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Pregnancy Cravings

Why They Happen and What to do about Them

When was the last time you craved ice cream topped with hot sauce, or watermelon dipped in pickle juice?

For non-pregnant women, these food choices may not sound very yummy, but if you’re pregnant, it may actually be what you’ve been eating (or at least wanting to) on a regular basis.

Pregnancy food cravings: every pregnant woman knows these can be a real bear! Or do they? According to studies, food cravings during pregnancy are not a universal experience. Pregnant women in some cultures do not report pregnancy cravings, while others report craving vastly different foods: women in the US tend to crave calorie-rich foods, while in Japan it’s rice, in Tanzania it’s yogurt, and in India it’s common for pregnant women to crave unripe mangoes!

What is the Cause of Pregnancy Cravings?

So what is behind pregnancy cravings? Great question! There hasn’t been one identified and agreed-upon cause. There are a few theories out there, but no one really knows for sure.

Theory 1: An Excuse to Eat what You Want

Some dieticians believe that pregnancy cravings are a culturally invented means to allow pregnant women to eat whatever they want without feeling guilty. While eating without any restrictions sounds like heaven on earth, it brings about unhealthy consequences both for mother and baby.

Unrestricted eating usually leads to excessive weight gain during pregnancy, which in turn can trigger gestational diabetes. This is a condition that has negative impacts on the mother and the baby. A pregnant woman with gestational diabetes has too much “sugar” circulating around in her blood. Sugar does not belong in the blood for long periods of time, but our blood carries it from our digestive tracts to the cells where it’s used for energy. In diabetes, the sugar isn’t capable of entering the cells as effectively (because of ineffective or not enough insulin), and it remains circulating in the blood. This poses risks to internal organs, especially the nerves in extremities and eyes, kidneys, and heart. Gestational diabetes has been a contributing factor to the development of high blood pressure during pregnancy, delivery by cesarean section rather than vaginally and having a very large baby (which can make delivery more difficult). For the baby, gestational diabetes poses the following risks: becoming too large and getting wedged in the birth canal, complicating delivery, breathing difficulties and low blood sugar.

Theory 2: A Nutritional Alert

Other scientists have proposed a theory that explains cravings as the body’s way of telling a woman what she needs more of. For example, if a woman craves ice cream, her body may need more of the calcium it contains; if she craves meat, her body needs more protein; if she craves fruit, her body may need more antioxidants…. you get the idea. Having food cravings is not a bad thing, and the cravings can be satisfied with healthy foods that the body can put to good use. Eating foods that are high in sugars and empty calories on a regular basis can be problematic for the reasons mentioned above: weight gain leading to conditions like gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, and premature delivery.

What Should I do if I have Pregnancy Cravings for Unhealthy Foods?

What do dieticians recommend when you crave unhealthy foods? Replace the unhealthy choice with a healthier version of the same food: instead of regular cookies and cream ice cream, have a low sugar low calorie ice cream; replace a Big Mac with a protein style turkey burger; try a low-carb banana or zucchini bread instead of cake; have seltzer water with lemon and stevia instead of 7-Up. The possibilities are endless, and the internet is full of ideas on how to arrive at a healthier alternative to every food one can dream of.

Theory 3: Comfort

There’s another theory out there that has to do with lower dopamine levels. The proponents say that sometimes pregnant women have lower levels of dopamine, and in an effort to raise it, a woman will eat whatever she finds comforting. What is dopamine you ask? It is a neurotransmitter, and it is often referred to as “the feel-good hormone”. It is associated with pleasure and reward. Of course, like anything else in our body, it is very complex and it affects a host of processes and organs. For the sake of this article, we will concentrate on its function in pleasure. When we experience something we consider pleasurable, our brain secretes dopamine and we feel good. Even the thought of something enjoyable (like chocolate, ice cream, or shopping) can cause an increase in the dopamine levels and result in “feeling good” or “a better mood”. Then, when one actually goes shopping, the dopamine dump not only brings about good feelings, but it can reinforce the pleasurableness of the activity. When you anticipate a shopping trip but then you’re prevented from going, this can cause a drop in dopamine levels, which in turn can make you want the activity even more. Understanding this helps to explain why this theory makes so much sense, but for now it hasn’t been proven to be true or false.

Woman eating a variety of sweet and salty snacks

Pregnancy Cravings for things that aren’t Food? About Pica

A food craving that can be indicative of an underlying health condition is called pica. Pica refers to cravings for things that aren’t food. Examples are ice, paper, clay, soap, chalk, baby powder, uncooked rice and grains, paint chips, glue, cigarette buds… the list could go on and on. This craving has been known in some cases to be linked to iron deficiency anemia. Women who experience pica still eat regular food, but they have cravings for non-food items as well. The assumption behind pica is that there are certain nutritional needs that are not being addressed and the body is expressing this through unusual cravings. Some things on the list above are not harmful, while others are very much so. It is important to communicate these cravings to your doctor so she/he can determine if there are nutritional deficits that need to be addressed.

In summary, there are a variety of theories to help explain pregnancy cravings.  If you are pregnant and experiencing any of these cravings, be sure to pay careful attention to how you are feeling and what you are eating.  If you need help finding healthy ways to address your cravings, please be sure to consult your doctor, or a registered dietician for further resources and assistance. If you’d like to talk about anything related to your pregnancy – including peer-to-peer pregnancy counseling and pregnancy tests, feel free to talk with our team at Portland Pregnancy Resource Centers.