At some point in our lives, we have all 'had to have' that basket of french fries or that chocolate chip cookie. This intense desire for a particular food is often referred to as a craving. Unlike actual hunger, a craving is a desire for a very specific food that feels nearly impossible to resist.
Studies have estimated that anywhere between 50 to 90% of women experience food cravings during pregnancy, so if you are finding yourself in the candy aisle more often than usual, know that you are not alone. Cravings often appear during the first trimester, peak during the second, and fizzle out during the third. Sweet foods are high on the list of the most-craved foods, as are savory foods like pizza or fried foods.
What causes pregnancy cravings?
The truth is, we don't know exactly why certain cravings appear during pregnancy. Most likely, pregnancy cravings are triggered by a combination of the following physiological changes associated with pregnancy:
1. Changing hormone levels
During the first trimester, the body begins to make more insulin to prepare for the temporary state of insulin resistance, which occurs during the latter half of pregnancy. When insulin increases, blood sugar drops. The drop in blood sugar increases the desire for carbohydrate-rich foods (hello, ice cream and candy) to stabilize blood sugar.
2. As a protective method
There are so many ways our bodies function at a physiological level to protect the health of the baby during pregnancy. For example, plant foods, especially bitter vegetables, contain phytochemicals that serve to protect plants from insects and pests. If consumed in excess, these compounds could be harmful or toxic. An aversion to these foods, and instead craving simple, starchy carbohydrates might be a protective mechanism to decrease a mother's risk for foodborne illness.
Women who don't gain enough weight during pregnancy have a higher risk of having a pre-term baby or a baby born with a low birth weight. Craving foods high in carbohydrates and fat may be a protective method designed to increase a woman's fat stores to support her pregnancy and to eventually support breastfeeding if she chooses.
3. Nutritional deficiencies
Nutrient requirements increase during pregnancy, especially the need for iron, folic acid, B vitamins, iodine, zinc, magnesium, calcium and vitamin A. If a woman is deficient in one of these nutrients, she may find herself craving certain foods higher in these nutrients (for example, a craving for steak when iron-deficient).
In extreme cases, certain deficiencies may manifest in dangerous ways. Pica is the craving for non-food items, such as dirt, ice or chalk. While the cause of Pica is unknown, it is believed that an iron deficiency is a common cause during pregnancy.
If you experience cravings for non-food items, schedule an appointment with your doctor right away.
How can I stay healthy when dealing with pregnancy cravings?
Food cravings are normal and typically not harmful! Don't beat yourself up over giving in to your cravings. After all, your cravings might be your body's way of telling you something.
However, the overconsumption of carbohydrates, especially highly-processed carbohydrates, can lead to excessive weight gain and increase a woman's risk for gestational diabetes. Excessive maternal weight gain can also increase the risk of having a large baby, which can present labor and delivery complications.
There are ways to optimize your nutrition while satisfying your urges. Here are my top tips:
1. Avoid highly-processed carbohydrates and choose real, whole foods whenever possible. For example, use real ingredients to make a more nutritious version of your favorite dessert like these 'cookie dough' energy bites.
2. Select complex carbohydrates (think: brown rice, whole-wheat pasta and whole wheat bread) over refined carbohydrates.
3. Eat every three to four hours to prevent your blood sugar from dropping too low, which will lead to increased sugar cravings.
4. Make sure you are staying hydrated throughout the day! Your fluid needs increase during pregnancy and thirst is often mistaken for hunger. Aim for 10 eight-ounce glasses of water per day.
5. Practice mindful eating. Eliminate distractions while eating and eat slowly. Pay attention to your hunger and satiety cues.
6. Reduce stress. Stress can exacerbate cravings. Ensure you are getting adequate sleep, exercising (if approved by your doctor), and practicing yoga or meditation for stress relief.
And remember, you are not in this alone. Reach out to your provider or a nutritionist for guidance and support as you make these important—and delicious—prenatal food decisions.