Why American women crave chocolate at that time of the month

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Chocolate cravings during the menstrual cycle appear to be a uniquely American thing.

To all those women who wonder why they skirt the edge of sanity at that time of the month until a medicinal square of chocolate passes their lips, and to all the boyfriends and husbands left to ponder the primal forces of a bar of Special Dark, science has this to tell you:

God bless America.

The results of a new study by psychologists at the University at Albany suggest menstrual chocolate cravings may indeed be part of the American way — a phenomenon tied to cultural norms and identification.

The research, published this summer in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, found that women with U.S.-born parents and second-generation Americans are significantly more likely to experience menstrual chocolate cravings compared to foreign-born women living in the United States.

“Our study sought to test the surprising yet increasingly compelling hypothesis that menstrual chocolate cravings may be a culture-bound construct,” said Julia Hormes, lead researcher and a UAlbany assistant professor of psychology.

For the study, Hormes and UAlbany doctoral student Martha Niemiec surveyed 275 undergraduate women of diverse backgrounds. The subjects were asked about the frequency and timing of chocolate cravings, whether they had them, and perceived causes of the cravings. In addition, the foreign-born women and the second-generation Americans completed an acculturation assessment that included questions about their familiarity with things like U.S. newspapers, political leaders, and popular-culture figures.

Among the foreign-born participants — representing five continents and more than 25 countries — quite a few admitted to chocolate cravings, but they were less likely to name their menstrual cycle as the cause. Those who did crave chocolate at that time of their cycles tended to identify as more immersed in U.S. culture.

The study found that only 17 percent of the foreign-born women had menstruation-related chocolate cravings. However, nearly 33 percent of the women with U.S.-born parents and 41 percent of the second-generation Americans experienced menstruation-related chocolate cravings. Hormes said the gap between women with U.S.-born parents and second-generation Americans was not statistically significant.

“The findings,” Hormes said, “add to growing evidence suggesting that the craving construct, or at least certain elements of the craving experience, may be uniquely meaningful to North America.”

Hormes added that menstrual chocolate cravings are rare in other parts of the world.

For example, she said, research has shown that about 28 percent of Spanish women crave chocolate around the onset of menstruation and only six percent of Egyptian women say they crave chocolate at all. Japanese women crave chocolate, according to research, but not as much as they crave rice. Meanwhile, an estimated 50 percent of menstruating American females have chocolate cravings, the psychologist said.

“These geographic differences hint at the role of cultural norms,” Hormes said. “In a society that emphasized the ‘thin idea’ of female beauty, women may view menstruation as a socially acceptable excuse to indulge in otherwise ‘taboo’ food.”

Language and its impact on culture may also have a bearing, Hormes said. Many languages have no words that mean precisely the same as the English language’s crave and craving.

The researchers’ findings about perimenstrual chocolate cravings are part of a larger research effort into food cravings. In a study she published last year, she found food cravings to be a strong predictor of excessive weight during pregnancy, a problem that affects more than half of American women and that is linked to health concerns for mothers and their offspring.

“Food cravings are common but can act as powerful triggers of episodes of overeating and have been linked to higher body mass and elevated eating disorder symptoms,” said Hormes.

The team’s ultimate goal is to develop strategies that help people more effectively manage food cravings. Their work “could have important implications for interventions targeting weight- and diet-related health,” she said.

If only they could find a way to make us crave kale.