Pregnancy cravings come on strong and can strike at any time.
Often, partners of pregnant women starts out ready and willing to fetch whatever food meets her fancy.
But when chocolate, vanilla ice cream and peanut butter aren’t what you want, cue those wacky and weird pregnancy cravings.
Some expectant families end up with harrowing tales of stomach-turning food combos they’ve had to witness (mashed potatoes and spaghetti sauce, anyone?).
Usually, these pregnancy cravings don’t disturb the pregnant woman nearly as much as they do everyone around her.
But there are some instances when pregnancy cravings are a cause for concern.
Are weird cravings a sign of pregnancy?
Food cravings in general can be a sign of pregnancy, thanks to surges of hormones in pregnant women.
The nutritional demands of the growing baby cause increased hunger, and hormonal shifts bring morning sickness along for the ride.
This raging hunger-plus-nausea combo makes for a tricky appetite, and a pregnant woman can often become fixated on the only foods that sound good at the time.
The exact cause for pregnancy cravings is undetermined, but they can be an early sign of pregnancy. Studies show most cravings typically show up in the first trimester.
Cheryl says: “My son’s girlfriend came home one day with a can of sardines and a chocolate bar. I instantly knew I was going to be a grandma”.
See our article Pregnancy Cravings – 3 Surprising Reasons for Pregnancy Cravings for more info on how and why cravings emerge.
Is it normal to have weird pregnancy cravings?
Cravings, defined as strong and sudden desires for specific foods, are reported by 50-90% of pregnant people.
So it’s certainly normal to have cravings in pregnancy and not get enough of certain type of foods. Anecdotally, craving something strange seem to be described just as often as so-called ‘normal’ ones like ice cream.
But our individual and cultural differences make weird cravings a little harder to define.
For example, Josh says when his wife was pregnant with their second baby, she suddenly had to have buffalo wings and spicy chicken sandwiches. This sounds pretty normal, except chicken is a weird thing to crave if you’re a vegetarian.
Are weird pregnancy cravings normal?
In Kenya, according to this report, women often eat clay during pregnancy. That’s considered odd in most places, but the practice is driven by local cultural beliefs about what a woman’s body needs for fertility and reproduction.
Although weird and unusual combinations might be normal in pregnancy, eating non-food substances is potentially hazardous. It can point to an underlying condition called pica.
Fun fact: the word pica comes from the medieval Latin word for magpie, a bird known for eating just about anything.
Pica is the persistent eating of substances with no nutritional value. It’s a disorder that can happen to anyone, not just in pregnancy. Common substances eaten include dirt, chalk and paint.
The prevalence of pica is difficult to determine; it’s thought to occur in less than 10% of adults.
Clearly, though, eating a lot of soap or paper can have toxic effects on a mother and her baby. This behaviour warrants a call to your health care provider to explore the root cause and discuss treatment options.
List of weird cravings
Here is a list of non-food items that pregnant moms have craved and eaten:
- Ice chips or ice cubes
- Bars of soap
- Toilet paper
- Washing powder
- Listerine mouthwash
- Pepto Bismol
- Cigarette ash
Strange but true!
What can weird cravings in pregnancy mean?
The desire to eat non-food items is most likely due to a nutritional deficiency. Pica has been associated with diets low in iron, zinc and calcium.
Some of these weird cravings are common enough to have a scientific name too!
Eating ice during labour is quite popular. During pregnancy, plenty of women find themselves craving ice cubes or ice chips. Other than being careful of your teeth, there’s little harm in this craving. But it’s worth getting your iron levels checked just in case. Anemia in pregnancy can cause your mouth to feel inflamed. You may be craving ice to relive the inflammation and any dehydration that goes with it.
Some pregnant women find themselves very drawn to soap products. It might start with smelling detergents such as those you use for washing clothes, then progress to tasting the soap you use for washing dishes or yourself. There’s no real answer to why soap eating happens, except possibly a vitamin deficiency. But science hasn’t figure that out yet.
A little bit of soap isn’t likely to hurt you or your baby but eating it on a regular basis could cause stomach upsets.
Some women have strong desire for things like dirt, rocks or chalk. Again there seems to be no direct cause, although there are theories this craving is triggered as the body tries to protect itself from illness. Soil and clay are thought to filter certain bacteria and pathogens. Dirt is also believed to ease morning or pregnancy sickness.
Having said that, even if there’s some truth to the health benefits of eating dirt and rocks, there’s also risks. These things can also introduce bad bacteria into your digestive system and make you sick.
Wanting to eat starch (cornstarch) or starch products (laundry starch, Playdough) is thought to be related to iron or zinc deficiency.
