Why do I have pregnancy cravings?

Why pregnancy cravings happen, and when it’s OK to indulge.

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Photo: Glow Images

Kendra Thompson ate soft-serve frozen yogurt almost every day of her pregnancy. “Even before I knew I was pregnant, I started craving it,” says the Toronto mom. “In the summer, my poor husband would have to race home in the car with my fix so it didn’t melt all over the place.”

You may not pine for the clichéd pickles-and-ice-cream combo, but wacky food cravings are a well-established phenomenon of pregnancy. “Nearly half of all pregnant women experience them,” says Haim Abenhaim, an obstetrician-gynaecologist at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. “Cravings tend to vary as well. For some people it’s salt, for others, it’s sugar. When my wife was pregnant, she couldn’t get her hands on enough sour apples.”

Read more: Foods to avoid during pregnancy>

Other common cravings? Fruit such as kiwi, mango and pineapple, and things like rice pudding and cottage cheese. Some vegetarians have been known to crave meat during their pregnancies. “I went from eating tempeh and tofu before pregnancy to pork loin and prosciutto,” says Taya Griffin, a Toronto mom. “It was a profound craving. It wasn’t something that I could ignore.”

Doctors still aren’t sure why moms-to-be experience cravings, but they say it could have something to do with the surge of extra hormones in a woman’s bloodstream during pregnancy. “We do see that cravings start with the onset of pregnancy and will typically stop once the baby is delivered,” says Abenhaim. “The same goes for aversions. Some women can’t even look at, or smell, certain foods during their pregnancies, but they’re fine once the pregnancy is over.” It’s also common to not experience any cravings at all (though many women actually look forward to having them).

Read more: Not liking being pregnant? You’re not alone>

Cravings can also change from one pregnancy to the next. When Kelly Radcliffe was carrying her daughter, for example, she couldn’t get enough of her husband’s homemade tomato-garlic soup. But when the Vancouver mom was pregnant with her son about a year later, all she wanted were chicken fingers. “I think it was my body’s way of telling me I needed more protein,” says Radcliffe.

Many women believe pregnancy cravings signal a deficiency in certain nutrients, such as salt or iron, but there is actually no hard science to support this theory, says Abenhaim. Another common misunderstanding is that pregnant women have free rein to chow down on whatever they want because they’re eating for two. “Excessive weight gain during pregnancy can lead to lots of issues like diabetes, hypertension and Caesarean sections,” he warns.

Of course, occasional indulgences are completely fine according to Abenhaim, who encourages moms-to-be to follow Canada’s Food Guide for healthy eating, and to exercise good judgment in their meals and snacks. “Cravings in pregnancy are almost a rite of passage, and anything in moderation is fine,” he says. “But if you’re eating three bags of chips a day, you’re definitely overdoing it.” So give in once in a while, but watch your portions and look for healthier ways to satisfy those cravings. If you’re craving sweets, for example, you may want to drizzle some chocolate over fruit or have a glass of chocolate milk, rather than gorging on a box of chocolate bars.

Read more: 8 things I learned during pregnancy>

As for Thompson, when she still wanted frozen yogurt after she’d given birth, she knew she’d created a bad habit. “I kept convincing myself it was a healthy treat because it was fat-free, but once you counted all those toppings, the calories really added up. It definitely wasn’t conducive to losing the baby weight!”

In extremely rare cases, some pregnant women may also crave non-nutritive substances including chalk, sand or mud. It’s a condition called pica and requires attention from a doctor.

A version of this article appeared in our April 2014 issue with the headline “Pass the pickles” p. 47. 

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