Pregnancy Cravings Explained
We’ve all heard stories of a pregnant friend craving strange combinations of food or even non-food substances (ice and pickles, anyone?)
Whilst cravings for non-food substances are rare (and can be a symptom of iron deficiency), approximately 60% of mums-to-be experience pregnancy food cravings, making them one of the most common symptoms of pregnancy.
So what causes common pregnancy food cravings, and how can you manage them?
Pregnancy Hormones and Cravings
It’s unclear exactly what causes pregnancy cravings, although there does seem to be a link between cravings and fluctuating levels of hormones. Some of these hormonal changes are similar to those that occur during the second half of your menstrual cycle, and this might explain cravings for sweet and energy dense foods. Other hormone changes are specific to pregnancy and the preparations your body undergoes to grow a baby and get ready for birth.
Changes to Taste
Pregnancy hormones can also affect your sense of taste. Increased blood flow throughout the body means that anything moving from your blood to your brain will travel faster and in higher quantities. These changes might cause you to go off a food you normally love, or enjoy foods you normally dislike. Sometimes these changes can cause a sour or metallic taste in your mouth. This often happens with caffeinated drinks, which might be your body’s way of advising you not to have too many of these.
During the first trimester, you might find that bitter foods (like dark leafy greens), taste stronger than normal. This may be an evolutionary trait protecting us from eating poisonous foods. You may find yourself averse to eating foods containing microorganisms that could make you sick.
In the second and third trimesters, you may prefer salty, savoury or sour foods. Cravings for salty savouries might be down to your body requiring more sodium (salt) to compensate for the increased volume of blood that your body produces when pregnant. It may also be your body ensuring you eat a varied diet.
Changes to Appetite and Eating
Food cravings and extreme aversions to certain foods can change what you eat and how much you eat while pregnant. You might find your appetite changes with hormonal fluctuations.
During the first few weeks of pregnancy, levels of oestrogen and progesterone increase rapidly, partly as they are produced in the placenta as well as the ovaries. We don’t know exactly how changes in sex hormones affect appetite, but oestrogen is thought to decrease appetite, whilst progesterone increases appetite.
Oestrogen is also linked to an increased sensitivity to the ‘feel good’ hormones, dopamine and serotonin. When you think about eating comfort food (often high in fat and calories), it raises your dopamine levels and makes you feel good. During pregnancy, dopamine levels drop, and this can lead to cravings for food that will increase it again.
Ghrelin, known as the hunger hormone, is normally released from the stomach, but during pregnancy your placenta also releases this hormone. So you may find you are hungrier than normal to ensure that you are eating enough to support the growth of your baby and their development.
Another explanation for cravings is fluctuations in blood sugar. In the first trimester, blood sugar levels can be lower than normal as the placenta delivers glucose to your growing baby, and these dips can increase cravings for sugary foods.
What Do Cravings Mean?
Some people believe that pregnancy cravings for unusual foods are down to a lack of particular nutrients, but we don’t actually have enough research to prove this.
How to Manage Cravings
Whilst it is absolutely OK to give in to the occasional cravings, eating a varied, healthy diet most of the time is important in ensuring you get the right nutrients for you and your growing baby.
Indulging cravings for lots of sugary foods will also zap your energy levels, so where you can, try to find healthy alternatives for less healthy cravings. Here’s some tips that can help:
• Choose healthier foods that closely resemble some of the less healthy foods that you are craving. Try popcorn over crisps, or frozen yoghurt over icecream.
• As your hunger signals might be stronger, aim to have a few smaller meals and use smaller plates. A ‘little and often’ eating pattern can also help prevent the dips in blood sugar that can lead to cravings. Check out our energy boosting recipes for inspiration.
• Eating protein rich meals with whole grain carbohydrates can help you stay full for longer.
• Keep pre-portioned healthy snacks in your cupboard or fridge and freezer such as frozen yoghurt, salted popcorn, breadsticks, hummus and crudites, dark chocolate flavoured with fruits or other flavours.
• Try not to do the shopping when you are hungry and make a list of things that you need in advance.
• Get plenty of sleep as a lack of shut-eye can increase hunger hormones and cravings for fatty and sugary foods.