributor of specific food urges, she can help women understand them better and make smarter choices. “It’s really about how we view foods like chocolate—high-fat, high-sugar, tasty foods that we tend to vilify and make them taboo,” she says. “I think women are particularly susceptible to that message because of expectations about ideal beauty and being skinny.”
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“The more you try to stay away from a food, the more likely you are to start obsessing over it,” she adds. “And our culture encourages that at certain times—like during our periods when we feel crummy, or during pregnancy—it’s socially acceptable to treat ourselves when we might otherwise not.”
Hormes encourages women to strive for healthy relationships with food, including chocolate, at all times of the month. “Everything in moderation: Have that piece of chocolate, make sure it’s high-quality, and don’t let yourself go overboard,” she says.