What Causes Pregnancy Food Cravings?
Food cravings are a common part of going through pregnancy. We’ve all seen the trope played-out in movies of a pregnant character craving ice-cream at 3am or heard of a friend or relative that suddenly craved pieces of coal in their second trimester. But not every woman will experience these cravings, and they may not always be as intense as Hollywood would have us believe. So, what are pregnancy cravings and what actually causes them in the first place?
WHAT ARE PREGNANCY CRAVINGS?
During pregnancy, a lot of women may find that they are craving certain foods more than usual, or craving foods they usually wouldn’t be interested in. The cravings aren’t so much about being hungry and needing to eat; they are moreso a mental fixation on a certain taste or texture that is harder than normal to resist.
Research has shown that pregnancy cravings most often emerge towards the end of the first trimester, peak in intensity in the second trimester, and then decline during the third trimester. In a sample of 400 women, a University of Albany Study found that: “76% reported craving at least one food item by the 13th week of pregnancy” (Frontiers). The most common cravings are for sweets, calorically dense savoury carbohydrates like pizza or chips, fruits and animal proteins.
Interestingly, some studies have noticed patterns in these cravings at different stages of pregnancy: cravings for savoury foods appeared strongest during the first trimester; a preference for sweet foods reached peak intensity during the second, and urges for salty substances seemed to appear later in the later stages of gestation.
WHAT CAUSES PREGNANCY FOOD CRAVINGS?
While there is not yet a definitive scientific reason as to what causes these cravings, there are several different theories as to why these cravings emerge or intensify during pregnancy:
Due to changes in hormones, pregnant women may find that their sense of taste and smell is altered or becomes incredibly heightened, causing them to feel nauseous around strongly flavoured foods or drinks, and subsequently favouring ‘safer’ foods; for example, favouring dry toast over a curry, or preferring orange juice over the smell of decaf coffee in the morning. Alternatively, this can also mean that foods that were not appetising pre-pregnancy are suddenly desired. Particularly bad nausea may mean that most foods are off limits, resulting in a compensating craving for high calorie foods to make up for the caloric deficit.
Cravings as a Response to Nutritional Deficits
Proper nutrition during pregnancy is vitally important, as pregnancy can double the requirements for certain nutrients. It is recommended that pregnant women include a wide range of micronutrients in their daily diet, such as iron, folic acid, B vitamins, zinc, magnesium, iodine, vitamin A, and calcium. However, studies have shown that most women don’t tend to crave the nutrient-dense foods that contain these properties, such as dark leafy greens or legumes: “Data from our pilot study of online posts about cravings in pregnancy suggests that while some women crave potentially beneficial proteins, fruits, or vegetables, many of the most commonly reported cravings are for high-calorie, sugary, and fatty foods.” (Frontiers)
Cultural and Psychosocial Factors
Another interesting theory that has been examined in the University of Albany study, is that pregnancy cravings can be influenced by cultural traditions or cultural attitudes towards certain food types. For example, cultures which promote negative attitudes towards sweeter foods can actually create a knee-jerk reaction: “Conflicting attitudes toward foods like chocolate that are perceived to be simultaneously appealing and “forbidden” have recently been hypothesized to be associated with a greater likelihood of craving” (Frontiers).
Cravings For Non-Food Items (Pica)
If a pregnant woman begins to have cravings for non-food items, this may mean that they are suffering from a condition called Pica. Pica is a condition—not exclusive to pregnant women—where the patient craves very unusual, chalky non-food items, such as coal, detergent tablets, soap, ice or clay to name but a few. Pica is believed to be caused by a pronounced nutritional deficiency which then causes the abnormal craving. It is important that anyone experiencing signs of Pica speak to their doctor for further investigation, especially where there is a risk of nutritional deficiency or a risk of eating something harmful.
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The full study by The University of Albany can be read here: