In my second pregnancy, I wanted, needed – no, craved – fried shrimp.
Not pickles, not ice cream, or even peanut butter. Just shrimp – hot and crispy, and as soon as possible, please.
Pregnancy cravings like these are mysterious and yet somehow have become a noteworthy sign of a growing baby.
Theories abound to explain a pregnant woman’s sudden insatiable need for watermelon or sardines.
You might wonder: Is it normal to crave weird things when pregnant? Is it normal to not crave anything at all?
We’ll get into the answers to all these questions and more.
Are pregnancy cravings real?
The word crave is defined as ‘to feel a powerful desire for something’. Cravings in pregnancy are usually understood as hard-to-resist urges for a particular food.
One study reports 50-90% of women experience cravings for a specific food during pregnancy. Interestingly the highest incidence was among women in the US.
Most people who have pregnancy cravings also experience cravings for certain foods in the eight days around their period.
Pregnancy cravings explained
Why do pregnancy food cravings happen? What creates this strong, urgent need in pregnant women? Women and their partners – especially those who make midnight runs for salted pretzel ice cream – would really like to know.
Studies can’t pinpoint an exact cause for cravings in pregnancy, but three main contributing factors have been identified.
#1: Hormonal shifts
Hormones get the blame for lots of body changes, from puberty to menopause. And pregnancy is no exception.
Many people believe fluctuating levels of estrogen and progesterone affect our mood swings and cravings – especially since it’s widely accepted women crave chocolate during their menstrual cycle.
Research says hormones aren’t the direct cause of pregnancy cravings. They are, however, associated with an increased desire for high carb and sweet foods.
Pregnancy hormones are also responsible for nausea and a heightened sensitivity to smell and taste, which can lead to food aversions as well as cravings. Something that used to taste or smell delicious now seems disgusting. Or now you just can’t get enough of a food you never liked before.
I was surprised to be totally turned off by the aroma of coffee and chocolate – even before I knew I was pregnant. It was one of the first signs that big changes were on the way.
#2: Nutritional need
Another hypothesis for pregnancy cravings is your body is telling you what it needs for baby’s development. This biological explanation says the body will communicate what it needs to ensure the health and survival of the growing child.
For example, a woman with low iron levels or anemia might crave red meat. Or a pregnant body might crave fruits high in vitamin C at an important stage of fetal development. I’ve heard people say pregnant women crave ice cream when the baby needs calcium for growing bones.
This theory really seems to make sense from an evolutionary perspective, but studies haven’t been able to support it. The evidence above shows most cravings are for foods high in sugar and fat rather than for those dense in nutrients.
Although it might be true that cravings point to some sort of need your body is trying to fill, most likely they don’t correspond with specific nutritional deficiencies.
#3: Psychosocial factors
If they’re not directly related to hormonal changes or nutritional needs, where else could these pregnancy cravings be coming from?
According to Psychology Today, cultural context plays a big role in cravings. Food availability and expectations associated with where you live will shape what you crave, and why.
For example, a survey of pregnant women from the UK showed their top 3 food cravings were for chocolate, fruit, and ice lollies. But a study of women from Tanzania revealed top pregnancy cravings for meat, mangoes, and yoghurt.
As the psychology of cravings explains, our need for a specific food has more to do with a need for self-soothing. Certainly the wild physical and emotional demands of pregnancy could trigger a quest for traditional carb-loaded comfort foods.
And pregnant women don’t need scientific studies to prove what they already know about chocolate, the number one reported craving in North America.
Eating chocolate releases endorphins, and endorphins make us feel good.
What does a pregnancy craving feel like?
A pregnancy craving is different from hunger. It might be completely unrelated to feeling hungry. It can be an obsessive want for a particular feel, smell, or taste, which pops up and doesn’t go away until you meet the need.
Amalia, who is from Argentina but lives in the US, explains what it felt like for her: “I was craving octopus constantly in the middle of my pregnancy. It had to be grilled; I wanted that charred texture and flavor”.
Or a craving might start with asking yourself, ‘What sounds good to eat right now?’ And through the process of rejecting the many things that make you feel sick, you think of something you can handle. And then you want that one thing, and nothing else will do.
Courtney says, “I felt so sick all the time, I didn’t want to eat. Unfortunately, iced coffee was the one thing that sounded good, so for a time I became a decaf-iced-coffee-aholic.”
How early in pregnancy do you get cravings?
Most of us associate cravings with the early days of pregnancy. But some women don’t experience them until later on in their pregnancy.
- First trimester: Cravings can start early in the first trimester, as soon as the hormones start rising. Food aversions might be more likely, since nausea is at its worst in the first trimester.
Check out BellyBelly’s article Pregnancy Symptoms – 16 Signs of Pregnancy for more information about early symptoms to look for in the first trimester, including cravings.
- Second trimester: Cravings are most frequent and most intense in the second trimester, possibly because as nausea wanes, eating sounds good, and you want to make up for lost time.
- Third trimester: Fewer cravings are reported in the third trimester, although they can last even until after the baby is born. In the third trimester, heartburn and indigestion can make it trickier to find a food that agrees with you.
What are the most common pregnancy cravings?
The most common pregnancy cravings include fruit juice, fruit, sweets, desserts, dairy, and chocolate.
Savoury and salty food cravings are reported more at the end of pregnancy.
List of top pregnancy cravings
Pregnancy cravings can vary according to culture and geographic location. Here are examples of some top cravings from around the world:
- Sweets (chocolate, candy)
- Carbohydrates (high calorie, such as pizza, chips, fast food)
- Animal protein (steak, chicken)
- Dairy (high calorie, such as cheese, sour cream, ice cream)
- Ice lollies, ice cream
- Cake, desserts, biscuits
- Fizzy drinks
- Spicy food
- Soft drinks
When are cravings a cause for concern?
Not all cravings are healthy ones. Frequent food cravings have been linked to excessive weight gain in pregnancy. Sometimes cravings are for non-food substances that aren’t recommended.
Craving ice during pregnancy has been linked to iron deficiency.
Remember, if you’ve any concern about the effects of your pregnancy cravings, you should call your health care provider.
Excessive weight gain
Indulging in a desire for foods high in sugar and calories too often leads to greater weight gain than is recommended in pregnancy.
Excessive maternal weight gain is linked to a number of adverse health outcomes for both you and your baby; one of these is gestational diabetes.
A high BMI can mean pregnancy complications, which lead to birth interventions.
These are all good reasons to keep cravings in check.
Weird or non-food cravings
Some women’s cravings include non-nutritive items – such as soil, chalk, and soap. These substances can actually be harmful
This is a condition called pica, which possibly indicates a genuine nutritional deficiency, and is a reason to call your medical provider.
Is it bad to ignore a pregnancy craving?
No harm will come to you or your baby if you ignore your desire for milk chocolate or chips. As we’ve shown, your pregnancy craving isn’t signalling that your body or baby needs nutrients.
If the need for a specific food, especially an unhealthy one, is coming more often than you wish, here are some things you can do to calm it down:
- Eat a small portion of the food you want, mindfully savouring each bite
- Find an acceptable healthy substitute – e.g. if you’ve been eating too much ice cream, try a small bowl of Greek yogurt, sweetened with honey, instead.
- Distract yourself. If the craving is really a need for comfort, it might be met by taking a bath or a walk, or calling a friend.
Pregnancy is a time of huge changes in a woman’s mind, body, and spirit. Just like many of these mysterious changes, food cravings can’t be ignored, but they can be respected and (sparingly) indulged.
I can’t stand the thought of fried shrimp anymore, and my taste for coffee is back with a vengeance. Soon you’ll be on the other side of your pregnancy cravings too, and with a baby who has a unique set of peculiar likes and dislikes.