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Pregnancy cravings explained
About 50 to 90 percent of women in the United States report at least one food craving during pregnancy. And those cravings run the gamut from sweet to salty to … strange.
We surveyed expecting moms on BabyCenter, and almost 40 percent said they mostly craved sweets. Slightly fewer (33 percent) chose salty snacks. Those who craved spicy cuisine came in third (17 percent). Trailing (at 10 percent) were those who craved sour foods like citrus fruit, green apples, and sour candy.
BabyCenter moms-to-be mentioned wanting pickles wrapped in cheese, salsa spooned straight out of the jar, and yes, even steak fat. One woman had a passion for black olives on cheesecake. Another mom told us she ate a steady diet of processed-cheese sandwiches, which she now can’t stand the sight of. Eggplant, especially on pizza, was another expectant mother’s obsession.
Many of these cravings seem to come out of nowhere, and they can feel overpowering. What causes them? Hormones, right?
Maybe in part. The extreme hormonal changes women go through during pregnancy can have a huge impact on taste and smell. (This would help explain why women going through menopause may also experience strong food cravings and aversions.) But the bottom line is that no one knows for sure.
One thing we do know is that aversions and food cravings go hand in hand. In an Ethiopian study, women who experienced food aversions were more than twice as likely to crave certain foods compared with those who didn’t.
When do pregnancy cravings start?
When cravings start is different for different women – and some expecting moms never have any pregnancy cravings. But cravings can start early in pregnancy, often intensify in the second trimester, and fade sometime in the third trimester or after birth.
In the first trimester, many pregnant women have food aversions rather than cravings. A food aversion is when you can’t stand to eat (or even smell) a food. It’s the opposite of a craving, and like cravings, food aversions are very common during pregnancy. They often kick in with morning sickness, starting around week 5 or 6 of pregnancy.
What do pregnancy cravings mean?
Some nutritionists and healthcare providers believe that certain cravings are meaningful. For example, some experts think that craving large amounts of ice and nonfood substances, such as laundry starch and dirt or clay (a condition called pica), are linked to an iron or zinc deficiency, though there’s not enough research to support a cause and effect relationship.
San Francisco midwife and herbalist Cynthia Belew says some food cravings may be worth paying attention to. For example, alternative medicine practitioners believe that a shortage of magnesium can trigger a craving for chocolate. Foods that contain magnesium include whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and green vegetables such as spinach.
Belew has also found that many of her patients need more essential fatty acids in their diet. When they start taking fish oil or flax oil, their food cravings disappear.
Similarly, a craving for red meat seems like a transparent cry for protein. And the mom in our survey who said she consumed great quantities of peaches may have been responding to her body’s need for beta carotene.
Judith Brown, author of What to Eat Before, During, and After Pregnancy, agrees that in some cases there might be a biological cause for cravings. She points to pregnant women who develop an aversion to certain foods or drinks that might be harmful (like diet soda, coffee, or alcohol).
But Elizabeth Somer, author of Nutrition for a Healthy Pregnancy, doesn’t see much of a link between a pregnant woman’s cravings and what her body needs.
“People think their cravings are significant, but studies show no link between cravings and nutritional requirements,” she says. “If people craved what the body needs, we would all eat more broccoli and less chocolate.”
And at this point the evidence – while hard to ignore – is anecdotal.
“There’s no scientific explanation for food cravings. There’s no data saying that what a woman craves is related to something her body or her baby needs, and there’s no data to support that typical pregnancy food cravings are harmful, either,” explains Brown.
What to do about your cravings
In the end, the experts we consulted agreed that you should pay attention to your pregnancy cravings – and indulge them in moderation.
“A healthful diet is one that meets your nutritional and your emotional needs as well as your preferences,” says Somer.
She recommends that pregnant women humor their cravings rather than fight them. But don’t let unhealthy cravings completely overpower your need for nutritious food.
Craving sweets is sometimes the result of a drop in blood sugar, so eating small, frequent meals may help you avoid eating too much sugar. Other ways to curb less-healthy cravings: Eat breakfast every day (skipping breakfast can make cravings worse), exercise, and make sure you have lots of emotional support.
If you find yourself craving nonfood items, such as starch, chalk, flour, dirt, or large amounts of ice, talk to your healthcare provider. Some studies estimate that more than a third of pregnant women have similar cravings. Because some nonfood cravings can affect your health, it’s especially important to mention them to your provider.
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