We have all seen that stereotypical image of the menstruating woman; the emotional wreck slumped on the sofa with a hot water bottle, tissues and, yes, a huge slab of chocolate. Whilst she’s sometimes a sight of pity, more often she’s the butt of a joke.
But as those of us with wombs will contest, PMS is no laughing matter, and, for many, chocolate is a key part of combating period blues.
But why? Is it scientific fact that chocolate fills some biochemical gap caused by menstruation, or is there a more sociological explanation behind this phenomenon?
“Period Cravings”: Fact or Fiction?
To get the other 50% of the population up to speed; menstruation entails a 28 days long succession of hormonal changes regulating ovulation, starting on day one of your period, and ending the day before the next.
No two cycles are the same, but during the final days the levels of the reproductive hormones progesterone and oestrogen drop significantly, triggering a whole host of biochemical horrors, also known as PMS or premenstrual syndrome. This can include a reduction in serotonin, a surge of the stress hormone, cortisol, and a release of prostaglandin, causing nausea and digestive discomfort. This is not to mention the bleeding and abdominal cramps that kick in when progesterone is at its lowest!
But are these hormone changes the direct cause of monthly chocolate cravings, or is this just one of many coping strategies to deal with the hormonal battle within?
A 2003 study conducted by Zellner et al. found that 60% of American women who craved chocolate did so while they were premenstrual, suggesting a correlation. However, when the same study was conducted on a sample of Spanish women, the figure dropped to 24% despite them having similar oestrogen and progesterone levels.
There may be a positive trend between chocolate craving and menstruation, but so far research has only suggested that this is a culture-bound correlation, not universal causation.
Yet, there is reason to think that this mythologised hypothesis would make sense. For example, the drop in oestrogen and progesterone can cause fatigue which in turn makes us turn to caffeine and simple carbohydrates. Where can these be found? Chocolate.
Additionally, cocoa’s rich array of minerals could help PMS symptoms: potassium to ease cramps, iron to boost haemoglobin levels and magnesium which has been shown to alleviate nausea. But again, there is no scientific evidence that consuming chocolate alleviates PMS pain. You would have to consume a dangerous volume of chocolate to notice any change!
A Self-fulfilling Prophecy
But why has chocolate become our default period snack? Dietitian Melanie McGrice believes the answer may rest in a complex history of social conditioning; the pseudo-scientific theory being perpetuated by the media, film, television and advertising industries.
Firstly, ‘classical conditioning’, a psychological theory based on association, comes into play. Think Pavlov’s Dog but with chocolate. When we are regularly exposed to images of chocolate and menstruation together, we encode the information as one. Subsequently, when our period comes, the idea of eating chocolate is cued up in our brain, triggering the craving.
A process called operant conditioning then enters the scene, for when we eat that chocolate we are rewarded with that delicious taste and silky texture we love so much. If this brings us joy for even for a brief moment, the behaviour is positively reinforced and, naturally, we want more!
Yet, there is a strange, sociological double standard lurking in the background of this argument. While the media perpetuates the image of the chocolate guzzling hormonal woman, it also demonizes ‘empty calories’ and demands adults watch their weight.
In a sense, the media presents being on your period as a get out of jail free card for the social pressure of weight-loss it tries so hard to maintain. When, according to a 2019 YouGov study, 1 in 5 UK adults report worrying about their body image due to social media, no wonder the opportunity is taken up.
Perhaps if we encouraged more food freedom, and more blissful moments of savouring our favourite chocolate, we would feel less need to find excuses, like periods, to enjoy chocolate.
Should I be eating chocolate on my period?
Chocolate is no magic cure and, period or not, over indulgence will impact your health. But, like all things in life, moderation and quality is key. You want to enjoy chocolate, not regret it!
Research has shown that consuming excess chocolate during your period could actually exacerbate PMS symptoms. The high percentage of fats and sweeteners present in most mainstream chocolates can trigger nausea, particularly when you eat too much too quickly. Additionally, cocoa’s natural caffeine can cause your abdominal muscles to contract, intensifying period cramps while excess sugar plunges your hormones into even more chaos!
It’s not all doom and gloom though. Opting for a 70% or above dark craft chocolate may be your key to reaping chocolate’s comforting rewards without the adverse impacts!
Craft chocolate doesn’t contain all the hyper-processed fats found in mass chocolate suppliers and is generally lower in sugar, relying on the quality of the cocoa bean rather than the intensity of the sweetener to deliver amazing flavour! The more pure the chocolate, the less risk of abdominal inflammation. As craft chocolate is also often richer and less diluted with oils and additives, portion control becomes easier. You can eat less and still kick the craving, saving you from the discomfort of bingeing.
Whether or not there is a scientific link between chocolate craving and menstrual cycles, biochemical or socio-psychological, the bottom line is this: you don’t need a hormonal excuse to ‘deserve’ chocolate; you just have to enjoy it!