Everyone has moments of really, really wanting certain foods, but there’s no craving like a pregnancy craving. Speak to a group of moms, and you’re guaranteed to hear at least one story about eating the same thing every day for an entire trimester — or creating a sandwich filling that most (non-pregnant) people would recoil in horror at the mere thought of. So what’s the deal with pregnancy cravings? What are the foods pregnant women crave most — and why?
Between 50 to 90 percent of pregnant women experience cravings for everything from ice chips to ice cream. Along with an aversion to certain foods, fatigue and nausea, cravings can be a common early sign of pregnancy. Typically, they peak in the second trimester and start to decline during the later weeks of pregnancy. “The most publicized cravings are the strange ones, but the reality is that most pregnant women crave carbohydrates and are less attracted to red meat.” OB-GYN Felice Gersh, M.D., founder/director of the Integrative Medical Group of Irvine, in Irvine, CA, tells SheKnows. “Sweet foods, like fruit, are also often craved.”
Typically, cravings are put down to the hormonal changes during pregnancy, but there’s no data to support this theory. “The truth is that no one truly understands why pregnancy induces food cravings in many women,” says Gersh. But there are many theories — some more interesting than others.
“One theory is that there are survival benefits — the food craved increases the survival of mother and baby in some way,” says Gersh. In particular, the cravings of the second and third trimester help replenish the necessary nutrients not obtained during the first trimester, due to nausea and vomiting. Another theory is that cravings may be due to the overwhelming need historically for women to gain weight during pregnancy.
All pregnancy food cravings are considered normal — yes, even those pizza-with-applesauce combos. “Cravings during pregnancy are very individual,” Patrice Harold, M.D., director of minimally invasive gynecology at Detroit Medical Center’s Hutzel Women’s Hospital, tells SheKnows. “Women may have cravings for salty foods, sweets, sour foods, or combinations of unusual pairings, i.e., pickles and peanut butter.” As far as the experts are concerned, there’s generally no meaning to the cravings, but it’s a topic that’s perfect fodder for old wives’ tales; legend has it that if you’re having a girl you crave sweet foods or dairy, and if you’re having a boy you crave salty, sour or spicy foods.
Some experts believe that pregnant women crave chocolate because it’s considered “forbidden.” In other words, the more off-limits a food is, the more we want it. So this could apply to candy, donuts and anything else that’s packed with sugar. And if you like your chocolate with a side of pickles, that could mean you’re low in sodium, or maybe you just like the crunch.
According to the International Foundation for Mother & Child Health, craving dairy products, like ice cream, milk or cheese, might indicate low levels of calcium. Then again, maybe you just really, really like ice cream…
If you crave unhealthy foods during pregnancy, it’s a good idea to keep a close eye on what you’re eating. “We would recommend that a pregnant mom should not eat the entire package of Oreo cookies — maybe just a few, or consider a healthier substitute,” says Harold. She recommends always drinking an eight-ounce glass of water before eating an unhealthy snack to make you feel full earlier and help avoid overconsumption.
What can be even more dangerous is craving unnatural items or even harmful non-food substances with no nutritional value, like paper, chalk, paint or dirt. This is related to an eating disorder known as pica, and is believed to occur due to iron or other mineral deficiencies. “These cravings should be shared with your healthcare provider so that you have a complete understanding of the risks to you and your baby, and tests should be performed to check for mineral deficiencies,” advise Harold.
More research is needed into pregnancy cravings, but does it really matter what science says? If your diet includes plenty of healthy foods, there’s no harm in enjoying whatever you’re craving during pregnancy. Besides, nobody in their right mind would dare question a pregnant woman’s right to eat pizza with applesauce or pickles dipped in peanut butter.