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Menstruation & Dieting- Mastering Your Cycle
If you’re like most women and tend to dread that week before your period hits, you aren’t alone. Hormones are running wild and it may start to feeling as though nothing you do is helping alleviate the symptoms. Cramps set in, fatigue rages on, and the only action you want to take is staying curled up in your bed.
When it comes to nutrition and workout programming, men and women are generally quite the same. Both genders require a certain level of protein each day to optimize their program, both genders should be doing a few key lifts in their program to make maximum progress, and both genders need to be choosing from a similar group of healthy foods.
With this said, there is one place where the two genders differ heavily: hormones. Your hormonal profile is very different from that of your boyfriend or husband at just about every stage of the month, most so in that premenstrual period.
Learning how to use these hormone changes to your advantage, however – how to structure your nutrition and fitness plan to accommodate this is what will help you get through the month feeling and looking your best.
Let’s give you a brief primer on every stage of your cycle along with what you need to be doing through each phase.
The Follicular Phase
Your cycle begins with the follicular phase, which is the phase that comes right after your body stops bleeding from menstruation. Chances are, this phase is not the phase you are most concerned about. Bloating is gone, your energy levels are back up, and you once again are feeling notably great about how you look and feel. Hooray! Your period is over.
There are a few points to keep in mind both in the gym and the kitchen, though. First, because you tend to have the best pain tolerance in this phase, now is the time to blow up those PRs.
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If you’ve been dying to do some heavy squats and see what you are capable of, this is the time you are most likely to perform your best. Plan your workouts accordingly. Especially push yourself during this time as your body can handle it.
On the nutrition front, your body will be more sensitive to insulin at this point, so don’t fear those carbs! Load your IIFYM plan with healthy sources of carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes, brown rice, oatmeal, beans, along with fruits and vegetables.
When we plan our IIFYM diets for our female clients, we always ensure they are stocked up on the great carb energy during this time. It’s also an excellent way to kick-start the metabolic rate and ensure optimal fat burning takes place during the rest of the month.
Once the follicular phase is past, it’s time to move into the ovulatory phase. This phase, as you may have guessed is when ovulation takes place and lasts just a day or so.
In this phase you’re also likely to feel exceptionally strong, so keep those heavy lifts coming. Be careful though because you may be at a slightly increased risk of injury during this period, so make sure to use excellent form and that you have proper footwear on.
Consider adding another 100-200 calories to your day, getting those calories from a healthy mix of nutrients.
In the kitchen, you might find that you’re feeling slightly hungrier at this point as your metabolism is increasing, so feed your body accordingly. If using an IIFYM approach, consider adding another 100-200 calories to your day, getting those calories from a healthy mix of nutrients. Your insulin sensitivity isn’t quite as high at this point as it was during the follicular phase, so you’ll want to avoid overdoing it on the carb front.
In fact, one of our favorite foods to recommend during this time when we design IIFYM meal plans for our clients is a slice or thin crust pizza using a lean protein source like chicken. Pizza, when you choose properly, is actually a great blend of proteins, carbs, and fats, so it fits your IIFYM macros quite well during ovulation.
The Luteal Phase
Ovulation is over and now you are moving into the phase that most women know all too well: the luteal phase, otherwise known as PMS.
Some women may not experience the dreaded symptoms until about a week into the luteal phase and then only experience symptoms for about 5-7 days before menstruation starts. In which case, others may be less fortunate and notice symptoms coming on much earlier, lasting for nearly the full 14 days before their period hits.
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What’s happening during this phase? (like you need to be told!)
• Your body temperature is increasing
• You’ll feel fatigue setting in
• Your body will start retaining water to a larger degree
• You may find your muscles and joints ache more than normal
• Your focus and concentration may be down
• Cravings may begin to set in
• Hunger will be rearing its ugly head
All in all, you won’t be feeling quite like yourself and you definitely won’t feel like hitting the gym for a workout.
Not to worry, though, there are ways to work around this, especially when using an IIFYM plan.
First, realize that because your body temperature is higher, you’ll be experiencing fatigue and lower muscular endurance. This isn’t the time to do a high rep intense weight lifting session. Your body is just not prepared for that right now.
You can still reap benefits from backing away at this point. Why not take the time to learn a new exercise or two? Work on using light weight (or no weight at all) and perfecting your form. This way, once the two weeks are up, your form will be perfect and you’ll be ready to start increasing the weight on that exercise as you move back into the follicular phase. Use this time to learn the move and it’ll work to your benefit.
