What your food cravings really mean

Experiencing some unusual cravings? Is it just about mood or could you be lacking something essential? From pregnancy to feeling picky, Kerry Torrens explains what your body might be trying to tell you...

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If you’re prone to the mid-morning munchies or feel the urge for that afternoon sugar hit, you probably end up blaming yourself for being weak-willed. But have you ever thought there might be more to your cravings than lack of willpower alone?

Stress, anxiety and emotions can all impact our ‘need’ for certain foods. Take carbs like bread, biscuits and sweet treats, for example – eating them has a calming effect and boosts levels of the good-mood brain chemical serotonin, which is just what your body craves when you’re feeling down or stressed out.

In fact, cravings are far more likely to be a signal from your brain about your emotions than your stomach telling you that it's hungry or that you have a specific nutrient need. That said, there are some physiological conditions, such as type 2 diabetes and other metabolic disorders (like polycystic ovarian syndrome, or PCOS), that may cause you to crave carbs and sugary foods. Similarly, a large percentage of women experience cravings in the days before their period for serotonin-boosters like chocolate, which can help manage the adrenal glands – the body's stress regulator.   

If all this sounds familiar, take heart – there are steps you can take to manage your cravings...

  • Don’t allow yourself to establish a habit: Enjoying a cream cake at 4pm each day is not ideal, so arm yourself with a piece of whole fruit and a handful of nuts instead to vary your choices.
  • When you need carbs, choose wholegrain: A wholemeal scone, granary bread or oat cakes are filling options.
  • Distract yourself with something else you enjoy: Phone a friend, take a relaxing bath or listen to music.
  • Learn to manage your stress: What works for you is not necessarily going to be the same for your partner, but find that special thing that helps lighten the load.
  • When you’re premenstrual, manage your blood sugar levels: Eat small meals often, and don’t forget to include protein – it helps fill you up and satisfies.

Food cravings in pregnancy

We’ve all heard of crazy food cravings during pregnancy, but are they a useful sign of a nutritional need or just another example of hormonal havoc?

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 really your body’s way of communicating some inborn wisdom?

This is a hotly debated topic, with many arguing that the scientific proof of our body’s inner ‘knowledge’ just isn’t there. What we do know, however, is that you’re far more likely to experience food cravings if you suffered from bad bouts of morning sickness during the early stages of pregnancy. The most commonly craved foods tend to be those high in energy, especially fatty or sweet foods, rather than those that are rich in protein and fibre, so perhaps it’s the extra energy boost our bodies crave when the demands of pregnancy are upon us.

Strange cravings

It’s not just cravings for food that mums-to-be experience – they may also feel strong aversions, which can sometimes even be for foods they previously munched quite happily. Experiencing both these symptoms is a more likely scenario than having just cravings alone. What’s more, research tells us you’re more prone to food issues during pregnancy if you experienced them beforehand – so faddy eaters beware!

For many of us, food aversions can be quite easily explained by our often heightened sense of taste and smell – for example, many expectant mums declare the kitchen a no-go area when protein foods like meat and fish are being prepared. Other women have an urge for strange smells and scents, with the object of their desire often as bizarre as some cited food cravings.

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 many attempt to explain it by associating it 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 elusive.

What's your body saying?

So if it’s not your body telling you of a specific nutrient need, can it really be down to hormones?

A number of experts believe it is, but we’re not talking female hormones here – it’s more to do with the hormones that govern your appetite. Many of these appetite-controlling hormones shift during pregnancy, with some, including a hormone called neuropeptide Y, increasing – this leads to a corresponding rise in appetite. Once again, our knowledge is lacking, because although these hormones can increase our appetite during pregnancy, linking them with an actual food craving is not so easy.   

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.

Despite the ferocity of food cravings, it’s good to know that they rarely lead to the types of overeating bouts commonly seen with eating disorders. But don’t forget that indulging too often can lead to excess weight gain, which places extra stress on your body and may result in a high birthweight delivery and its associated implications.

What your craving might mean…

Common cravings

Commonly suggested links with...

Could actually be because...

Ice

Iron

Chewing or sucking on ice relieves inflammation of the mouth and tongue, which is thought to be a sign of anaemia.

Chocolate

Magnesium

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.

Lemons

Vitamin C

Tastebuds change during pregnancy, so some experts suggest it’s actually the strong sour taste you crave.

Pickles

Salt

There’s no evidence to support this, and some women say it’s the crunch and the acidity that actually satisfies them.

Ice cream

Fat, sugar, protein

Sweet and cooling as well as rich and creamy – could that be why you crave an ice-cream sundae?

 

With no widely accepted explanation for food cravings during pregnancy, the best advice has to be 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, then go ahead and indulge occasionally. However, if your cravings persist, they could prevent you from getting the essential nutrients you need – and if they’re high in fat, sugar or salt (or they put you at risk of food poisoning), speak to your GP.

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.

For more information on diet in pregnancy, visit: nhs.co.uk/pregnancy-and-baby.

This article was last reviewed on the 3rd June. 

Kerry Torrens is BBC Good Food magazine's nutritional therapist.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

Have you had any strange cravings? We would love to hear them...

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