It’s not uncommon for women to be iron deficient during pregnancy so keeping your iron intake up is important. Your baby stores iron for the first six months of life in anticipation of being exclusively breastfeed. So you need to ensure your diet includes things like:
- High quality animal protein
- Leafy greens, such as spinach
- Legumes and beans, such as lentils and kidney beans
- Dried apricots and blackstrap molasses.
If you eat these foods with others high in vitamin C, it helps your body to absorb the iron better.
Some foods prevent your body from absorbing iron, which are best avoided. These include:
- Tannin, found in coffee and tea
- Foods high in calcium and phosphate (dairy).
If you suspect you might have an zinc deficiency try eating more:
- Poultry and red meat
- Chickpeas, lentils and beans
- Seeds and nuts
Cigarettes/ash/burnt matches (cautopyreiophagia)
There’s a link between wanting to eat ash, specifically cigarette ash, and a lack of potassium in the diet.
Obviously if you crave cigarette ash, it’s a good idea to stay strong and fight the urge. Try eating more potassium, such as:
- Sweet potatoes
- Leafy greens (silverbeet, kale and spinach)
- Beans and peas
- Fruit that grow on vines (tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, pumpkin, melons)
There’s good news if you crave these things. Treatment with supplementation of the deficient vitamin or mineral seems to be effective.
What’s the weirdest pregnancy craving?
Our friends at Life of Dad asked their readers, “What pregnancy craving was the weirdest your partner had and actually followed through with?”
Hundreds of dads responded with stories of being sent out for weird items in the middle of the night, or coming home to find their pregnant partners eating something bizarre.
Jacob says his wife dipped ham sandwiches in chocolate ice cream.
Jim recounts: “Hot sauce. On EVERYTHING! My son now has a Tabasco addiction”.
We typically think of pregnant women craving things like pickles and ice cream. Although the following real-life desire for weird things don’t fall into the category of dangerous, they definitely made us feel queasy:
- Dog treats
- Take away burgers (and she’s a vegetarian)
- Cold sauerkraut with cream cheese
- An entire jar of green olives
- Lemons, eaten like they were oranges
- Raw potatoes
- Pickle juice, drunk like orange juice
- Salt and vinegar chips dipped in blueberry yogurt
- Onions, eaten like apples
- Lo mein with cheese
- Ranch dressing – on everything
- Mangoes dipped in soy sauce
- Hot sauce on cheesecake
- Fried eggs and peanut butter
- Banana sandwich with Marmite
- Mustard on spaghetti
- Lemon juice
- Doritos with scoops of peanut butter
- Pancakes + artificial cheese spread + pickles + maple syrup
- Pickled herring in cream sauce
- Pepperoni on chocolate ice cream
- Peanut butter and mayo sandwiches.
Is it okay to give into odd cravings?
If you’re craving simple things like mashed potatoes and pickles, having them in moderation probably won’t do too much harm. Although you should be mindful of how much food you eat every day. Research shows the more often women give in to the food desires they have, the more likely they’ll gain excess weight.
Too much weight gained during pregnancy has been linked to complications such as gestational diabetes. This can increase your risk of health problems for your baby and the chance of interventions during birth.
So it’s occasionally ok to indulge in pickles and ice cream every so often, but it shouldn’t take the place of a healthy, nutritious diet. Try and look for healthy options when possible, such as fruit.
Is pica in pregnancy dangerous?
If you’re always wanting to eat things that aren’t food, then it’s important to speak to your healthcare provider.
As mentioned earlier, it’s potentially dangerous to be eating these sorts nonfood items. Dirt, soap to ash can contain toxic chemicals that might harm you or your growing baby. You might eat too much of a certain nonfood item that leaves you full, with no room for the nutrition you and your baby need.
Some cases of pica become very serious, leading to complications such as:
- Blockage of the digestive tract
- Stomach irritation
- Nausea and vomiting
- Toxicity of chemicals
- Weight loss.
It’s rare for pica to become so invasive that it replaces a normal diet but it’s important to acknowledge the fact it’s happening. Your healthcare provider, family and friends can support you to manage the more overwhelming cravings and hopefully treat any underlying causes of pica.
Can pica be treated?
If you think you’re experiencing pica or your desire to eat strange nonfood items is becoming overwhelming, speak to your healthcare provider immediately. Even if the only thing you really want to eat is ice, it’s important your healthcare provider can review your dietary intake. Your baby and your body need plenty of good nutrition.
Most cases of pica aren’t picked up unless the pregnant woman indicates it’s happening to her healthcare provider. They can run some blood tests and investigate if there’s a mineral deficiency contributing to the desire to eat anything that’s not food.
In many cases, simply adding supplements can make all the difference. Your healthcare provider can also help you to come up with a plan to manage pica so that it’s not impacting your pregnancy and your growing baby.