What to Eat (and Avoid) during Each Phase of Your Cycle, according to a Dietitian

Written by: Shira Barlow, MS, RD


Published on: February 15, 2024


Shira Barlow, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, an author, and a nutrition expert. In her book, The Food Therapist, she shares her disarming and realistic approach to uncomplicating your relationship with food. She’s currently accepting one-on-one clients.

Each phase of the menstrual cycle impacts how we feel, what we crave and what we need. In my private nutrition practice, I help clients understand what’s happening during each phase, which gives them insights into what works well for them throughout the month as their hormones shift and where things tend to get challenging. Some of my clients choose to cycle-sync, or align their lifestyle and nutrition habits to their menstrual cycles.

In my intake sessions, I ask my clients if they cycle, including how regularly they menstruate, and if they track their cycles closely. Based on their responses, we decide whether it’s appropriate to build cycle syncing into our work together. If yes, they learn what’s happening during each phase of their cycle—each is marked by the rise and fall of hormones—and how to support their bodies during that phase.

I have seen noticeable differences for those who choose to cycle sync, including more regular and predictable periods and more comfort throughout their cycles (particularly with PMS symptoms and PCOS clients). I regularly see pregnancy wins with fertility clients. (And I recently had a 40-year-old client with endometriosis have an unplanned pregnancy; she’s thrilled.) I believe cycle syncing has been valuable in those outcomes.

Before we get into it, one disclaimer: Menstrual cycles aren’t one-size-fits-all. The length of each cycle, the levels of each hormone, and the timing of ovulation can all vary from person to person. I do recommend tracking cycles on an app to make cycle-syncing more user-friendly.

If fertility is something you’re interested in tracking, a couple of my clients really like Ovia Health. For anyone who wants to track their cycle without a fertility lens, my current favorite is Aavia; I recommend this one to anyone for whom fertility is either nonapplicable or triggering and to all my tween and teen clients.

The Menstrual Phase

The menstrual phase, which begins the day bleeding starts and ends the day bleeding ends, typically lasts three to seven days. During this phase, estrogen and progesterone are low, the lining of the uterus is shedding, and it is common to feel dips in energy and mood. The body craves hibernation, warmth, comfort, and rest.

Nutritionally, the menstrual phase is time to focus on warming, mineral-rich, easily digestible, and deeply nourishing foods, with an emphasis on warming foods and spices like ginger (a natural antispasmodic agent helpful for those with painful cramps).


  • Iron: To replenish the body from blood loss, I like to focus on iron-dense foods like grass-fed red meat, organ meat like liver (if you’re up for it), anchovies, oysters, sardines, pumpkin seeds, kale, and collard greens.
  • Vitamin C: Promotes iron absorption, and it’s great to work in citrus and cooked colorful veggies, too.
  • Magnesium: Important during our menstrual phase, it acts as a muscle relaxant to help ease cramping. Easy food sources are pumpkin and chia seeds, almonds, cashews, spinach, and dark chocolate.

Because we often experience bloating and GI motility changes in the menstrual phase, it’s not the best time for cold foods, raw veggies, or giant salads. It is, however, a great time to do stir-fry, fajita vegetables, and big sheet pans of roasted veggies. Comfort and warmth are key during this time: My favorites recipes for this phase are braised meats and chicken, soups, curries, stews, and my anchovy chicken.

The Follicular Phase

The follicular phase technically lasts from menstruation to ovulation, but for cycle-syncing purposes, it starts as soon as bleeding ends and lasts until ovulation, around 7 to 10 days. During this phase, estrogen starts to rise steadily, which tends to usher in a boost in mood and energy. The rise of luteinizing hormone (LH) ramps up libido. Much like the melting of the frost in springtime, we tend to feel more like ourselves than we did in the menstrual phase.


  • Fermented foods: Bloating and changes in GI motility can be persistent throughout the follicular phase. I’m a huge fan of fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickled onions—for their gut-boosting properties and also for the addition of so much flavor dimension. (I love adding pickled onion or kraut to a romaine spear with shredded chicken and tahini or in a nori wrap with salmon.)
  • Estrogen-balancing foods: Because estrogen is also ramping up during this phase, I focus on foods that help balance estrogen production, like pumpkin seeds and flax seeds.

The Ovulatory Phase

The ovulatory phase typically takes place roughly 14 days (give or take) after the first day of your period and around 14 days before your next period. It is the shortest phase of the cycle, often only lasting about two or three days. Estrogen and LH are at their highest, and many women tend to feel their absolute best in terms of mood, energy, sex drive, and digestion. However some women can also experience side effects of rapid surges in estrogen—particularly some cramping in the lower abdomen.


  • Cruciferous vegetables: The biggest thing to keep in mind during ovulatory is that because estrogen is at its high, it’s helpful to focus on foods that can help metabolize extra estrogen and keep it from getting stored in the body. My favorites for this purpose are cruciferous veggies like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts. Go nuts on all the big, beautiful salads that don’t work as well during the late luteal and menstrual phases.

My favorite recipe during this time is my purple cabbage salad with shredded chicken or broiled salmon.

The Luteal Phase

The luteal phase occurs right after ovulation ends and is typically around two weeks long, lasting right up until the next period. After ovulation, LH and estrogen drop (although estrogen does normalize again mid-luteal), while progesterone, the dominant hormone in luteal, starts to rise. The rise in progesterone, which remains high until right before menstruation starts, is responsible for an increase in both appetite and resting metabolic rate. So it’s not just that we crave more food during this time but that we actually need more food; we’re burning through more energy at rest. For this reason, I like to focus on especially hearty, delicious meals that keep blood sugar levels from dipping too low.


  • Magnesium, zinc, and vitamin B6: Because of the role progesterone plays in having a healthy uterine lining, it’s also helpful to consume foods that support progesterone production, like those high in magnesium and zinc (oysters, red meat, beans, nuts, seeds), as well as B6 (chicken and salmon).
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: In the second half of luteal, PMS symptoms often manifest as mood changes and fatigue as serotonin and dopamine levels decline, so I like to amp up foods with extra omega fatty acids like salmon, sardines, anchovies, avocados, egg yolks, and flax seeds.
  • Potassium: Potassium-rich foods (leafy greens, nuts, beans, and starchy vegetables) can also be helpful to include to combat water retention and bloat.
  • High-quality starches: I recommend having high-quality starches and carbs like sweet potatoes, winter squashes, pumpkin, beans, and beets alongside greens and proteins.

I recommend that my clients make sure to build in conscious indulgences during this time. My favorites are anything with dark chocolate and peanut butter, and caramelized sweet potato drenched in olive oil or ghee. My top pick for luteal recipes would be my paleo shepherd’s pie.


There’s a lot to digest here, and I hope you find it helpful and instructive. But the truth is everyone has their own unique experience with the ebb and flow of hormones during a cycle. These hormone fluctuations translate to changes in comfortability, mood, hunger, sex drive, and energy levels—and a lot more—that can vary from cycle to cycle and over time as well. Hormonal birth control, conditions like PCOS, and life stages like perimenopause can make our cycles less predictable, too.

My recommendations for anyone who cycles: Get to know yourself better in this way. Plan ahead when you can. (For instance, make an extra shepherd’s pie to freeze in early luteal; energy levels drop in late luteal, when you’ll be craving comfort food the most.) Let your personal experiences with your cycle guide you and give you ideas for how to best nourish yourself. And most of all, be gentle with yourself.



This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.