Time away from the intense sessions will not only give your body a better chance to recover but also help you avoid overuse injuries as well.
Likewise, you might also use this time to work on some yoga-based training. Yoga is excellent at this stage as it’ll help lessen the discomfort you feel due to PMS due to it being lower intensity so it’ll give your body a bit of a break. Just avoid hot yoga, whatever you do. Since your body temperature is already raised, chances are, hot yoga is going to feel uncomfortable.
Taking time off from the intense sessions will not only give your body a better chance to recover but also help you avoid overuse injuries as well. All in all, this can be great and should be seen as a benefit, not a drawback. If you structure your workouts properly during this time, focusing on these lower intensity activities, there is no reason to feel guilty for not hitting the gym and maintaining your status quo. Build this natural shift into your program and it’ll be a new part of your routine.
Ice cream? Chicken wings? Donuts? The women we work with all report these are the top foods crossing their mind at this point as they move further into the luteal phase and cravings start to set in. Most women will experience at least a couple cravings during their cycle and usually it’s not for the healthiest of foods. The good news is, IIFYM allows you to deal with these.
A few items that you should keep in mind
First, know that your metabolic rate is increasing, therefore (lucky you!) you do have a bit more calorie wiggle room to accommodate food cravings. We find that with the women we work with on IIFYM plans, they almost always do better during the PMS period by adding 200-300 calories to their diet plan. By adding this in, you prevent overeating when you toss your entire diet out the window. Sometimes a little damage control by adding a few more calories keeps everything under control.
Since we use the IIFYM approach with our clients, we generally build in a bit of freedom and flexibility to use some of these calories on a treat per day that they crave. Note this doesn’t mean you should be eating 1000 calories worth of ice cream. It means allowing yourself to indulge in a small bowl that’s about 250 calories worth. Portion control is key here. While IIFYM does allow you to eat foods you desire, healthy foods should still be prioritized.
By removing those foods you crave from the ‘off limits’ list and doing away with the guilt you associate with eating them (by including them in your plan!), you can gain control over your food intake during this time.
It’s also good to note that your brain chemistry may be slightly different during this phase as well. You may not be making as much serotonin in the brain naturally, which is a neurotransmitter that puts you in a ‘feel good state’ more or less. Basically, serotonin is what boosts your mood, calms your mind, and helps you enjoy yourself. You make less of this during the PMS period, so is it any wonder you’re moody and don’t feel like doing much?
You can help counteract this however by eating foods that help to boost serotonin naturally in the body. Foods rich in tryptophan will do the trick. Try working turkey, skim milk, soybeans, and pumpkin seeds into an IIFYM plan. We find that the women we work with on IIFYM who include these as a regular part of their menu experience a boost in their overall mood state during this time.
Time to Shift Your Macro Focus
Finally, keep in mind that during the next couple weeks ahead, your insulin sensitivity won’t quite be what it was beforehand. Meaning, it’s time to back off those super high carb foods for the most part. Restructure your IIFYM plan accordingly.
Now is the time in the month to focus on healthier sources of fats. Crave nut butter? Indulge, guilt free! Have a need for cheese? You can have a slice and just work it into your IIFYM macros. Healthy fats are what your metabolism will best utilize during this point and will help you avoid the risk of actually gaining body fat during this time.
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When we create IIFYM meal plans for our women clients, we tend to shift the macro breakdown recommendations from one that’s higher in carbs, moderate in protein, and low to moderate in fat during the first phase of the menstrual cycle to one that’s moderate in protein, high in fat, and low in carbs during the second phase of the menstrual cycle. This tends to help everything run very smoothly.
The Importance Of Meal Prepping
One thing that you want to heavily focus during this point of time, especially on an IIFYM approach, is getting your food prepared and ready for you ahead of time. During the PMS period, as you likely know, cooking may be the last action you feel up to doing.
You’re exhausted and only want to lay on the couch. If food isn’t readily available, chances are high, you’ll be calling for take-out.
There is no need to make any irrational decisions during this time, slashing your calories or making huge adjustments to your macros.
Take some time during the follicular phase when you are feeling your best to prepare as much of your meals in advance as you can. Remember you can pre-grill all the protein sources you need and simply wrap them in plastic wrap and place in the freezer to be used at a later time when you need them. Have plenty of options on hand and you can easily work them into any IIFYM plan.
Likewise, you can even prepare whole dishes – soups, stews, and casseroles and put those in freezer safe containers, making for an incredibly easy weeknight dinner.
What About the Simple Options
Also, consider relying on easy to prepare foods that you can whip up in a hurry for meals and snacks. Canned tuna and salmon, canned beans, fresh fruits, bagged salads, oatmeal, Greek yogurt, and raw vegetables with hummus are all great options that require virtually no prep work at all and will help you make healthier choices when you’re too tired to cook.
Each can easily be worked into any IIFYM plan. Our female IIFYM clients are well trained in how to meal prep properly, so they hardly ever have a difficult time sticking with their meal plan.
Yet, if you live with another person, be it your significant other, family member, or roommate, now might be the time to ask for help from them. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you’re feeling too exhausted to cook.
During the premenstrual period, there’s a good chance that at some point or another, you’re going to be dealing with some emotional eating. Even our most dedicated IIFYM clients have moments where their emotions get the best of them and they dive head-first into that pint of their favorite ice cream. We understand!
The best way to deal with this? Forgiveness. That’s right – just forgive yourself. Don’t dwell on it or get hung up thinking you’re a failure. The only issue that would make you a failure is if you let that case of emotional eating carry on for the next month because you see no point in continuing to diet.
It’s best to have a short memory and move on. Remember that the sooner you get back on your IIFYM diet, the less of an impact that incident is going to have on your progress moving forward.And beyond that, if you’re using one of our IIFYM plans, the good news is that you can simply track what you eat and usually work it into your macros for the day, and if not for the day, for the week. This will help prevent any unwanted weight gain because of it.
Finally, the last item I want to touch upon during this time is the weight changes that you may be experiencing on the scale. First, if you can, I would recommend that you put off weighing yourself until you are a few days back into your follicular phase once again. Almost all women will notice the scale go up by a few pounds during the coming week or two ahead as the body begins to retain water due to hormone fluctuations.
Often, this water can look like body fat as it sits right under the skin and may make it seem like all your muscle definition has vanished right before your eyes.
Try to relax if you see this happening because in another week or two, this water will leave and you’ll be back to how you were looking before. There is no need to make any irrational decisions during this time, slashing your calories or making huge adjustments to your macros. Just remind yourself that you have false information at this point and as such, it wouldn’t make sense to make adjustments at this time.
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Be patient and things will return to normal.
If you want to go that extra mile and help deal with some of that water retention, a few tips you can use include:
• Making sure you are drinking at least 8-10 glasses of water per day (which will help minimize the water retention)
• Trying to get some light exercise in, even if you don’t feel up to it – again, yoga can help with this
• Focusing on getting a great night’s sleep every night
• Avoiding foods high in salt, which will only make water retention worse
• Consuming plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables (which are rich in potassium and will help you flush out the water)
• Adding asparagus or celery to your diet, both of which are diuretics
Experiment with a few of these and you should be able to find one or two techniques that do the trick for you.
Finally, the last phase of your cycle is the menstrual phase. This phase marks the end and is where bleeding takes place. Typically lasting five to seven days in most women, you’ll likely notice that many of your PMS symptoms begin to subside as your period gets underway.
Some women may find their symptoms get worse the first day or two their period hits as cramps and fatigue are at their highest point. Yet, as the period wraps up and comes to an end, the severity of their side effects begins to lessen.Any water retention you had should start to clear at this point, making you feel more like yourself and making it more comfortable to exercise.
Along with that, your body temperature will be returning to a more natural state, so you won’t feel as though you’re overheating every time you step into the gym. This can also help to make adding intense activity back in more bearable and worth putting back into your program.
You may still not feel quite ready to go for that PR yet (hold off until closer to ovulation as noted earlier!), but start getting back into your normal strength training and cardio program.
Nutrition Approach at this Stage
On the nutrition side, take note that your metabolic rate may be starting to slow slightly, as your period comes to a close, adjust your IIFYM calorie intake and macros accordingly. When we create our IIFYM plans, we usually encourage waiting until about halfway through the menstruation phase and then cut back by about a hundred calories per day until our clients are back at their starting intake. This eases your body into it and ensures that hunger is kept under control.
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You can slowly begin adding more carbs back into your IIFYM plan as well as insulin sensitivity begins to increase. Once again, be sure to be adding healthy carbs as often as possible. This will best help fuel your activity and keep your body responding well.
Most of all, know that another month is coming to an end and use this time to set some clear goals for what you hope to achieve next month.
While dealing with your menstrual cycle may feel inconvenient, the great news is that when you approach it correctly, it can be more bearable and easier to deal with.
Through proper nutrition and exercise strategies, you can optimize the progress your body makes in the gym and toward any weight loss goals.