Facts verified by Dr Raewyn Teirney.
Food cravings are experienced by many women throughout pregnancy, and can include virtually anything. However there are some fairly common cravings shared by a majority of women such as:
- Potatoes (in all different forms – mashed, baked and as French fries)
- Pickled vegetables
- Dairy (especially milk, cheese and ice-cream)
- Peanut butter
- Spicy condiments
The most common assumption about pregnancy cravings is that they are a physical sign that the body is deficient in certain nutrients. However this doesn’t explain cravings for junk foods with little nutritional value, which occur quite often during pregnancy.
Interestingly it is more likely that it is the aversions women have to particular foods during pregnancy (rather than their emotional cravings) that indicate the body is physically protecting itself for nutritional reasons. For example, women are said to be more tuned in to bitter tastes that are associated with poisonous foods and alcohol, and also often feel nauseated by the process of preparing and eating meat (most likely because of the health issues that can arise with undercooked meat) as well as fatty foods that tend to aggravate morning sickness and digestive problems. Sense of smell is usually affected too, and increased sensitivity to the smell of foods can contribute to the development of aversions.
When it comes to emotional cravings, it is much more likely that fluctuations in oestrogen, progesterone and HCG hormone levels during pregnancy lead to an increased sense of taste, which needs to be satisfied with food in order for a pregnant woman to feel satiety.
Satisfying these emotional desires for specific tastes is therefore usually achieved by eating foods that are known for having these taste “qualities” which include many of the commonly craved foods.
- Pickles, hot chips and peanut butter cravings all indicate a preference for salty or savoury tasting foods.
- Cravings for the sweeter tasting fruits like strawberries and watermelon are likely to appeal to people with heightened sweet taste buds, as well as other less healthy, sweet foods such as ice-cream, chocolate and sugary fruit juices.
- Alternatively cravings for strong citrus fruits like oranges, lemons and apples seem to be aligned with an increased desire for sour or tart tasting foods.
- Salsa, chillies and cuisines known for their hot, fiery flavours like Mexican and Indian are the top choices for women who gravitate towards spicy foods during their pregnancies, although heartburn and indigestion are sometimes associated with consuming acidic and spicy foods.
- Milk, cheese and other dairy cravings that are high in natural fat content probably emerge based on the body’s need for energy rather than taste, perhaps following a drop in blood sugar, although milk could also be considered a sweet craving in some cases, because flavoured milk and milkshakes are also frequently favoured by many women during pregnancy.
This keener sense of taste also explains some of the weirder desires women have for two or more foods which when eaten together help to quench multiple cravings, although the cliché of eating pickles and ice cream pales in comparison to some even odder food combinations experienced by some women, such as chocolate topping on chips, or fruit dipped in tobasco sauce. But because pregnancy cravings can be so powerful, indulging them is usually the best way to put them at rest, provided you are getting plenty of nutrients from other healthy foods. And of course certain food cravings that do offer nutritional benefits, (such as fruits which are high in Vitamin C and folic acid, and dairy which is rich in calcium and protein) are perfectly fine to give in to.
Other even stranger cravings for non-food substances should never be indulged, and these kinds of cravings can be a sign of pica which is a desire to consume things that offer no nutritional value and some of which can even be toxic, including charcoal, dirt, burnt matches, mothballs, soap, laundry powder, sand, plaster, chalk, cigarette ashes, crayons, detergent, grass, newspaper, and pencil sharpenings. A less dangerous type of pica is pagophagia which is a desire to eat ice that obviously poses less risk than the other materials already mentioned.
The basis for pica cravings have been speculated to be related to psychological reasons such an oral fixation or biological compulsion, and some pica cravings have even been linked to inadequate iron intake or anaemia. Some women become embarrassed or ashamed of pica cravings and don’t report them for fear of being ridiculed but most doctors are aware of pica so pregnant women who do experience any of the cravings listed above (even ice) or any other non-food cravings should inform their GP, obstetrician or midwife, who will be able to run tests to check iron levels, and see if anything else may be wrong. Pica cravings are quite likely to go away after giving birth but if they do remain, further medical treatment may be required.
Additionally, pregnant women should never eat any of the foods that are considered unsafe throughout the entire nine months of pregnancy, due to the risk of contracting listeria, salmonella and/or toxoplasmosis, as well as foods that are high in mercury or anything that could cause an allergic reaction, regardless of the intensity of their cravings.
Dr Raewyn Teirney is gynaecologist, obstetrician and fertility specialist and a visiting medical officer at the Royal Hospital for Women in Sydney and also consults from her private rooms at Maroubra and Kogarah.
Facts verified by Dr Raewyn Teirney.