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Pickles and Ice Cream! What Causes Food Cravings During Pregnancy

Food cravings are a well-known and common companion of pregnancy. As a matter of fact, somewhere between 60 to 80% of moms-to-be say they have a distinct urge for certain foods while expecting. Why is this? What causes pregnant women to yearn for pickles and ice cream or be overcome by the immediate need for a tuna fish sandwich?

We don’t know exactly what causes food cravings during pregnancy. They may be related to all the hormones that are active in pregnancy. These hormones can make your sense of smell stronger, which can affect your sense of taste and make you want certain foods.

There haven't been many rigorous studies focusing on cravings, but some researchers have discovered interesting trends when it comes to pregnant women and food preferences. Nutrition scientists at the University of Connecticut found that, depending on the trimester of pregnancy, moms taste certain flavors more intensely and either prefer or dislike them.

In the first trimester, for example, moms in their study found bitter tastes especially potent and aversive. Evolution likely shaped a mom’s perception of bitter flavors this way, so that she would be leery of strong-tasting plants or spoiled foods, which are more likely to contain a toxin that could hurt the baby. Early on, this could be why some moms who formerly love such treats turn up their noses at coffee, alcohol, or spicy foods. As pregnancy progresses (and the baby’s critical organ formation completes), moms tend not to feel sick at the thought or smell of pungent foods anymore.

It’s usually okay to satisfy your food cravings, as long as what you eat is safe and you don’t eat too much of it. Eating too much of what you crave—especially sweet, spicy or salty foods—can cause problems, such as heartburn or gaining too much weight.  You only need 300 extra calories a day during pregnancy to support your baby’s growth, so grabbing fast food or snacking on chips every day to satisfy a craving may put you over the calorie count.

Here are some ways to help curb your food craving:

  • Work your cravings into your everyday eating. Add salsa or relish to your meal for a bit of spice. Add sweetness with citrus fruits, melon and juices.
  • Find healthier options. Instead of regular potato chips, try the reduced-fat kind. If you’re looking for something crunchy, go for carrots or a crisp apple. Try fresh fruit to satisfy your sweet tooth.
  • Don’t buy in bulk. When you can, buy single-servings of foods you crave. Don’t buy a whole bag of chocolate candy. Just buy one or two pieces.
  • Plan your snacks. Knowing what and when you’re going to eat between meals gives you something to look forward to.
  • Distract yourself. Do something to take your mind off your craving. Go for a walk. Call a friend.

Some pregnant women crave things that aren’t food. This kind of eating problem is called pica. Eating nonfoods during pregnancy can cause problems for you and your baby. If you’re filling up on nonfoods, they may not be safe, and they may make you feel full, which could keep you from eating healthier foods.

Nonfoods include:

  • Ice
  • Clay
  • Laundry starch
  • Wax
  • Coffee grounds
  • Dirt

If you crave nonfoods, tell your health care provider.

The bottom line is that, although we have some interesting ideas as to what might be causing the specific cravings of pregnancy, we still don’t really know.  More research is needed. If you have any questions or concerns about food cravings or aversions during your pregnancy, talk to your doctor about it at your next appointment or call us to schedule a conversation.

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