Watermelon with a dash of pepper, ice shavings straight from the freezer, or fried chicken breast dipped in chocolate. You’re probably thinking “Yuk!” – but some pregnant mums claim food combinations like these can send your taste buds into orbit.
Why do cravings occur?
If you’re pregnant and find yourself plagued by food cravings, you’re not alone. A South African study showed that up to 84% of pregnant women experience some form of food craving. So what drives a pregnant woman to crave? There are theories that cravings represent dietary deficiencies, and a craving is the body’s way of sourcing the nutrients it needs. But, it seems, few experts agree.
“There is no scientific proof to support this,” says Professor Michael Chapman, Consultant Obstetrician at St George Hospital in Kogarah, NSW. But there is evidence to suggest that cravings are driven by hormones in early pregnancy. “The rise in the hormones oestrogen, progesterone and HCG (human chorionic gonadotropin) – and the central effects these have on the brain – are a more likely cause,” he says.
These extreme hormone levels can have a potent impact, altering a woman’s sense of taste and smell quite dramatically. A Swedish study showed that over 76% of women had abnormal smell and taste perception in pregnancy. The women experienced increased bitter sensitivity, and decreased salt sensitivity. This might explain why pregnant women often crave certain foods and avoid others during pregnancy.
Because food cravings tend to emerge during the first trimester, they can be one of the first signs of early pregnancy. Professor Chapman’s wife experienced cravings for rice pudding during her three pregnancies. It was the only time she ever ate it. “When she was three days late with her period and came home with rice pudding from the supermarket we had an inkling she was pregnant,” he says.
Studies suggest pregnancy cravings tend to fall into three groups; sweet, sour or savoury. High on the must-have list for pregnant mums are: chocolate, milk, fruit, hot chips, pizza and cheese. But women have been known to crave almost anything. Bianca, 29, craved ice during her first pregnancy. “I’d crunch it all the time,” she recalls. “My husband used to joke we’d have to spend a fortune on dentist’s bills after I had the baby. Then, when they offered me ice to suck in labour, I couldn’t stomach it. It made me feel sick,” she says.
While some cravings may seem a little unusual, most don’t present a danger to mother or baby. But you do need to resist the temptation of foods that you simply shouldn’t eat during pregnancy, such as raw seafood, or soft cheeses, says Suzie Best, Dietitian and Exercise Physiologist at the Wesley Weight Management Clinic in Clayfield, Brisbane.
Some cravings lead women to want curious combinations you’d never think of eating normally. Angela craved watermelon and pineapple, but only if it was liberally sprinkled with pepper. Sarah-Jane craved tartare sauce and added it to everything, from pasta, through peanut butter sandwiches, to chocolate cake. Tasha craved cheese and balsamic vinegar.
While these cravings might seem odd, others could best be described as bizarre or even frightening. Pregnant women have been known to crave dirt, laundry powder or cigarette butts. These cravings (known as pica) for non-food items are rare and can be dangerous. If you do fi nd yourself craving non-food items, consult your doctor, advises Professor Chapman.
Pregnancy cravings can change from week to week and from pregnancy to pregnancy. There is also no known genetic link to cravings, says Professor Chapman. When Georgia, 30, was pregnant with her first child she had no cravings at all. With her second pregnancy she craved Lebanese cucumbers. “I’d eat them morning, noon and night – I just couldn’t get enough of them.” When she was pregnant with baby number three, she developed an addiction to Magnum ice-creams!
Georgia also admits to the classic scenario of sending her husband to the shop in the middle of the night. “I’d wake up with this overpowering craving and wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep.” At five months, Sally craves chocolate and honey. Once she eats a small amount of it, the urge passes. If she denies herself, the craving becomes overpowering and she eventually gives in.
The end result is that she overeats the food she craves. So if you’re munching on celery sticks and dreaming about chocolate ice-cream, it’s OK to indulge yourself just a little, says Suzie. Eating a small portion of the food you crave is often enough to satisfy your urge. “Allow yourself a handful of potato chips, instead of the whole carton,” she says.
Indulge your cravings wisely
Of course, you do need to be careful about indulging your cravings. Cravings can be harmful if they replace good nutrition. If you fill up on the foods you crave, you may be denying your body the nutritious foods you and your baby need. Pregnant women need to eat a balanced diet, selected from all the food groups, to obtain an adequate intake of all the nutrients, particularly protein, calcium, folate and iron.
Some mums do crave nutritious food. Strawberries, oranges, cheeses, fish and milk are common healthy food cravings. But also high on the popularity stakes for pregnant women are foods that are laden with empty kilojoules. “Aim to eat foods that are nutrientdense,” says Suzie Best. “They may not have fewer kilojoules, but they have more nutrients.
If you’re craving hot chips, try some salty popcorn. If it’s a sugar hit your body is craving, eat a piece of dried fruit instead of an ice-cream.” Try to distinguish between real hunger and psychological hunger, suggests Suzie. “Pregnancy is a big change in your life. If you’re feeling anxious, stressed or tired, ask yourself: am I just eating to make myself feel better?”
Often, all you need is a distraction to take your mind off the craving. When cravings strike, do something physical you enjoy. Go for a walk after dinner, or do some stretches. Treat yourself to a non-food reward if you feel you need a boost. Relax with a soak in the tub, read a book, or phone a friend.