Does “That Time of The Month” Really Affect Weight Loss?

Does “That Time of The Month” Really Affect Weight Loss?

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
by Trinh Le, MPH, RD
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Does “That Time of The Month” Really Affect Weight Loss?

Not surprisingly, the weight-loss journey is different for everyone, but did you know that your gender can drive these differences? Women experience monthly fluctuations in hormones that  affect them physically and emotionally. If you’re a woman trying to lose weight, “that time of the month” is another layer to deal with in order to succeed.

What Is PMS, and does it really exist?

“PMS,” or premenstrual syndrome, is a unicorn phenomena used by women who need an excuse to be Cruella de Vil, right? Wrong! PMS is a diagnosable cluster of symptoms of physiological and psychological changes that, according to Drs. Steven Pray, PhD, DPh and Joshua J. Pray, PharmD, a whopping 40% of women experience!

News flash: Monthly hormonal changes and PMS are a real deal. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V (DSM V), also known as the psychologist’s bible, defines PMS as having five plus signs or symptoms for two consecutive menstrual cycles. Here’s a chart of some those signs and symptoms. As you can see, bloating and swelling are key contributors to what women will experience as “weight gain.”

Physical SignsPsychological Symptoms
-Abdomina bloating
-Swollen hands and feet
-Cravings for sweet and salty foods
-Mood swings
-Social withdrawal
-Sleep disturbances

Table Adapted from: Brown, Judith E. (2011). Nutrition Through the Lifecycle, Fourth Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth

How PMS Affects Weight, Woes and Cravings

A woman’s menstrual cycles are driven by fluctuating hormones, not all of which are implicated in PMS. At the start of your cycle, the pituitary gland releases hormones (luteinizing and follicle-stimulating hormones) to help you ovulate. During this period, an ovum (aka egg) matures and is released from your ovaries, leaving behind a group of cells known as the “corpus luteum.” The corpus luteum’s job is to produce estrogen and progesterone, which builds up a nutrient-rich blood lining to help the ovum thrive. This lining is (you guessed it!) your monthly visitor.

So, how may this cycle cause PMS?

1. Progesterone surges. The spike in progesterone right before your period is a possible reason bloating, tenderness and swelling occurs. Progesterone encourages the body to release more aldosterone, a hormone that tells your kidneys to retain water and sodium, which can partly explain your puffier appearance during that time of month. It’s normal for women to gain a few pounds of water weight. Progesterone’s role is to prepare the body for pregnancy, which generally means helping you gain weight in the form of water or otherwise.

2. Estrogen dips. Your estrogen level peaks right before ovulation, but then drastically drops and plateaus, despite the corpus luteum helping with its production. In the week before your period, the estrogen dip is a potential explanation for PMS symptoms like cravings for sweet and salty foods, irritability, depression, anxiety, nausea, etc. How? An estrogen drop-off lowers the activity of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that affects your mood and appetite. Lower serotonin activity can lead to negative emotions, which can drive us to look for reprieve in sweet and salty junk foods.

Natural changes in progesterone and estrogen work hand-in-hand to ready our bodies for childbearing; PMS is an unwanted side effect. Why women experience symptoms of PMS, and to what degree, aren’t completely understood, but hormones certainly have a hand in it. Remember that the signs and symptoms of PMS can have non-hormonal root causes. Therefore, it’s best to talk to your doctor or health provider for advice that’s tailored to your individual case.

5 Tips to Deal with Period Weight Gain

Have you ever been on a weight-loss streak only to step on the scale and discover you’ve gained five pounds? We feel your pain. There aren’t that many tried-and-true techniques to deal with PMS, but here are a few that can help:

1. Keep calm, and exercise on.

It’s tempting to halt your exercise routine during that time of month, especially if your PMS involves cramps. However, if you are able to engage in mild, regular exercise, it can help improve your mood and energy level. Too pained to move? Try a seated meditation, focused on relaxing the muscles and regular breathing, for 15–20 minutes twice per day over the course of months. Research has shown that this can lead to a 58% improvement in PMS symptoms.

