It’s well known that pregnancy can tip expectant women's taste buds into turmoil. Peculiar food cravings are one of the central stereotypes of pregnancy in popular culture, and most people know at least one woman who swore she couldn’t live without some kind of curious food – whether that be pickles and ice cream, unripe mango or curry and cake.
And yet food cravings remain one of the many mysteries that still abound about pregnancy. Scientists aren’t clear on exactly what causes them, or indeed if they actually exist at all (although if you ask those of us who found ourselves chowing down on tuna and banana sandwiches or nothing but potatoes, they’re real alright). We look into the research behind it and speak to nutritionists about what they could mean...
What are pregnancy food cravings?
Food cravings are defined as a strong urge for certain foods that is distinct from hunger and very difficult to resist. It is a common phenomenon and is estimated that 50-90% of pregnant women in the US experience a craving for one specific food during their pregnancy. “The majority of women seem to experience strong food cravings and/or aversions during the first trimester, but then again new cravings/aversions can develop at any time during the pregnancy,” says Lovely Ranganath, a Dubai-based nutritionist and senior dietician. “These usually disappear once the baby arrives.”
The impact of hormones
Ever heard of how pregnant women gain a super-human sense of smell? Well pregnancy can turbo charge a woman’s taste sensations too – it’s why coffee may suddenly become unpalatable because it is too bitter, for example. “More research is needed, but he most probable cause is hormonal changes.,” says Ranganath. “The unpredictable levels of the hormone called HCG until around week 11 may very well be responsible for the myriad symptoms like ‘morning sickness’, nausea, cravings, food aversions, heightened sensitivity to smell, etc. There are various theories on why food cravings and aversions happen – from some saying that the mother’s pre-pregnancy diet is responsible to others saying that it’s our bodies’ way of protecting the mother and baby. None of these is backed by large-scale research.”
‘The baby needs it’
The alluring popular wisdom about food cravings is that they represent some sort of primal, biological urge in the pregnant woman’s body. Craving chocolate? Her blood sugar must be low, or maybe the baby needs the calcium. It seems to make logical sense that if she suddenly has an overpowering hankering for plates full of ice-cold lettuce leaves, it must be to fulfill a nutritional need somewhere within the fetus or herself.
And yet it’s almost impossible to find comprehensive scientific evidence to back this up. In fact, some cultures don’t seem to experience pregnancy cravings at all - and in those that do, the foods craved vary wildly.
The most craved food in the US is chocolate, while in parts of India it’s tamarind and unripe mango, and in Japan it’s rice.
This has led some researchers to conclude that cravings aren’t really caused by pregnancy at all. Rather, “pregnancy serves as a culturally sanctioned permission factor allowing women to give into foods that are appealing and forbidden at the same time,” Christie Naze, a clinical dietitian with Oregon Health & Science University’s Center for Women’s Health, told The Bulletin.
A psychosocial tool
But – while the idea that being pregnant grants women permission to indulge might work for sugary and fatty foods like the chocolate and ice cream commonly craved in the West, it’s not quite the same for the cultures where fresh fruit and rice are the most commonly craved foods.
A recent study of women in South India introduced a new hypothesis that cravings for harmful foods function as a bargaining strategy when pregnant women have increased pressure to fulfil cultural norms of motherhood.
It found that 34% of the women studied reported craving at least one pathogenic or toxic item, and many of the cravings focused on unripe mango and unripe tamarind - two items that are high in antioxidants, yet culturally perceived as dangerous for the fetus if consumed in large quantities.
The theory went that women craved potentially toxic and/or pathogenic items in pregnancy as a subconscious way of gaining agency of some kind when social and material resources are unstable.
Certainly, cultural influences seems to play a role in the type of foods that are craved. “One study found Tanzanian women crave mangoes and plantains among other locally available popular foods, while another study showed pregnant American adolescents craved dairy and sweet foods the most,” says Ranganth. “Most women ‘may’ show a general aversion towards foods or dishes with strong smells like meat, eggs, milk, onions, garlic, tea, coffee and spicy foods. Again there are plenty of women who may crave these.”
Should you give in to your cravings?
If you listen to your body, it’s fine to eat your cravings and avoid your aversions – within reason, says Ranganath: “If you feel your aversions include an entire food group then please meet a registered dietician, who can provide you with a bespoke plan that will offer substitutes as well as lifestyle strategies – for example if you don’t like to eat raw veggies, then perhaps putting a handful of greens into your fruit smoothie can hide the taste – to take care of your nutritional needs.”
Craving chalk, clay and other inedibles
A condition known as Pica is well documented amongst pregnant women, whereby there is a craving for substances considered inedible including rocks, charcoal, writing board chalk and clay. No convincing evidence exists to prove that Pica has any physiological significance or indicates any nutrient deficiency, says Ranganath, and ingesting inedible foods can be dangerous.. “Keep your physician in the loop if you find yourself with this condition.”
What could your pregnancy craving mean?
Suddenly sucking on lemons or gobbling grapefruit? Old Wive’s Tales dictate that sour food cravings mean you’ve got a boy on the way, but a study by nutrition scientist Dr Valerie Duffy suggested that this hankering could be to help support ingesting a varied diet. She also found pregnant women have a more intense perception of bitter foods, which they believe could be to protect against ingesting poisons.
Chocolates and ice-cream tend to top the cravings charts. Is it because you need calcium? Researchers at State University of New York point out that a more efficient craving would be tofu if calcium were the issue… Meanwhile, the Old Wives think that if you’re craving sugar, you’re having a girl!
University of Iowa research has shown pregnancy is linked to an increased preference for salt in women, but while historically this may have evolved to help avoid a sodium deficiency, our modern diets tend to have an overabundance, which isn’t good for us or baby – so keep that craving under control!
What you should do about your cravings
- Eat small meals and frequent snacks of fruits and seeds. Dry toast, plain crackers are usually well tolerated.
- Many women with aversions seem to tolerate those foods better when they are served cold or at room temperature.
- Avoid or minimise extremely refined and sugary foods – eat more whole foods
- Drink plenty of water, plus there is some evidence that sipping on ginger tea helps to relieve morning sickness.
- Consult your doctor for a supplementation plan if your overall diet could be compromised by your food cravings or aversions.