The stories about odd food cravings while you’re pregnant are true. While they may not be as humorous as movies and television shows make them out to be, cravings, as well as food aversions, are very common during pregnancy. In the U.S. alone, 50-90% of pregnant women experience cravings for specific foods, according to research. While there is no one specific cause tied to food cravings, researchers and doctors contribute the cravings to a few different factors.
Why Does Pregnancy Cause Food Cravings?
Some of the most common theories as to why pregnancy causes food cravings include hormonal changes, sensory changes, a change of nutritional needs, and desires for comfort. Pregnancy is accompanied by a plethora of hormonal changes. Hormones can also affect a person’s senses, leading to new food experiences involving taste and smell. This leads to the second theory – sensory changes. Oftentimes, pregnant women will report that their sense of smell is stronger than before. A stronger sense of smell can work both ways for cravings. Stronger delightful smells can lead to cravings just as unpleasant, pungent smells can lead to food aversions.
Another theory involves the change of a person’s nutritional needs once they are pregnant. For instance, pregnant people have an increased need when it comes to the nutrients their body needs. Common nutrients include iron and calcium. A craving for the nutrient calcium can be the reasoning behind a person’s desire for a pint of ice cream. While ice cream may have calcium in it, there are better alternatives to calcium-rich foods.
Similar to a non-pregnant individual’s craving for ice cream, some foods are craved for their comforting benefits. Sweets and carbs are common comfort foods that elicit feelings of relaxation. In addition, some of these same cravings can come from past experiences, like childhood nostalgia.
What are the Most Common Cravings?
While food cravings are not reserved for certain meals or ingredients, there are cravings that come up more frequently than others. Sweets, savory, sodium-rich foods, and dairy are among some of the main culprits in the United States. Here’s why:
- Sweets: Sweets, like chocolate, can be contributed to a pregnant women’s increased caloric needs. In addition, certain sweets and desserts can also be included in a person’s cravings for comfort.
- Savory, Sodium-rich Foods: Frequently in the media we will see the usual suspect of a pregnant woman with her hands wrapped tightly around a jar of pickles. There’s a reason for that. A pregnant women’s increase in blood volume raises the need for sodium.
- Dairy: As mentioned above, a person’s nutritional needs change when they get pregnant. The body’s demand for more calcium can be related to the desire for ice cream, milk or cheese.
Other common cravings seen in pregnant women include fruit, chili peppers and protein-packed foods.
When are Food Cravings Most Likely to Occur?
Food cravings are not “one size fits all”. While every person and pregnancy is different, the routine schedule of cravings starts near the end of the first trimester, then peaks in the second trimester, and declines in the third trimester. While it is likely for most cravings to subside as the third trimester ends, some women report different cravings while breastfeeding.
Maintaining a Healthy, Balanced Diet
While “eating for two” may be the catchphrase of your pregnancy, it’s important to eat a balanced diet with the right amount of fat, protein, vitamins, and minerals so that your baby will develop well and you will stay healthy. It is okay to give in to cravings every now and then to satisfy your desires and relax your mood, but too much overeating can lead to problems of their own like an increased risk in cardiovascular issues. A visit with your healthcare practitioner can assist in making sure are getting the right amount of nutrients needed during your pregnancy and they can also recommend nutritional supplements to help where you may be lacking.
Foods Worth Avoiding
The CDC recommends avoiding eating soft cheeses, like brie and feta, unless the packaging says it is pasteurized. Most brands sold in the United States are safe and pasteurized. Unpasteurized milk and cheese can contain harmful bacteria like listeria. Pregnant women are ten times more likely to get a listeria infection, which is called listeriosis.
What Causes Food Aversions?
On the opposite side of the spectrum during your pregnancy, you might also experience food aversions. Food aversions usually start around the same time food cravings do. Most common aversions are related to foods with strong smells, like meat, eggs, garlic and onion. It is also possible to have a certain craving for one food during a portion of your pregnancy and have an aversion to it later on. The same can go the other direction with food you dislike early on and end up craving later.
Both food cravings and aversions are normal during pregnancy. It is important that you listen to your body’s wants and needs, but also pay attention to your nutritional needs and maintain a healthy diet for both you and your baby.
At Kansas City ObGyn, we are here to help you with all aspects of your pregnancy. We’re happy to begin a conversation around your cravings, aversions, and nutrition needs. Contact us today to schedule an appointment at (913) 735-1344 or by email.
Dr. Crystal M. Newby, MD is a physician at Kansas City ObGyn. She received her medical degree from the University of Missouri - Kansas City School of Medicine. Dr. Newby married her fellow Kansas native high school sweetheart and they have 3 daughters.