We have all heard about the funny foods and food combinations that women crave during pregnancy: pickles with ice cream, Cheetos dipped in who knows what, cranberry juice for the first time ever, French toast with peanut butter and jelly. To some, indulging in food may seem like a fun part of the pregnancy journey, to others, pregnancy cravings are cause for concern. After all, you can’t eat pizza with a side of chocolate sauce three times a week for nine months (or can you?…).
To help learn the healthiest way to cope, indulge in, and work around your pregnancy cravings, let’s take a look at why they start to pop up and the best ways to deal with them when they do.
Why you get pregnancy cravings
Just like mommy brain, there is no hard and fast scientific rule for why pregnancy cravings occur, but rather plausible explanations and theories. One popular belief is that as your body begins producing more blood, it can cause levels in various chemicals and nutrients to shift. These shifts are believed to cause women to crave what they lack. For instance, the ever-common craving for pickles is believed to be tied to a sodium deficiency. A vegetarian’s intense desire for meat could be due to a protein shortage (though a meat aversion is more common).
Along the same lines, there is the possibility that the chemical Neuropeptide Y, which signals hunger, is increased as hormones rise during pregnancy, leading some to want to over-indulge.
Another plausible theory involves the link between lowered dopamine levels and the desire for comfort foods. This explains why women oftentimes crave high caloric or extremely sweet foods. Kim, the mother of five, told us that on her first pregnancy she found herself with an unexplained craving for Long John Silvers. An Arizona native, she later found herself with a craving for tortilla chips with beans and salsa from a specific local Mexican restaurant. She headed there on her lunch break, only to later become sick from eating so many. It is possible that both foods she found herself craving were associated as comfort foods for her.
How to cope or enjoy pregnancy cravings
The good news is that in general, pregnancy cravings are not harmful, per se. However, that doesn’t mean that indulging in deep-fried nachos or waffles topped with grape jelly every day is necessarily good for your long term wellness — especially considering you’ve got nine months of cravings to deal with. Some of the following measures may help make sure your cravings don’t control your life or lead to too much weight gain:
- Make sure to schedule movement and light exercise into your routine for as long as you can. Consider using a walk to distract yourself from a high-calorie or high-fat craving. Movement during pregnancy has many positive impacts; try to enjoy it.
- If you are not typically an overly organized meal planner, now is the time to start. Plan healthy, well-balanced meals and regular snacks. Cravings become more intense when you are hungry or nutrient-deficient, so eating regularly can prevent them from becoming too overwhelming.
- There are some great resources on what foods are particularly helpful at different stages in your pregnancy. One is What to Eat When You’re Pregnant by Nicole Avena. Using this sort of guide could help you have fun with food during your pregnancy and get the nutrients you need to help avoid too many cravings.
While it’s perfectly reasonable to indulge in your cravings, it is also a good idea to think about alternative ways to satisfy them. While the theory exists that a craving may pop up to alert you to something your body needs, that doesn’t necessarily mean that eating what you crave is the healthiest way to go about it. The popular example of addressing sodium levels with salty foods, for instance, may be better addressed with pickles or stovetop popcorn than a box of Pringles. An intense craving for something sweet may sometimes be satisfied with strawberry or chocolate yogurt rather than Ben and Jerry’s. Still need those potato chips? Try a snack-size rather than a regular size bag.
When pregnancy cravings go bad
Not all cravings should be indulged and there are even some that should be discussed with your doctor. Pica is a condition that affects a small portion of pregnant women and involves a desire to eat harmful or non-nutritive substances. Some common cravings include corn starch, chalk, ice, and clay. Even if not toxic, pica cravings are often for substances that should not be digested as they will lead to constipation. Flour and corn starch are two examples.
Pica is believed to be related to an iron deficiency. It should be reported to your doctor or midwife as soon as possible rather than being indulged.
Remember: there are foods that should be strictly limited or completely cut out during pregnancy. These include raw fish, alcohol, certain herbal teas, soft cheeses, fermented foods, highly salted foods, and licorice. If you find yourself craving these foods do what you can to distract yourself until you have had a thorough discussion with your doctor or midwife about your options.
“One night I HAD to have an open-faced roast beef and gravy sandwich. My husband found a single-serve in the freezer at the store (not early in the evening, mind you), and it was AMAZING.” -Lucy, mother of six