Just as many of us find ourselves scrambling for the chocolate bars around the same time every month, so pregnancy can tip your taste buds into turmoil. Scientists aren’t clear on exactly what causes cravings, or indeed if they actually exist at all – although if you ask those of us who found ourselves chowing down on tuna and banana sandwiches or nothing but potatoes, they’re real alright. We spoke to a nutritionist about what they could mean...
Old Wive’s Tales dictate that sour food cravings mean you’ve got a boy on the way, but a study by nutrition scientist Dr Valerie Duffy suggested that this hankering could be to help support ingesting a varied diet. She also found pregnant women have a more intense perception of bitter foods, which they believe could be to protect against ingesting poisons.
Chocolates and ice-cream tend to top the cravings charts. Is it because you need calcium? Researchers at State University of New York point out that a more efficient craving would be tofu if calcium were the issue… Meanwhile, the Old Wives think that if you’re craving sugar, you’re having a girl!
University of Iowa research has shown pregnancy is linked to an increased preference for salt in women, but while historically this may have evolved to help avoid a sodium deficiency, our modern diets tend to have an overabundance, which isn’t good for us or baby – so keep that craving under control!
What science tells us:
Lovely Ranganath, senior nutritionist at Dubai World Trade Centre, shares her thoughts on food cravings
We really don’t know what might be causing specific food cravings and aversions during pregnancy. More research is needed, but he most probable cause is hormonal changes. The unpredictable levels of the hormone called HCG until around week 11 may very well be responsible for the myriad symptoms like ‘morning sickness’, nausea, cravings, food aversions, heightened sensitivity to smell, etc. There are various theories on why food cravings and aversions happen – from some saying that the mother’s pre-pregnancy diet is responsible to others saying that it’s our bodies’ way of protecting the mother and baby. None of these is backed by large-scale research.
The majority of women seem to experience strong food cravings and/or aversions during the first trimester, but then again new cravings/aversions can develop at any time during the pregnancy. These usually disappear once the baby arrives.
Cultural influence seems to play a role in the type of foods that are craved. One study found Tanzanian women crave mangoes and plantains among other locally available popular foods, while another study showed pregnant American adolescents craved dairy and sweet foods the most. Most women ‘may’ show a general aversion towards foods or dishes with strong smells like meat, eggs, milk, onions, garlic, tea, coffee and spicy foods. Again there are plenty of women who may crave these.
If you listen to your body, it’s fine to eat your cravings and avoid your aversions – within reason. If you feel your aversions include an entire food group then please meet a registered dietician, who can provide you with a bespoke plan that will offer substitutes as well as lifestyle strategies – for example if you don’t like to eat raw veggies, then perhaps putting a handful of greens into your fruit smoothie can hide the taste – to take care of your nutritional needs.
A condition known as Pica is well documented amongst pregnant women, whereby there is a craving for substances considered inedible including rocks, charcoal, writing board chalk and clay. No convincing evidence exists to prove that Pica has any physiological significance or indicates any nutrient deficiency. Keep your physician in the loop if you find yourself with this condition.
What you should do about your cravings
- Eat small meals and frequent snacks of fruits and seeds. Dry toast, plain crackers are usually well tolerated.
- Many women with aversions seem to tolerate those foods better when they are served cold or at room temperature.
- Avoid or minimise extremely refined and sugary foods – eat more whole foods
- Drink plenty of water, plus there is some evidence that sipping on ginger tea helps to relieve morning sickness.
- Consult your doctor for a supplementation plan if your overall diet could be compromised by your food cravings or aversions.
Images by Shutterstock and Unsplash