What’s the Deal with these Pregnancy Cravings?!

Over 50% of women in the United States experience strong (and often unhealthy) food cravings during pregnancy.Over 50% of women in the United States experience strong (and often unhealthy) food cravings during pregnancy.

“Who am I?” I said silently to myself as I looked down, judging my choice of afternoon snack. A can of ginger ale and a half-eaten bowl of salt and vinegar chips lay in front of me. No doubt about it, this was not a nutrition-packed snack attack. In fact, they are food choices that I frequently talk my patients out of. “Good thing I am not in the office today” I think, with a tiny bit of guilt, and then resume snacking. My persistent nausea and this awful, won’t-go-away for anything taste in my mouth, have gotten the best of me again in my second pregnancy.

I no longer want any of my favorite foods. Avocados make me want to gag. Chocolate? Nope, not today.

I only want to eat what I’m craving. Nothing else. This makes planning ahead for meals impossible.

I am doing my best to eat lots of fruits and veggies, but unless they are pickled, or naturally sour, it’s a battle.

I have no desire to cook. It creates too many smells and i’m just……..so……… tired.

Any other first trimester mamas feel this way?

Probably. Apparently over 50% of women experience food cravings during pregnancy.

According to this research, the most commonly craved foods, in ranked order, during pregnancy are:

  1. Sweets
  2. High-calorie, savory, carbohydrates (think pizza!)
  3. Animal protein
  4. Fruit
  5. Dairy
  6. Fast food
  7. Cold, yet not nutritious foods (slurpees, ice cream)
  8. Vegetables
  9. Sweet, higher-calorie, dairy options (milkshakes)

Related: Craving Fruit During Pregnancy? Eating More may Equal a Higher IQ for Baby

During a time when proper nutrition is critical for my growing baby, it is perplexing to me that I fantasize about salty take-out meals and am tearful about the thought of eating a veggie-packed Budha bowl. In time (at least according to my first pregnancy), I know (hope?) these feelings will fade, but I am still left to wonder: what the heck is this all about?

Here are a few theories:

1. “The Permissive Factor”

This explanation is less of a science and more of a cultural acceptance, that pregnant women have “permission” to indulge in once forbidden foods (similar to permission to snack on chocolate when suffering from PMS). These permissions and cravings are even similar across cultures. Interestingly, in Tanzania, it is a sign of social support for the family of a pregnant woman’s husband to provide her with whatever foods she is craving!  I know I have heard stories about partners dashing out at midnight for ice cream during their loved one’s pregnancy.

2. Mood

One study found that women reported food cravings were linked to the “stressors” of pregnancy, perhaps indicative of emotional eating patterns.

3. The Hormonal Rollercoaster

There is not much evidence that rising hormone levels during pregnancy directly lead to food cravings, however these hormonal changes can interfere with our senses — so much so that we may be extremely perceptive to “secondary compounds” in food. These secondary compounds are often in plants and provide certain aromas that can attract or ward off biological enemies. Taste and smell changes resulting from hormonal fluctuations may lead a pregnant mama to avoid certain foods due to increased sensitivity to these secondary compounds.

4. Active Ingredients in Food

Similar to the prior hypothesis, food aversions are viewed as a way to keep mama and baby safe from food borne illness and toxins that may be found in food. This is commonly seen with aversions to bitter vegetables, eggs, meat, and dairy. Cravings may be viewed as a way to increase dietary intake of foods that may help alleviate, or soothe, pregnancy-related side effects, such as nausea and vomiting. Higher levels of vomiting during pregnancy have been linked to more food aversions.

5. Nutritional Deficiencies

This theory that food cravings in pregnancy are linked to nutrients missing in a mother’s diet has pretty much been debunked — no links have been found between cravings and improved dietary intake. In fact, as indicated by the list above, the foods most commonly craved during pregnancy are lacking many beneficial nutrients for the mama-to-be.

In addition, other studies have found that middle to upper-income women in the United States do quite well meeting the nutritional demands of pregnancy, so much so that prenatal vitamins may lead to exceeding certain nutrient requirements. Note: PICA, or the consumption of non-food substances (clay, paper, chalk etc.) during pregnancy has been linked to anemia in some studies. If this is one craving you are having, immediately seek out your healthcare provider!

6. Gut Microbiome

I could not find any literature directly linking changes in a mother’s gut bacteria to food cravings, however there is some evidence that food cravings can be caused by gut microbiota. These cravings may be “contagious” (among friends and family) and may explain acquired tastes from microbes that benefit from certain foods. Fascinating stuff to me!

Overall, it seems that the literature I have found is a bit lacking as far as the absolute cause of food cravings in pregnancy. I still really am not sure why I almost considered sweet and sour chicken from the Chinese restaurant (vegetarian here!), nor why I was unable to snack on pomegranate seeds with my son the other day (a usual favorite that we share).

For now, I will just take each craving and each aversion as a little blessing, while doing my best to reach for the nutrition-packed stuff too.

My body is up to some pretty amazing things. I trust it.

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