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Is PMS Sabotaging Your Diet?

How to cope with food cravings and keep losing weight
By
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic-Exclusive Feature

Do you find yourself successfully dieting for three weeks at a time, only to succumb to an uncontrollable urge to scarf down a few calorie-laden hot fudge sundaes as that time of the month rolls around? You're not alone.

As many as 85% of women experience at least one symptom of PMS, the disruptive physical and emotional changes that can strike anytime in the last 2 weeks of the menstrual cycle, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. And as many as 70% of these women suffer from PMS-related food cravings, bloating, fatigue, sleep disturbances, mood swings, and irritability -- any of which have the potential to sabotage your diet, says Judith Wurtman, PhD, director of the women's health program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

Fortunately, a better understanding of PMS in general and food cravings specifically can keep women from getting caught in a diet-destroying cycle.

Diet Double Whammy

PMS packs a double whammy against a diet, Wurtman says. "First, you have food cravings, usually for sweet, starchy foods with an underlay of fat, like chocolate ice cream. And then, your bad mood makes you say, 'To hell with it!' You lose your willpower to exercise any control over what you are eating."

The bloating that often goes with PMS also sabotages a diet, says Stephen Goldstein, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist at New York University. "A woman steps on the scale and freaks out. And some people's response to being bloated and having to loosen their belt is to drown themselves in an ice cream sundae."

And what do we break down and eat when those cravings hit? Chocolate is No. 1 on the hit parade, followed generally by other sweets, Goldstein says. Salty foods, particularly chips, are a distant third.

"You never find anything nutritious on the A-list," agrees Wurtman, noting that women rarely come in complaining of cravings for fish, fruits, and vegetables. "If it's a dieting no-no, you can bet the PMS mind is saying, 'Yes, yes,'" she says.

Hormones to Blame

The hormonal ebbs and spikes that occur throughout a woman's cycle are the major culprits in PMS. As levels of estrogen go up and down, so do levels of the stress hormone cortisol, explains Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, author of Fight Fat After 40 and assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. "It's a very potent little partnership. The body wants to keep them aligned."

And when cortisol levels are high enough, the body turns on its fight-or-flight response, a woman becomes more metabolically charged, and her appetite is stimulated. This, in turn, causes a woman to seek out carbs and fat, "the actual fuels of the fight-and-flight response," Peeke says.

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