Ages & Stages: Pregnancy: Cracking the Craving Code

Few things are as synonymous with pregnancy as cravings. Women can hardly mention the taste for a dill pickle or liverwurst sandwich without someone playfully asking “Are you pregnant?” Midnight refrigerator raids and trips to the grocery store in pursuit of bananas to dip in peanut butter or chocolate are common occurrences in households expecting a baby.

So, just what does the desire to consume odd combinations of food or one specific food mean? Are there clues indicating your baby’s gender hidden in the foods you crave? Will your baby develop a taste for the foods that you eat during your pregnancy? Do your cravings signal a deficiency in your diet or a possible health risk? Can you satisfy your cravings while consuming the recommended daily requirements of vitamins and nutrients?

If you find yourself contemplating a sundae made of three different flavors of ice cream that each appeals to a specific taste bud, or eagerly eating a jar of olives you’d otherwise never touch if you weren’t pregnant, take heart.

What are cravings?
“Cravings are not an indication of a nutritional deficiency,” says Registered Dietician and Spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, Rachel Brandeis of Alpharetta, Ga. Quickly dispelling the rumors, myths and wives tales that craving a particular food might indicate a health risk, illness or deficiency, Brandeis explains, “There is no specific research that supports that cravings indicate any type of nutritional need.”

If cravings don’t indicate you need to eat more protein or fewer carbohydrates, what do they tell you? “Cravings are result of the spike or change in your hormones,” notes Brandeis. Much like the insatiable appetite many pre-menstrual women experience, or the ravenous desire to eat chocolate during menstruation, cravings are usually driven by your hormones.

Catering to the cravings
“During my pregnancy, all I wanted to eat was spicy foods. Everyone told me that all the spices would make my daughter rowdy, but ironically she’s the most mellow of my three children,” shares Julia Williams of Voorhees, N.J. Many women like Williams find themselves raving one particular food or compelled to omit another. “In addition to food cravings not having any impact on the gender or personality of a baby, there is no scientific proof that foods help to encourage the onset of labor,” says Perler, rebuffing a favorite folk lore commonly passed down from generation to generation of expectant women.

Although there are many women who are not fond of a particular food or food group or who prefer to derive most of their caloric intake from a certain group, pregnancy often heightens the aversion or pull to certain food aromas, tastes and textures. Stressing the importance to not “force feed” yourself, Brandeis guides her patients to look for healthy substitutions to food they’re not able to tolerate during pregnancy.

“A woman shouldn’t obsess about not being able to eat a particular food. There is always a creative option to make sure she and her baby receive all the necessary vitamins and nutrients,” agrees licensed nurse practitioner Toni Perler and Brandeis. Compensate the inability to eat vegetables with an expanded array of fruits. If you can’t palate raw vegetables, try cooked vegetables or use canned fruit in place of fresh. “Making substitutions for foods in the same family is fine,” says Brandeis.

Calming the cravings
Outside of pregnancy, we naturally crave sweet and salty foods. The dramatic and changing infusion of pregnancy hormones ramp up craving urges and alters this process that is otherwise controllable. Adding the mindset that they’re “eating for two,” many expectant women happily indulge their cravings without fully understanding the potential ramifications.

Feeding a craving for sweet treats can easily begin to replace eating foods that offer vital nutritional benefits. “Overeating, or eating an imbalanced diet can also have long-lasting negative results including excessive weight gain, and depression,” says Perler.

“Craving a specific food does not necessarily need to have a negative connotation,” says Brandeis. Worried about providing your baby and your body all the essential vitamins and nutrients or about gaining too much weight does not mean you can never treat yourself to a few mid-afternoon chocolate chip cookies or potato chips with your lunch. Having cravings simply means you need to consider how the food you’re craving will impact your daily intake.

It is important to recognize that your cravings are a natural aspect of womanhood and pregnancy but that like many things in life, cravings require boundaries. “Cravings that run out of control can lead to unhappy weight results postpartum and in uncomfortable indigestion during pregnancy,” warns Perler.
Pregnant women need to maintain a consistent and balanced food intake that has room for cravings as well as nutrition. Meet your cravings head-on instead of taking a back seat approach to their overwhelming power or allowing cravings to rule your diet.
Preparing hot cocoa with milk instead of water satisfies a sweet craving, while still providing the healthy benefit of consuming calcium. Reducing the amount of chips or pretzels you’d eat and combining them with a peanut butter sandwich offers the value of protein and grains as it calms the craving for salt. Instead of picking up a candy bar, consider protein and breakfast bars as a healthier option to feed your sweet tooth. Make sure to pair cookies, cakes and pastries with milk or juice instead of carbonated or sugar-based drinks.

Helping numerous expectant women balance their daily caloric and nutritional intake with the demands of their taste buds, Brandeis offers encouraging advice. “Anytime you can substitute or limit some of the empty calories, and blend them with nutritional foods will help,” she says.