Many women report overwhelming urges to seek out all kinds of weird and wacky food combinations while carrying. Pickles with doughnuts? Ketchup and chocolate? Chillis on ice cream? And it’s not just about what you desire – amongst the hormonal whirlwind of physiological changes and challenges facing your body, you’ll just as commonly experience ferocious aversions to foods, smells and even textures too. But is there meaning in the madness? And more importantly – are there healthier alternatives you can turn to? We spoke to nutritionist and health journalist Louise Pyne to shed some light on one of the most fiercely debated pregnancy myths.
What causes cravings during pregnancy?
Regardless of pregnancy, there are many factors that can contribute to cravings. Stress and anxiety can stimulate the need for serotonin – a feel-good chemical that’s often boosted after eating carb-heavy snacks and sweets – and much of what we think we need is the result of habit too. According to an article published in The British Journal of Sports Medicine, sugar has deeply addictive properties that influence the brain’s neurochemistry, making you more likely to feel dependent on sugary foods if you establish them as a norm (like reaching for that chocolate biccy every day at 4pm). Having said that, there’s no denying that hormonal fluctuations experienced during pregnancy can change your perception of taste and smell, often sparking strong cravings for particular things and reconfiguring your relationship with foods that you may have either loved or hated in the past. As nutritional therapist Kerry Torrens reported for the BBC, the chances of experiencing intense cravings are also higher if you’ve suffered greatly with morning sickness, and more often than not, mums-to-be will find themselves seeking out high calorie, fatty options, which suggests that their bodies are tired and seeking fast energy. Either way, it’s useful to be as informed as possible while you’re on this journey, and getting to understand what certain yearnings may be signifying can help you to make choices that are healthier for you and your baby.
Are my pregnancy cravings trying to tell me something?
Why: If you’ve found your sugary cravings have gotten even sweeter, it could be a sign of a mineral deficiency. The sweet stuff is a source of magnesium, so a strong craving for chocolate could be a sign that you’re low in magnesium, an important mineral which helps to build strong teeth and bones in your baby. Magnesium is also a muscle relaxant, so if you suffer restless legs or sleep issues then increasing your levels could help.
What to eat: Nibble on a few squares of dark chocolate and load up on wholegrains such as brown rice and wholemeal bread, as well as dark green leafy veggies like spinach and kale as these are high in magnesium.
Can’t get enough chips
What to eat: Try to keep oily foods like chips and crisps to a minimum and load up on pickled foods such as sauerkraut and miso soup – both of these are rich in probiotics and beneficial bacteria which can boost immunity and digestion.
Crying out for curry
Why: A desire for spicy food is common in pregnancy, with one in 20 women reporting a weakness for curry. It’s thought that changing tastebuds are responsible for spicy urges along with the theory that spicy food can bring on labour.
What to eat: Opt for vegetable curries like dhal or chickpea curry served with plain rice because these tend to be easier on the digestive system and lower in fat.
Hankering for hamburgers
Why: It’s not unusual to crave red meat during pregnancy. This is because red meat is high in iron, which is needed for red blood cell formation in your baby. Iron is also a vital component for making haemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to other cells, and since blood volume increases by almost 50% during pregnancy, it’s even more important to increase iron stores to ensure oxygen can be transported efficiently around the body. Low iron levels can also result in anaemia, a condition that affects up to 24.4% of expectant mums in the UK. Bizarrely, some women get cravings for non-food items like dirt, clay and ice – a phenomenon called pica which can be a sign of anaemia, so make sure to speak to your midwife if you experience these types of cravings.
What to eat: Ditch fast food for a palm-sized piece of steak and try leaner cuts like top sirloin or skirt steak which pack in juiciness without a high fat content. And load up on dark green leaves including rocket and spinach for an extra punch.
Eyeing up ice cream
Why: If the thought of an extra-large scoop of vanilla ice cream drizzled in chocolate sauce makes you go weak at the knees you’re not alone. Core body temperature rises during pregnancy which can naturally make you feel hotter than usual, and by the time you’re due to give birth you’ll have gained around 12.5kg which can make you sweat more than normal – no wonder you’re longing for something ice cold!
What to eat: Ice cream is loaded with sugar which can play havoc with energy-stabilising blood sugar levels. Swap ice cream for a pot of creamy Greek yogurt with puréed berries for a cool sweet treat that won’t send blood sugar levels soaring.
Looking for lemon
Why: Many women get a thirst for sour, zesty flavours during pregnancy because of changing tastebuds. Lemon is a natural nausea aid, so a desire for the tangy fruit during the first trimester could be your body’s way of helping to curb queasiness.
What to eat: Try to incorporate lemon into your daily diet. Start your day with a cup of hot water and lemon to calm digestion and help alleviate nausea, add a slice of lemon to herbal teas or use lemon juice in a salad dressing and as a marinade base.
These easy substitutes will help to satisfy those pesky cravings while providing a greater nutritional payoff – and you may even discover some new edible favourites in the process.