Food cravings

If you suffer from serious food cravings during your pregnancy, do not fret as you are not alone. Between 50-90% of all pregnant women are reported to have some kind of food related craving throughout their pregnancy.

Food cravings are described as when our body suffers from an intense urge to obtain a particular food item. Food aversions on the other hand occur when our body particularly repels or wants to avoid a particular food. Cravings and aversions are completely benign or ‘harmless’ to your pregnancy, however it is important that these do not interfere with consuming a healthy and nutritious diet.

Food cravings occur more often in pregnancy and the reason behind this is still a scientific mystery and is not well understood. A few ideas that have been suggested include:

  • During pregnancy our body’s sense of smell and taste buds is said to change. Around 1 in 4 pregnant women report that they do experience changes in their taste sensitivity, which naturally changes one’s food preferences.
  • Cravings are said to develop when your diet specifically is lacking in a particular food item or food group. Some say that it is your body’s way of telling you that it requires a specific nutrient, and does this by creating its own perceived palatability of a certain food item or imagined enjoyment as part of a ‘reward’ system. One example is that vegetarians do at times crave meat during pregnancy, and this could potentially reflect the increase in iron requirements that occur in pregnancy and subsequent deficit particularly seen in a vegetarian diet.
  • Food cravings are also related to our own psychological mental state. Pregnancy is a critical time for this, given the large hormonal fluctuations and high emotional states we find ourselves in. If you feel more fatigued, stressed or anxious then this is likely to contribute to greater food cravings. Cravings related to stress and anxiety cause higher intakes of calorie dense foods such as breads, fats, oils, sweets and snacks.
  • Food aversions on the other hand can be formed if a particular food has been associated with clinical symptoms such as nausea and vomiting. Some say this is in fact a natural ‘feto-protective’ mechanism with your body rejecting things that are unwanted by your baby as it grows inside you.

What are some common food cravings?

  • Dairy products
  • Fruit and fruit juices
  • Sweets, including confectionary, chocolate and baked products.
  • Pickles
  • Olives

Women who suffer from Gestational Diabetes are described as having almost double the number of sweet food cravings then other pregnant women. The theory behind this is that given their body’s high sugar load they develop a reduced taste perception for sweet foods, hence body craves them more and as a result tend to consume a lot more sweets in their diets. This occurs greatest in 3rd trimester from 34weeks onwards.

What are some common food aversions?

  • Nonalcoholic caffeinated beverages, such as coffee
  • Meat and poultry
  • Fish
  • Eggs

Aversions tend to settle down as the pregnancy progresses, so if you are missing a food item greatly that you can’t tolerate in pregnancy you fortunately should be able to tolerate it by the end! Alcohol interesting enough has been especially reported to taste ‘different’ in a negative manner throughout pregnancy, which is a particularly good thing given that it is not recommended for consumption.

Can my cravings become serious and abnormal?

Pica is a serious eating condition that involves non-nutritious craving, or craving of a non-food item with no nutritional value. The word ‘pica’ is Latin for magpie or a bird known to eat nearly anything, which is reflects this condition with intense cravings leading to the ingestion of everything from dirt, clay, and paint-chips to chalk, hair, wax, toothpaste, ice cubes and starch. Pica has been present for decades and occurs across the world, however highest rates are reported in African nations such as Kenya and Uganda. The high prevalence may be partly attributed by the religious beliefs that eating soil will improve outcomes in fertility and reproduction, and is such a problem that in parts of these countries there is soil available for purchase for the purpose of ingestion and eating. Pica can lead to severe health problems such as lead poisoning, bowel blockage, bowel perforation, ulcerations, and iron deficiency anaemia and other nutrient deficiencies. Pica does occur more often during pregnancy and breastfeeding; hence if you begin to crave and eat non-food items then you must seek medical help immediately as it is a high risk situation and you could do grave harm to both your body as well as your growing baby.

How can I cope with cravings?

One of the most important things to remember is that despite the cravings, your diet must be nutritious and fulfill the nutrient recommendations. A few little tips that will help you cope with the cravings include:

  • When you have a craving try to recognize what your body is telling you – ie. is it a particular nutrient or food item you are craving, or rather a general taste such as saltiness? This will help you identify what it is you should eat.
  • If you constantly continue to crave a particular food item then consider whether it is your body’s way of telling you that your diet is lacking in a particular nutrient. Keep a food diary and seek medical and dietary advice.
  • Remember the consequences of overeating – if you don’t satisfy your food craving then you will continue to eat and likely to have unnecessary weight gain!
  • Think of a healthy way to introduce a craving into your diet with lower calorie options, especially if it is something you shouldn’t be consuming frequently. For example, if you are craving peanut butter then add a small teaspoon into a banana smoothie.
  • Have healthy snacks available ‘on demand’ in your fridge at all times that contain a few different food groups that may in fact be the perfect fix you need – ie. small serving bag of dried fruit or vegetable sticks with cottage cheese and sweet chilli sauce.
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