Do food cravings threaten to derail good nutrition during your pregnancy? Here's how to stay on track.
By Elizabeth Ward
Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson
For many women, powerful food cravings for certain foods come with the territory during pregnancy. You've probably heard tales of loved ones being dispatched at all hours to search for a certain brand of bacon double cheeseburger or rocky road ice cream to quell an expectant mom's desire. Perhaps you've felt an overwhelming urge to splurge firsthand.
Truth is, nobody is sure why some women have pregnancy food cravings. "Some experts say cravings, and their flip side, food aversions, are protective, even if there is no scientific data to back up that theory," says Siobhan Dolan, MD, assistant medical director of the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation and assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology and women's health at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
For example, you may not feel like drinking alcohol when pregnant, which is beneficial since avoiding beer, wine, and other spirits fosters your baby's mental and physical development.
Others think a pregnant woman's preference for certain foods such as salt-laden potato chips is nature's way of helping her meet her daily sodium quota. However, it's highly unlikely that cells translate so-called nutrient shortfalls into food cravings. Longing for a particular food tends to distinguish pregnancy food cravings from cravings women have when they are not expecting.
Pregnancy Cravings Are in a Class by Themselves
So food cravings are probably all in your head, a product of pregnancy hormones. Hormonal shifts during pregnancy intensify sense of smell (which heavily influences taste) and are powerful enough to affect food choices.
"It's possible that women who are feeling nauseous, bloated, tired, or crabby due to the effects of pregnancy hormones look for foods to increase their comfort level," says Elisa Zied, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "Some women who deprive themselves when they're not pregnant think of pregnancy as a time to treat themselves to foods they typically avoid."
When expecting, Zied favored foods she loved as a teen but ate far less often in the years leading up to her two pregnancies. A combination of kielbasa and melted cheese atop toasted English muffins were big with Zied during her first pregnancy. When due with her second child, she preferred Cheez-Its over anything else.
How does a nutrition professional who knows better manage cravings? By eating small portions of the lower-fat versions of her favorite foods. "When I wanted those foods, I really wanted them, so I gave in, always mindful of how much I was eating," she says.
Food Cravings Aren't All Bad
The foods women tend to want are, in fact, good choices. Take dairy products, for example, rich in protein, calcium, and several other nutrients, which are among the top foods women want during pregnancy, according to the March of Dimes. When Dolan was pregnant, cranberry juice was all she wanted to drink. Fortified cranberry juice can be an excellent source of calcium or vitamin C and contains an array of other nutrients necessary during pregnancy.
Food cravings typically differ from pregnancy to pregnancy. They may also change from day to day. Don't be surprised when the food you had to have yesterday repulses you today. Sometimes, a pregnancy changes food preferences permanently. After delivering, Dolan's love of cranberry juice turned to distaste. "Now, I won't even go near it," she says.
Some women find themselves with a yen for nonfood items, including ice, dirt, clay, paper, and even paint chips, a condition known as pica. Pica may signal iron deficiency. Expectant mothers may also get the urge to eat flour or cornstarch, which, despite being food items, are a problem in large amounts. Too much can lead to blocked bowels and crowd out the nutrients your baby needs by causing you to feel full. If you have any of these urges, resist eating the items you crave, and report them to your doctor right away.
No matter how strong your desire, steer clear of foods considered health risks for pregnant women and developing babies. These include:
- Raw and undercooked seafood, meat, and eggs
- Unpasteurized milk and any foods made from it, including Brie, feta, Camembert, Roquefort, and Mexican-style cheeses
- Unpasteurized juice
- Raw vegetable sprouts, including alfalfa, clover, and radish
- Herbal teas
It's possible to have food cravings and still provide your baby with the nutrients she or he needs to grow. However, giving in to too often to your desire for high-calorie foods may translate into too much weight gain (experts recommend between 25 and 35 pounds for a single baby; and 35 to 45 pounds for twins). Too much weight gain increases the risk of gestational diabetes and unhealthy blood pressure levels.
Here's how to handle pregnancy cravings:
- Eat a balanced diet that includes lean sources of protein, reduced-fat dairy foods, whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and legumes. When your diet is balanced, a small portion of a not-so-healthy food won't crowd out the nutrition your baby needs.
- Eat regularly to avoid drops in blood sugar that could trigger food cravings. Dividing up food into six small and satisfying meals can help.
- Include regular physical activity (as permitted by your doctor).
- If the urge to eat brownie sundaes is ruling your life, try taking your mind off food by waiting to eat (as long as you had a balanced meal or snack within the last two hours); going on a short walk; running an errand (but avoid the grocery store!); getting out of the kitchen; calling a friend; or reading.
- Try satisfying a candy urge with a fun-size bar instead of the king size. Got to have chips? Choose a snack size bag of baked chips to limit fat intake and overall consumption.
- Focus on lower-calorie foods. Frozen yogurt and low-fat fudge bars may do the trick when you desire super-premium ice cream. Sorbet, sherbet, and frozen fruit bars are other lower-calorie frozen treats that can stand in for higher-calorie options.
- Create more healthy stand-ins for the treats you crave. When you must have a strawberry Danish, try spreading four graham cracker squares with two tablespoons whipped cream cheese. Top with strawberry preserves or sliced fresh strawberries. Another idea: Put off running out to buy a milkshake with this blender treat: Combine low-fat vanilla frozen yogurt and orange juice and whip to desired consistency.
Published May 2, 2005.
Sources: Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN, nutrition consultant and national spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association. The American Academy of Pediatrics. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Siobhan Dolan, MD, assistant medical director, March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation; assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology and women's health, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York. Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease, Ninth Edition, Shils, Olson, Shike, Ross, eds.
©1996-2005 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.
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