The Science Behind Your Pregnancy Food Cravings

Find out what feeds those weird pregnancy cravings, and learn what to do when snack attacks happen.

There’s something ridiculously sweet about your partner racing around at midnight to find the exact Vienna sausages and ice cream flavor you’ve been craving. And there’s something ridiculously convenient about being able to blame your hankering for unhealthy foods on your bump. But is it possible your alibi is actually a myth?

Let’s explore three popular theories on why pregnant women experience cravings for specific foods and get the lowdown from experts on whether your demanding appetite should be indulged.

Hormones Mess With Senses

“We don’t really know what causes pregnancy cravings.” says Jenny Jaque, MD, Los Angeles-based OB/GYN. “I think there are multiple factors involved, but the easiest one to point to is the hormone changes taking place.”

Sense of smell can become much more sensitive during pregnancy, and we know that expectant mothers, particularly in early pregnancy, can have food aversions, particularly to strong-smelling foods. So, as Jaque points out, “The foods that taste and smell better during that time are the ones women are going to crave.”

Pregnancy cravings start at different times for everyone, but the first trimester is an especially trying time for expectant women who experience nausea and vomiting due to rapidly rising hormone levels. If you’re a member of the morning sickness club, the word chicken might give you the dry heaves, but devouring pickles and sauerkraut, even sucking on lemons, could become your new norm. That’s perfectly natural because sour types of foods help alleviate nausea, explains Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, Maui-based nutritionist and author of The Complete Natural Medicine Guide to Women’s Health.

You’ve Got a Nutritional Deficiency

A commonly held belief when it comes to specific food cravings is it’s your body’s way of trying to correct an imbalance. For example, maybe you’re dying for red meat because you have a protein or iron deficiency. “Iron is one mineral that every pregnant woman is deficient in,” shares Jaque. “Because your blood volume increases during pregnancy, your level of iron becomes diluted.”

But if you’re pining for something along the lines of fried cheese, you might not want to cave, says Jaque. While the craving for dairy products could signal that your body needs more calcium (another mineral crucial during pregnancy—doubly so if you’re carrying twins), it doesn’t mean you need the greasy snack to feed the need. Rather, your brain and taste buds are simply coming up with a yummy fix for the nutrient you’re lacking when a glass of milk would be a healthier substitute.

It’s probably no surprise, but chocolate is one of the most common pregnancy cravings for the expectant crowd. This makes sense, says Dean, because most American women are deficient in magnesium in the first place, and dark chocolate has a significant amount of the mineral. This means it’s fine, even healthy to fulfill this nutritional need and give in to your sweet tooth as long as you indulge in the dark variety. In fact, a study published in the journal Epidemiology, found that women who ate five or more servings of dark chocolate each week were 40 percent less likely to develop preeclampsia (dangerously high blood pressure during pregnancy).

Eating For Two

Is your mother-in-law pushing seconds on you now that you have a bun in the oven? Are you pumped to get pregnancy’s “free pass” when it comes to food? We hate to break it to you, but eating double portions—one for you and one for the baby—just doesn’t add up when your little one is the size of a kumquat.

“If your grandmother tells you, ‘I ate all this stuff and made your grandpa go all over the place to find these things,’ then you expect that to happen to you,” says Jaque. “There’s a lot to be said about the influences around you, and generationally it can be passed down that it’s OK to eat for two.” But, these days, there’s tons of evidence that eating too much food high in calories, sugars, carbohydrates and fats can be detrimental. Women who have excessive weight gain during their pregnancies are more likely to suffer from pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes and complications during delivery—not to mention, notes Jaque, struggle to lose the extra poundage postpartum.

Deciding Whether to Indulge

Eating a balanced diet and taking a prenatal vitamin with folic acid will help you get all the minerals and vitamins you need and may reduce cravings that are based on nutrient deficiencies. Speak to your healthcare provider if you have questions about particular supplements. If you’re craving healthy foods like fresh fruits, whole grains, vegetables and lean meats, don’t hesitate to give in. But, when it comes to consuming empty calories or high-calorie fast foods, give yourself the green light sparingly.

If your yearning for sweet or spicy foods is driving you nuts, rest assured the feelings will pass. Cravings tend to be most frequent and intense during the second trimester, but they decline in the third trimester and go away entirely after your baby is born. Plus, struggling with prenatal cravings may actually have benefits for you well past your due date. According to Jaque, “Learning how to balance craved foods and a nutritious diet during pregnancy can be the kickoff to a healthy life for moms, too.”

By Kristi Valentini

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