Pregnancy brings many joys: the feeling of your baby kicking and stretching, the knowledge that a brand new life is growing inside you and amazement at what your body is able to accomplish. Some things are less pleasant, like swollen feet or morning sickness. Finally, other aspects of pregnancy can even be a little bizarre. A perfect example is the pregnancy food craving.
The majority of expectant mothers will experience at least one food craving during their pregnancy. While most of these cravings are for common sweet, salty or crunchy foods, some women find themselves with an urge for treats that are a little more unusual.
So what exactly are food cravings, and when can the average mother expect them to begin? Here is a little more information on this somewhat mysterious part of pregnancy and also some of the foods pregnant women have found themselves with an appetite for.
What is a Craving?
A food craving is more than just having a simple urge to reach for a snack. If you are expecting a baby and any of these statements are true, you are probably experiencing a true pregnancy food craving:
- You have a deep desire to have a certain, very specific food item or combination of foods. This food that now suddenly sounds like the most delicious treat in the world could even be one that you have never liked before in your life.
- No matter how hard you try to distract yourself, it is very difficult to stop thinking about this food.
- You are willing to go to great lengths to satisfy the craving. Driving 10 miles during inclement weather in the dead of night is not out of the question.
When Do Cravings Most Often Start During Pregnancy?
Every woman is different and will experience a totally unique pregnancy. For some, a strong craving that seems to come out of nowhere may be the first clue that they are pregnant, while other moms may not get a craving until several months into their pregnancy. Still other women never get a single craving at all during the entire nine months.
However, most expecting mothers get their first food craving somewhere around the end of the first trimester. It may be no coincidence that cravings often begin when the food aversions and morning sickness so common in the first trimester are finally starting to improve for many women.
Cravings seem to be most intense during the second trimester, then become less frequent and eventually stop by the end of the third trimester.
Why Do Cravings Happen?
The exact reason why pregnancy cravings happen remains unclear. There are a few speculations, however:
Your body is trying to obtain a certain nutrient.
If you are running low on protein, a sudden craving for a cheeseburger may be your body’s way of getting you to consume the necessary nutrients. This theory has some supporters, but it doesn’t adequately explain the cravings for foods that have little to no healthy nutrients.
Your senses of smell and taste may be heightened due to hormone changes.
Hormones regulate nearly every part of pregnancy, and your hormonally-sharpened senses can cause many foods to simply be more appealing during pregnancy.
You are expected to eat more food during pregnancy, so you do.
Some experts suggest that cravings may be more of a mental thing than an actual physical phenomenon. Since a pregnant woman requires more calories to support her growing baby, women are often encouraged to eat whatever they want whenever they want. The theory holds that expectant mothers give themselves permission to eat more, so they experience more cravings.
Regardless of the actual reason behind a food craving, the fact remains that they are a common and very real experience for pregnant mothers.
Myths and Old Wives’ Tales
Pregnancy food cravings have been the subject of conjecture and speculation for centuries. Traditional beliefs often tend to assume all women will experience pregnancy the same way instead of recognizing that each woman is unique.
You can determine your baby’s gender based on the foods you crave.
Mothers who crave sweets are carrying a girl, and mothers with a taste for salty foods will have a boy. This theory has been around since long before ultrasounds were available, so it’s likely that people tried to come up with any way they could to get an early indication of their baby’s gender. The fact that sheer odds make this theory accurate roughly half of the time may make it seem plausible, but absolutely no scientific data backs this claim up.
There are only a few foods that pregnant women will crave.
The truth is that there are probably as many different food cravings as there are pregnant mothers. While some cravings are more common than others, a woman could crave any food under the sun.
Cravings always get worse as your pregnancy progresses.
Cravings can happen at any time during pregnancy, but most women find that their cravings actually decrease during the third trimester.
While there are certain foods that many pregnant mothers seem to favor, there is no predictable pattern from woman to woman.
Additionally, the way each mother experiences cravings can also vary significantly. Some women report craving a certain food for nearly their entire pregnancy, while others may feel like they are going through an endless series of craving a new food every few days.
Here are some of the foods that frequently top a pregnant woman’s craving list:
Chocolate is usually the most common craving reported by expectant mothers. That may not be entirely fair when you consider all the forms chocolate can take: brownies, cake, hot chocolate, candy bars, pies, cookies and ice cream just to name a few. Non-chocolate sweets like candy, cake and popsicles are also popular.
Pizza, potato chips, pickles, cheese and crackers, pretzels and foods like these are tasty even to non-pregnant people. Expectant mothers often find themselves craving foods that are high in carbohydrates and starches.
This is one common craving that you can feel good about indulging even if it strikes daily. Fresh fruit is a wonderful source of vitamins and fiber. It is also often hydrating and refreshing.
Less Common Cravings
If you find yourself craving a food or combination of foods that may seem a little odd, don’t worry. Chalk it up to the fact that you and your baby are individuals!
The old cliche puts pickles and ice cream at the top of every pregnant mom’s craving list. In fact, pickles do tend to be favorites with pregnant women, with or without the addition of ice cream. However, sometimes it’s not even the pickles themselves that are the most appealing: Some moms just drink straight pickle juice. Other women get their sour fix from lemon juice, either mixed with other things or just plain.
The potential for creative combos is almost limitless. In a survey done by Vitabiotics, some moms reported cravings for shredded carrots topped with ketchup, while others favored canned spaghetti with a side of potato salad. Some women also seem to like adding mustard to foods they normally wouldn’t. Members of one pregnancy forum board reported adding mustard to their brownies and eating a bowl of diced onions covered in mustard.
When Cravings Might be a Cause for Concern
Most cravings are harmless and don’t pose any threat. However, certain situations could be a red flag and should never be ignored.
Pica is a medical term for the condition of craving potentially harmful non-food items. Even though people who are not pregnant can suffer from pica, expectant mothers seem to be more likely to develop the condition and be the most vulnerable to the effects of eating dangerous items.
Some of the most common pica cravings include laundry detergent, dirt, chalk, ashes or other highly unusual items. While eating things like these are not healthy for anyone, they can be especially dangerous for pregnant women and their babies.
If you experience any cravings for unusual items, don’t be embarrassed to tell your doctor about it right away. While it is somewhat rare, pica is certainly not uncommon, and your healthcare provider is the right person to help you manage this condition.
Many pregnant women find crunching on ice pellets or small cubes to be refreshing, especially when you’re feeling the extra heat of a growing belly. However, strong and frequent urges to eat large amounts of ice could be a sign of anemia.
Anemia is the state of low iron levels in the blood. Iron is crucial for getting oxygen to your cells, so having inadequate amounts is obviously concerning.
If you find yourself making trips to the freezer often, it’s probably a good idea to give your health care provider’s office a call.
Unhealthy Weight Gain
There is nothing wrong with the occasional indulgence when you have a strong craving for a chocolate sundae or a side of French fries. In fact, giving yourself permission to enjoy the occasional treat without guilt may actually help you maintain an overall healthy diet.
The key word is occasional, however. Indulging every craving you have for treats will likely cause you to gain weight at a faster pace than is recommended.
The general guidelines for pregnancy weight gain are based on the mother’s weight prior to getting pregnant.
- Mothers with an average pre-pregnancy weight should aim to gain 25 to 35 pounds.
- Those who were higher than the average weight should gain between 15 and 25 pounds.
- Mothers whose weights were lower than average should gain 30 to 40 pounds.
If you find that your weight has risen more rapidly than average throughout your pregnancy, talk with your healthcare provider about your concerns and eating habits. They can help you develop a plan for a healthy daily diet.
All those sweet or salty foods you may have been craving certainly taste great, but they are likely not the nutritionally-dense foods you are your growing baby need for a healthy pregnancy, labor and delivery.
The less-healthy foods that are so easy to crave could be filling you up and causing you to have less of an appetite for truly nourishing foods. Even cravings for healthy foods like fruit can be concerning if they make up too much of your daily meals and snacks.
The basis of your diet should include a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, low-mercury seafood, healthy fats, whole grains, dairy products and plenty of water.
As mentioned above, there is nothing wrong with the occasional treat. Just make sure you are routinely filling up on nutrient-rich food and eating a varied diet. Then savor that treat!
While there may be no true substitute for certain foods, you may be able to find satisfaction from a healthier food that has a similar taste or texture as the food you are craving. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- If you have the urge to eat some ice cream, try to figure out whether you are craving the cold or the flavor of the ice cream. If you want something cold and sweet, you could try a whole fruit popsicle. If you really want the flavors of Rocky Road, try mixing some nuts, a small number of chocolate chips and a few mini marshmallows into some low-sugar vanilla yogurt.
- If pizza is the object of your desire, try topping some zucchini or eggplant slices with tomato sauce, cheese and whatever veggie toppings you like. Then bake or broil for a few minutes to create a healthy mini pizza.If only the real thing will do, get one slice of whatever pizza you are craving and then fill the rest of your plate with salad greens, lots of vegetables and lean protein. Most importantly, make sure to enjoy every bite of that pizza!
- If you are craving fruity flavors, be sure to stick to whole fruits most of the time. Fruit juices are often loaded with extra sugar and don’t contain any fiber. Additionally, your body processes liquid calories differently than those found in solid foods. They usually don’t fill you up, and consuming too much juice in addition to your regular diet could contribute to excessive weight gain.
Every pregnancy is unique, and mothers may even find that the foods they crave vary greatly from one pregnancy to the next. While there may not be much hard scientific evidence to explain why pregnancy cravings happen, they are definitely a reality for many women.
What about you? When did that first craving hit and what were some of the craziest things you just had to have while pregnant? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments!