What do my pregnancy food cravings mean?
Craving certain foods? Food cravings and aversions are common during pregnancy, Registered Nutritionist, Kerry Torrens explains what your body might be telling you...
Almost two-thirds of mums-to-be experience some form of food craving - whether it’s for chilli or chocolate, pickles or potato chips, the urge to satisfy this ‘need’ is strong. But is this your body’s way of communicating some inborn wisdom?
What are food cravings?
A food craving is an intense desire for a specific food – hormonal changes, stress, anxiety and our emotions can all influence our desire for certain foods. Experiencing food cravings is a common occurrence during pregnancy. If this sounds familiar, take heart – there are steps you can take to understand and manage your cravings better...
What triggers a food craving?
Cravings can be triggered by a number of different factors, understanding what these are, may help you identify and understand your cravings better. Hormones play an important role but they’re not the only factor – here are some possible explanations:
- Sex hormones play a regulatory role in how much we eat – if you’re female and menstruating you’ll be all too familiar with those pre-period cravings. The reason we eat more at this time in our cycle is because as oestrogen levels fall our desire for carb-rich foods and serotonin-boosters, like chocolate, rise.
- Hormone levels change during pregnancy, and this may lead to fluctuations in our sense of smell and taste which may intensify food urges.
- An imbalance in the hormones, leptin and ghrelin, that control our appetite and tell us when we are full, may trigger food cravings. Poor quality sleep also disrupts these hormones potentially making our cravings stronger, especially in the evening.
- Eating a poor diet low in protein and fibre, may lead to increased hunger and cravings. Similarly, a diet which includes a large proportion of highly processed foods, rich in fat and sugar may trigger addictive-like eating.
- Levels of stress and the stress hormone, cortisol, is linked with increased hunger and craving-like symptoms in some people.
- Our mood may influence cravings for specific foods, for example low mood may trigger a ‘need’ for comfort foods.
- Those with more impulsive personalities or addictive tendencies may be more likely to experience food cravings.
Why might I experience cravings during pregnancy?
There’s still much for us to learn about food cravings during pregnancy but what we do know is that you’re far more likely to experience them if you suffered from bad bouts of morning sickness. Mums-to-be also feel strong aversions for food, even for those foods that you may previously have enjoyed.
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Are non-food cravings normal during pregnancy?
Ice, freezer frost, clay, earth, polystyrene and soap are amongst the weird non-food items that some pregnant women feel the need to consume. This practice is known as pica, and is often said to be associated with a nutrient deficiency, most commonly for the mineral iron. Although studies suggest women who practice pica are more likely to have been underweight and possibly anaemic at conception, the scientific link with a specific nutrient remains inconclusive.
Will my pregnancy food cravings wane?
Food cravings and aversions tend to be at their most intense during early pregnancy, although that’s not always the case, although, most mums-to-be experience a peak during the second trimester, after which the feelings wane. That said, if you start to crave sweeter foods as the pregnancy progresses, it’s worth mentioning this to your GP because an increased desire for sweet foods is common in women who go on to develop gestational diabetes.
Are food cravings during pregnancy safe?
Despite the intensity of food cravings, it’s good to know that they rarely lead to overeating. But don’t forget that indulging too often can lead to weight gain, which places extra stress on your body and may result in a high birthweight delivery and its associated implications.
With no widely accepted explanation for food cravings during pregnancy, the best advice is that as long as your cravings do not threaten your health or that of your unborn baby and you continue to eat a balanced diet, you can indulge occasionally. However, if your cravings persist, they could prevent you from getting the essential nutrients you need and if your cravings are for foods that are high in fat, sugar or salt (or they put you at risk of food poisoning), speak to your GP.
For more information on diet during pregnancy, visit the NHS website.
So what do we know?
One thing is clear – there's a cultural link with the food you crave. This means the food cravings of an expectant mum in Tanzania are likely to be quite different to those of a mum-to-be in the UK or US. Also, food cravings and aversions tend to be at their most intense during early pregnancy (although that’s not always the case), with most mums-to-be experiencing a peak during the second trimester, after which the feelings generally peter out. That said, if you start to crave sweeter foods as the pregnancy progresses, it’s worth mentioning this to your healthcare professional – an increased desire for sweet foods is common in women who go on to develop gestational diabetes.
What your craving might mean…
Nutrient link: iron
What it actually means: chewing or sucking on ice relieves inflammation of the mouth and tongue, which is thought to be a sign of anaemia.
Nutrient link: magnesium
What it actually means: chocolate is a good source of magnesium, but so are nuts, which are less commonly cited as a craved food. Your choccie desire may be more to do with the feel-good factor it delivers and its sweet taste.
Nutrient link: vitamin c
What it actually means: tastebuds change during pregnancy, so some experts suggest it’s actually the strong sour taste you crave.
Nutrient link: salt
What it actually means: there’s no evidence to support this, and some women say it’s the crunch and the acidity that actually satisfies them.
Nutrient link: fat, sugar, protein
What it actually means: sweet and cooling as well as rich and creamy – could that be why you crave an ice-cream sundae?
It’s worth remembering that salty foods not only impact your blood pressure, but can cause bloating and swelling. Eating too much sugar can put additional strain on organs, such as the pancreas. Likewise, if your cravings are just plain weird – soap, sand or even coal, for example – and they are stopping you from achieving the right balance in your diet, seek medical advice.
Finally, a word for those planning a pregnancy – one thing we do know is that how you nourish yourself prior to conception is as important as your diet during pregnancy, so start early and eat a well-balanced diet now to help you enjoy a happy, healthy pregnancy in the future.
If you are concerned about the balance and nutritional adequacy of your diet, please consult your GP or a Registered Dietician to ensure your nutritional needs and those of your baby are being met.
This article was last reviewed on the 7th February 2022 by Kerry Torrens
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