What if chocolate cravings, experienced by 50% of women before their period were the result of culture, rather than a natural physical response?
Scientists at the the State University of New York seem to think so. In a paper published a few days ago, they have shown that out of 275 women of diverse backgrounds, foreign-born women were half as less likely to experience menstrual chocolate craving, compared to women born to U.S.-born parents, and two-and-a-half times less likely than second generation immigrants.
In fact, the researchers have noted in their paper that only 6% of Egyptian women and only 28% of Spanish women experience craving chocolate in general (not just before their period), as opposed to 90% of American women.
And what makes things more interesting is the fact that the researchers have found that women with the most cravings are more “westernised” than the ones without cravings, reporting “significantly greater U.S. acculturation and lower identification with their native culture than non-menstrual cravers”.
So there you have it: the more TV you watch, magazine articles you read and the more you chat about premenstrual chocolate cravings, the more you will experience them yourself. But what about the weather, sedentary lifestyle, indoor living etc? Don’t these play a role in chocolate cravings before the period?
“Not specifically”, explains nutritionist Georgios Tzenichristos, of the London-based LipoTherapeia clinic. “The researchers have found in this study that there were no significant differences between the three groups in the prevalence of non-chocolate food cravings or in the prevalence of regular, non-PMS related chocolate cravings”.
“This means that boredom, stress, sedentary/indoor living and weather cannot be blamed for the differences in increased PMS cravings of first generation, second generation immigrant or “native” women: they all experienced normal, day to day (non-PMS) chocolate cravings equally”, says Georgios.
“In previous research, scientists have found that, contrary to popular belief, PMS is not related to fluctuations of estrogen and progesterone, so the use of contraception and altered menstrual cycle regularity in Western women cannot be blamed either”, Georgios states.
The researchers mention previous research that has shown that PMS itself is socially constructed and Western culture-specific, with ethnic minority women experiencing PMS as a result of exposure to American culture, and with PMS symptoms increasing according to how long they have lived in the U.S.
But how did this PMS chocolate craving started in the first place?
The two scientists who have conducted this study believe that the constant struggle to remain slim in U.S. popular culture pushes women to find socially and personally acceptable excuses to consume “taboo” foods like chocolate, such as PMS and pregnancy.
On the other hand, nicotine craving seems to indeed be related to hormonal fluctuations before periods, while alcohol cravings (another taboo drink for constant dieters) are also increased before the period.
“The former is indeed a proven physiological response, while the latter may be either a physiological response and/or a convenient excuse to consume alcohol, blaming it on the PMS”, explains Georgios.
In summary, and despite some limitations, this study has shown that immigrants to Western countries have an initial health advantage, in comparison to local populations, with lower risk of overweight and related diseases. However, by adopting westernised food, that advantage dissipates.
“PMS chocolate cravings are just one example of this process, which also serve to highlight our own cultural norms and myths in relation to food, cravings and body image”, Georgios concludes.
So next time you have chocolate cravings before your period, don’t blame your hormones. Just admit that it is a convenient excuse to break that strict eating regime and “let loose” for a few days.