What To Know About Pregnancy Cravings

The Foods You Crave When You're Pregnant and Why

Pregnancy is one of the most intensive bodily transformations you will ever experience. And yes, almost every part of your body changes in some way or another. But before all of this happens—maybe before you even get a positive pregnancy test—you will notice that your appetite changes, often quite dramatically.

There will be certain foods you used to love that you absolutely abhor when you are pregnant. But there will also be foods that you crave—maybe foods that you never liked before.

There may be some strange combinations of things that you suddenly desire. Pickles and ice cream is perhaps the most infamous combination, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to odd pregnancy cravings.

Let’s take a closer look at pregnancy cravings—why they happen, how common they are, what types of food pregnant people tend to crave, and when and if pregnancy cravings become something to be concerned about.

The Science Behind Cravings

As of now, experts don’t know for sure why pregnancy makes you crave certain foods (and hate others!), but they know for sure that it happens. According to research compiled by Frontiers in Psychology, as many as 50% to 90% of pregnant people in the U.S. experience food cravings at one time or another.

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When Do Pregnancy Cravings Start?

All pregnant people are different, but in general, pregnancy cravings begin by the end of the first trimester, tend to peak in the second trimester, and then tend to decline as the third trimester ends.

However, parents who breastfeed might experience cravings of their own, and certainly continue to experience increased appetites, as both breastfeeding and pregnancy require increased caloric needs.

Why Does Pregnancy Cause Food Cravings?

There are a few main theories about why pregnancy causes our palates to change and why certain foods are craved at this time. Here are a few of the most popular theories.

Hormonal Changes

Pregnancy is a time of profound hormonal changes, especially during the first trimester. Think of it like PMS times a million. Similarly to what happens to you when you are expecting your period, the hormones of pregnancy might change the types of cravings you experience.

Hormones can affect your sensory experience of food, your sense of smell, and your mood—all of which determine what type of foods you crave.

Sensory Changes

Many pregnant people say that they become bloodhounds during pregnancy—able to smell things from a mile away, and easily becoming overwhelmed by smells. This can affect the kinds of foods we crave. Foods with strong and pungent smells may be total turn-offs. At the same time, foods with pleasant, fragrant smells may be of increased interest.

Changing Nutritional Needs

Pregnant people have an increased need for nutrients such as calcium and iron. As such, you may find yourself craving foods that are rich in these ingredients. The only problem is that your body might take its need for calcium and cause you to crave a giant vat of vanilla ice cream.

Eat the ice cream! But remember to add to your diet more nutritious sources of the nutrient you are craving. As for calcium, dark leafy greens, almonds, and fish are also great sources, in addition to that well deserved ice cream.

Survival of the Fittest

Some of our cravings and aversions have to do with a desire to protect ourselves and our growing babies from harm. For example, many of us find that substances that would be unhealthy or less healthy naturally make their way to our lists of aversions, such as coffee and alcohol. Many of us also lose our taste for meat—the theory being that consuming meat can increase one’s chances of bacterial contamination. However, these experiences are not true for every pregnant person!

A Craving for Comfort

Many of us simply crave the foods that give us a feeling of comfort, such as sweets and carbs. We may also crave foods from childhood that we associate with comfort and love. When we experience nausea during pregnancy, we may crave the kinds of foods we eat when we aren’t feeling well.

Cultural Expectations

One of the most interesting things about cravings is that the culture we grew up in can color our own desires for certain foods. For example, as Frontiers in Psychology reports, when it comes to PMS cravings, U.S. women tend to crave chocolate the most, whereas women in Japan tend to crave rice. The same sorts of patterns are true when it comes to pregnancy cravings, explain the study authors.

What Are the Most Common Foods Pregnant Women Crave?

There is a wide range of variety when it comes to pregnancy cravings. Some of us have very atypical cravings that seem to come out of nowhere. However, there are some patterns that researchers have found when it comes to pregnancy cravings among U.S. women.

According to Frontiers in Psychology the most common pregnancy cravings include:

  • Sweets
  • High calorie, savory carbohydrates such as pizza or chips
  • Animal proteins
  • Fruits

Other common pregnancy cravings include fast food, pickles, ice cream, fruit juice, dairy, vegetables, and chocolate. It is also quite common for pregnant people to crave odd combinations of their favorite foods, which might have to do with their altered smell and taste buds.

