Pregnancy Cravings: Myth or Fact

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Pregnancy Cravings

Pregnancy cravings are a fact. Studies show that physical changes during pregnancy can alter food preferences, causing expectant women to intensely crave some foods and find others inedible. Between 50 and 90 percent of women in the U.S. report craving specific foods while pregnant.

For the most part, prenatal cravings focus on foods that women craved before they became pregnant. Although some women want healthy foods, most favor sweet foods such as ice cream or salty foods such as potato chips. Occasionally, cravings focus on unusual foods, an unusual quantity of certain foods, or an unusual combination of foods such as the much-quoted combo: pickles and ice cream. Cravings can vary widely—even from one trimester to the next—and the food craved during one pregnancy may hold no appeal during the next one.

Such cravings have been documented for centuries but to date scientists cannot confirm exactly what causes them. Studies do offer likely theories, while dispelling others.

Hormones affect cravings

Hormones such as estrogen and progesterone rise during pregnancy and probably increase cravings, just as they do during a woman’s menstrual cycle. A rise in hormones can alter sensory perception, making pregnant women more sensitive to the way food tastes and smells. Some foods become irresistible while other foods evoke nausea.

Food aversion is the flip side of cravings. Although food cravings generally peak during the second trimester, food aversion is most intense during the first trimester, lessening as the pregnancy progresses. As many as two thirds of women report morning sickness symptoms during the first trimester, sometimes triggered by the taste or smell of certain foods. Scientists believe that the heightened sensitivity to tastes and smells may be a protective mechanism, helping women avoid foods that are potentially harmful to a developing fetus. Aversions to bitter foods are highest in the first trimester and may lead women to avoid a bitter food, such as arugula or drink, such as coffee.

Cravings reflect nutritional needs

Cravings may be prompted by nutritional needs, but that doesn’t mean the foods pregnant women wind up eating are guaranteed to supply what’s needed, namely iron, folic acid, B vitamins, zinc, magnesium, iodine, vitamin A, and calcium.

For example, women may crave extra calcium during pregnancy but a serving of highly caloric ice cream is not necessarily the healthiest way to satisfy that craving.

Some pregnant women do want to eat strange substances such as clay, ashes, coffee grounds or laundry starch. This non-food craving is known as pica and it can be a sign of serious nutritional deficiency. Non-food cravings should be reported to a health care provider.

Pregnant women need the extra calories

Cravings may arise from the need for more calories, but some favored foods supply too many calories. Pregnant women do need extra calories but only about 300 to 350 extra calories a day.

Regularly indulging in treats can also make it harder to eat a balanced diet. That bag of potato chips, for example, is not a good substitute for vegetables and consistently indulging in treats can result in unnecessary weight gain.

Whenever possible substitute healthier versions of the foods you crave. For example, if you want chocolate ice cream for breakfast, consider chocolate milk. If you crave sweet food, eat fruit, which has plenty of vitamins.

Cravings cannot predict your child’s gender

The idea that what you eat predicts your unborn baby’s gender is merely an old wives tale. Craving salty or sour foods during your pregnancy is no guarantee that you are carrying a boy. Not does craving sweet food mean you are carrying a girl.

Satisfy cravings but sensibly

Satisfying pregnancy cravings is harmless, as long as it is done in moderation and those cravings don’t include foods that women are not advised to eat during pregnancy. No matter how much cookie dough or alcohol, you crave, eating those foods is always a bad idea.

A little planning can help keep cravings reasonable. To avoid becoming so hungry that you make poor food choices, make a well-rounded meal plan, which includes healthy snacks. This blog gives you great ideas on healthy alternatives for cravings.

Joan MacDonald
Joan Vos MacDonald has written about health and fitness for newspapers, magazines and websites. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers and the author of two books on health-related topics, "Tobacco and Nicotine Dangers," for young adults, and "High Fit Home," a design book about fitness and architecture. She lives in upstate New York near her children and grandchildren.

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