2. Experiment with changing your caffeine intake.

Try taking your caffeine intake (think: coffee and energy drinks) down a notch. Rossignol et al. found in a survey of 841 women that PMS symptoms were worse when the participants reported drinking more caffeine-containing beverages daily. Keep in mind that this is one study. Some of us actually use caffeine-containing drinks to combat PMS symptoms like fatigue and feeling bloated because caffeine is a mild diuretic (it makes you pee). There’s no solid answer here; it’s best to figure out which strategy is better for your body.

DID YOU KNOW? Midol, an over-the-counter medication for PMS, contains 60 milligrams of caffeine per dose. This is about the amount in 1 cup of coffee.

3. Reach for nutrient-rich foods if you snack.

When it comes to PMS cravings, eat outside the chocolate box. Chocolate is the go-to PMS panacea for many women, likely because its sweetness is comforting. After all, eating chocolate and treats cause the brain to release feel-good dopamine and serotonin. Instead of just reaching for chocolate, go for nutrient-rich snacks that provide calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B6 and magnesium. Some ideas include yogurt, granola, unsalted nuts, cheese and crackers, and smoked salmon on half of a bagel.

4. Ignore the haters.

A study comparing 28 women with premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD,a severe form of PMS) to women without PMDD found that those with PMDD were more likely to have a negative bias when processing non-verbal affective information (think: facial expressions). Translation? If you’re self-conscious about your weight, PMSing can negatively color your perception. You may interpret that others are making negative judgments about you. Ignore that inner voice, and don’t be so harsh on yourself.

5. Log your weight on a weekly basis. Even if you don’t experience extreme PMS, your weight may fluctuate as a result of monthly hormonal changes. If you easily gain 5–10 pounds of period weight every month, regularly tracking weight makes it easier for you to see progress. No matter what the scale says, don’t let it deflate your motivation!

About the Author

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh is a registered dietitian by day, blogger at Fearless Food RD by night. She loves helping folks develop a better relationship with food, which includes lots of cooking, eating and learning about nutrition. When she’s not snapping mouthwatering shots of (mostly) healthy food, you can find Trinh HIIT-ing it at her local gym. For more, connect with her on FacebookInstagram and Pinterest.


24 responses to “Does “That Time of The Month” Really Affect Weight Loss?”

  1. Avatar Missy Scorpio says:

    Real talk: plan chocolate into your macros. Also. If you’re super uncomfortable take a diuretic to slough off the extra water. Avoid sugar alcohols, some of them bind to aldosterone making it harder to release water weight

    • Avatar mysteryuz says:

      Definitely plan and log chocolate. I log the chocolate, exercise on through, and sleep like a rock the whole time. Once it’s over with I’m typically down -2 lbs. The whole process is exhausting.

    • Avatar BadKarmaGhost says:

      The chocolate cravings are because chocolate can be a great source of iron. Your brain thinks, “gonna need more iron, what does this person love to eat that has iron? Chocolate.” So your brain tells you to eat chocolate. If you increase your iron intake by eating more spinach, meat, eggs, Brussels sprouts etc. you won’t crave chocolate. You need iron to replace the blood that is lost.

  2. Avatar Nya Smith says:

    Wow, this is such a timely article for me. I just argued with my boyfriend for TWO DAYS over nothing… I was wrong and completely misunderstood/misinterpreted him, and today my stomach looks like a melon, and I’m cramping. I guess you could call it karma, but in hindsight, I realize it was probably PMS. Every major argument we’ve ever had was during or a day or two before my period. Honestly, I know I should talk to my doctor about my my radical hormonal imbalance around this time, but it’s so embarrassing. I’m a big girl, I can take responsibility for my own actions, but it’s really frustrating when I genuinely feel sad, angry, or justified, and then I realize later that I’m just temporarily coocoo. Why does it feel real? Usually, I’m self-aware, and then BOOM! I’m blind to my hyper emotionalism until I realize I’m on my period again. I was just journaling about 1) what a bad day I was having, and 2) how hungry I was. You’d think I’d see the signs, but I guess that’s part of personal growth. I’ll get it down eventually. Thank you so much for the insight!

    • Avatar Robot says:

      It feels real because at the moment it is real. Sometimes when I’m about to start and I get like that I never let my bf write it off because even though what I’m feeling may be an overreaction it’s not fake, it’s how I currently feel. You can think of it like being drunk or temporarily insane. I apologize later for being in the wrong of course, but that doesn’t change that in that moment I was feeling emotional distress.

    • Avatar JamesD says:

      We must be twins. I was thinking the exact same thing, down to the ridiculous argument with my boyfriend.

  3. Avatar Lacey says:

    I ALWAYS gain about 5-7 lbs on my period, every time about 2 days before the bleeding actually starts. Then it’s gone after the bleeding stops. Before I knew what was happening, it was extremely discouraging to see that weight. This article was helpful though at knowing what to do with the symptoms.
    It’s also been proven in a study, I don’t know which, that light exercise, like walking, can help with easing painful period cramps.

  4. Avatar MEJKnowles says:

    Of course it’s true! It’s been proven to be so for years, & I know from my own personal experience that it’s so, as well as from what most of my own female friends go through. My mom never suffered from PMS or noticeable weight gain when she had her monthly cycle, but I always have. We’re very different women, including in this way, even though I’m her natural daughter. I take more after my dad’s side, & his twin sister went through this sort of stuff more when she had her monthlies. Not every woman suffers from this, as the article says, but for those of us who do & who experience the weight gain, it’s so true &, while I’m not using it as an excuse, it is good to know that this is so & that it’s a valid reason for some of what happens during a cycle.

  5. Avatar lwright311 says:

    Do men have similar hormone cycles? My husband seems to have a male version of PMS including the bloating and moodiness. He is a little over 40 years old.
    Also, I weigh myself once a week (track in progress in MFP) and actually have noticed I weigh the least the week before my period and the most the week of. I also find that the fatigue negatively affects my resistancettraining. It was very discouraging until I realized the cause.

  6. Avatar Robot says:

    I wish articles like this would address women with SEVERE pain. It takes 6 pain killers a day to keep me from passing out or vomiting. My last period I laid around and upped my caloric intake from 1200 to around 1500 (mostly from chocolate) which is my sustaining point. I didn’t gain any weight and after a couple days went back into my routine without skipping a beat.

    • Avatar Haystacks says:

      Isn’t there a secondary syndrome besides PMS that has very severe pain? I think it’s called PPMD? If you have health care your doctor might be able to give you a stronger pain killer?

      It must seem dumb to focus on calories when it feels like someone is stabbing you all day.

      • Avatar Robot says:

        Yeah but I don’t really have to, I mostly just made sure to record what I was eating. My appetite is low during that time but I eat more high calorie foods so it seems like a good balance. When I finally can afford insurance I’ll probably go in to diagnose what I have specifically because there’s a few things it could be.

  7. Avatar Haystacks says:

    I notice once I changed my diet that I could contain my desire for sugar/chocolate when on my period (with effort), but volume and calories are a different story. I am utterly voracious by the second day. I would eat my own arm if I could. It is ridiculous. Even if we burn slightly more calories because our bodies are doing extra assignments, it is certainly not to the tune of all the calories I crave. I definitely don’t get it.

    I also lose weight faster the week after my period than every other week?

    • Avatar kg says:

      me too. i gain 6 lbs, then lose 8, then gain 2. every month, pretty much for the last 15 years. i think our metabolism speeds up a bit right after.

  8. Avatar Amber Rains says:

    MyFitnessPal – if this is such an important part of 50% (or more) of your subscribers’ lives, why can’t we log our menstrual cycle in MyFitnessPal so we can be more aware of how it affects our weight/food intake? Is this something you can do and I just haven’t found it? #MyFitnessPal

  9. Avatar Shawna says:

    Thank you for the article, I literally read it at the perfect time. I stepped on the scale yesterday, my weigh in day, to find a five pound gain even though I’ve maintained calories and exercise. I was a bit sad. I am rather swollen, by next weeks weigh day I should be back on track.

  10. Avatar coffee addict says:

    The average 5 oz. cup of coffee ranges in caffeine content from ~150mg in lighter roasts to ~120 in darker roasts.

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