Maintaining a Healthy Relationship with Food During Pregnancy

In a general sense, there is no reason not to give in to your pregnancy cravings, as long less healthy foods are eaten in moderation, and your overall diet is varied and nutrient rich.

Pregnancy is most definitely not the time to diet, but it’s also the time to focus as much as possible on healthy choices. Eating a healthy diet will keep both you and your baby healthy and ensure that you are strong for delivery and postpartum.

Your caloric needs will increase while you are pregnant. Although it will vary, you will need about an additional 500 calories a day while pregnant. However, try not to focus on the amount, but listen to your own hunger cues.

There will be a few nutrients that you will need more of, to help your baby grow and keep your body strong. The following are these nutrients.

Calcium

You will need about 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day while pregnant. You can get calcium from dairy products, dark, leafy greens, fish, fortified cereals and juices, and nuts and sesame seeds.

Folic Acid

Folic acid is needed for your increased blood supply during pregnancy and to protect your baby from neural tube defects. Prenatal vitamins are great way to get your folic acid, but you can also get it through foods like green leafy veggies, nuts, beans, lentils, and citrus fruits.

Iron

Your iron needs increase during pregnancy, and you will need about 27 total mg of iron per day. It’s important that you eat iron rich foods such as whole grains, meats, dark leafy greens, beans, and nuts, and that you take a supplement if you end up experiencing anemia during pregnancy.

Protein

Your protein needs will increase as well during pregnancy, to an average of about 75 grams per day. You can get your protein from a variety of sources, including meats, fish, eggs, nuts, peas, beans, and soy products.

Are There Foods You Should Avoid During Pregnancy?

There are some foods that are best avoided during pregnancy, because of their risk of harming your baby or causing premature delivery. These are generally foods that may cause bacterial contamination and include:

  • Deli meats and luncheon meats
  • Soft cheeses
  • Sushi
  • Undercooked meats

Are Any Pregnancy Cravings Dangerous?

Sometimes pregnant people end up craving non-food items such as dirt, laundry detergent, ice, corn starch, clay, ashes, or paint chips. If you crave these items, you might be experiencing a medical condition called pica. Not only are these items unsafe for you to consume, but they may indicate a nutritional deficiency—usually pregnancy iron-deficiency (anemia).

Speak to your healthcare provider right away if you are experiencing cravings for non-food items.

If you are suddenly craving foods that you wouldn’t normally eat, like if you are a vegetarian suddenly craving meat, it’s up to you whether or not to give into those cravings. In the case of meat, you might be craving it because you are experiencing a shortage of iron. You might consider asking your healthcare provider if you have anemia, and you might consider eating more non-meat sources of iron such as meats, nuts, and dark leafy greens.

Things to Keep In Mind

For most of us—once we get past the first few months of food aversions and morning sickness—pregnancy is a time to really enjoy what we eat. We may end up trying foods that we never tried before, and expanding our palates in exciting ways.

With some exceptions, and keeping in mind your nutritional needs, there is no issue with giving in to those off-the-wall cravings you are experiencing. And yes, that might mean making your partner go out for a midnight run to get you watermelon, Froot Loops, and roasted cashews. Let yourself be pampered!

That being said, if you are finding yourself craving unhealthy foods, foods that are not compatible with pregnancy, or non-food items, make sure you contact your healthcare provider. If you are someone who has battled an eating disorder, or who is experiencing signs of disordered eating such as overeating, food restrictions, or body dysmorphia, contact your healthcare provider or connect with a therapist.

Food cravings and eating during pregnancy in general should be about feeling good, feeling strong, staying healthy, and nurturing your growing bundle of love. If you are struggling with eating in any way, help is out there. You deserve to enjoy this time—and all the yummy delicacies your heart desires.

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Article Sources
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  • Orloff NC, Hormes JM. Pickles and ice cream! Food cravings in pregnancy: hypotheses, preliminary evidence, and directions for future research. Front. Psychol. 5:1076. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01076.

  • Pregnancy Diet: Foods to Eat While Pregnant. Cleveland Clinic website. Updated January 1, 2018.