Last updated March 31, 2017.
We all expect strange cravings during pregnancy — it’s commonly portrayed in TV, books, and movies as a natural part of the pregnancy process. On one episode of “Saved by the Bell,” for example, Mr. Belding’s pregnant wife was craving a combination of peanut butter and ginger ale, while an episode of “Friends” features pregnant and vegetarian Phoebe craving nothing but meat. What’s the deal with pregnancy cravings? And what if your cravings get even more unusual than pistachio ice cream with sardines and hot fudge?
What Causes Pregnancy Cravings?
Pregnancy cravings are very common — about half of women experience at least one craving during pregnancy. Cravings aren’t necessarily linked to your non-pregnant tastes. Sometimes pregnancy makes you crave foods that you didn’t like before pregnancy and sometimes it makes you crave foods in strange combinations. Pregnancy also can cause taste aversions, the opposite of cravings, where you can’t stand the thought of eating a particular food.
People often assume that pregnancy cravings are related to something that the baby needs. In certain anecdotal cases, that may make sense — perhaps Phoebe was craving meat because she needed more protein. However, there haven’t been any rigorous studies linking the foods people crave during pregnancy to any nutritional needs or deficiencies. In other words, no one is exactly sure what causes these cravings.
Some suggest that cravings may be related to the increased sense of smell many people experience during pregnancy. That increased sense of smell is believed to be caused by the higher levels of estrogen and other hormones in the body during pregnancy. Our sense of taste is highly dependent on our sense of smell, so an extra-sensitive nose may lead you to crave certain foods that you wouldn’t otherwise want.
Are Cravings Dangerous?
As mentioned above, we don’t really know what causes cravings. If your cravings are for regular food items, even food items you don’t normally eat, it’s probably nothing to be concerned about. If you feel like your cravings are out of control or are affecting your life in other ways, you may want to check in with your doctor to make sure there’s nothing more serious going on.
If you are craving non-food items during pregnancy, however, you may be suffering from pica.
What is Pica?
Pica is a condition that causes you to eat non-food items such as chalk, dirt, feces, ashes, coffee grounds, laundry detergent, clay, and more. The causes of pica are not well-understood. Some studies suggest that these unusual cravings are linked to a mineral deficiency, most commonly of iron. Pica may also be a symptom of OCD or another underlying mental health irregularity.
Pica also can be a cultural phenomenon. Some cultures incorporate eating non-food items into religious or medical practice; for example, pregnant women in Tanzania and Kenya have traditionally consumed a white clay called kaolin because it is believed to absorb dangerous toxins from the body.
In other words, pica is a complicated condition with unclear causes. Regardless of the cause, you should always discuss any non-food cravings with your doctor to determine whether indulging these cravings is safe. Depending on what non-food items you’re craving, pica may be dangerous both to you and to the baby.
Potential Dangers Of Pica
First, eating things like dirt, ash, and clay can damage and even obstruct your digestive tract. That can lead to serious infections, which can cause brain damage in your developing little one. You may need surgery to remove an obstruction, which is extremely risky to both you and the baby. Even if you don’t develop an obstruction, eating non-food items can actually block your body’s ability to absorb needed nutrients from your food and cause nutrient deficiencies that can make you sick and impair your child’s development.
Secondly, these non-food items may be toxic and make you or the baby sick. Eating paint chips, for example, may expose you and your little one to lead poisoning.
Finally, eating soil, clay, or feces can expose you and the baby to dangerous infections like toxoplasmosis.
However, not all pica is dangerous. Some pregnant women crave ice chips, for example, which are harmless (although eating ice may damage your teeth).
If you’re having non-food cravings, you should speak to your doctor immediately to determine if you have any underlying physical or mental health issues. You may need to take a blood test to ensure that you have healthy levels of iron and other necessary nutrients. Your doctor will be able to give you advice about whether your particular craving is safe for you and the baby and can help you develop strategies for dealing withe pica in a healthy way.
What to Do About Pregnancy Cravings
If you’re craving certain (and maybe strange) foods while pregnant, there’s no harm in indulging in them within reason. If you have a particular taste for something, it’s fine as long as the food is safe for pregnancy.
Just as in your non-pregnant life, moderation is key. Some people are lucky enough to crave healthy foods, but many crave sweet and salty snacks. Remember that you only need a few hundred extra calories per day to feed your growing little one. Eating too much junk food can result in extra weight gain, which in turn can have a negative impact on the baby.
If your cravings lead you to the ice cream or potato chip section of the grocery store, you may be able to keep them in check by keeping healthier options around the house. If you’re looking for something sweet, fresh fruit may be able to satisfy you. If you want something crunchy and salty, pretzels are lower in fat and calories than potato chips. You can also help combat cravings by planning your meals and snacks so you don’t have to make decisions throughout the day about what to eat. You may also be able to combat cravings by distracting yourself — when a craving hits, call a friend or take a walk to get your mind off it.
Finally, remember that pregnancy often causes heartburn on its own. If your cravings are for spicy foods or foods that usually give you heartburn, you may want to avoid them in order to avoid that extra discomfort.
What Do You Crave?
What are your pregnancy cravings? Have you found yourself wanting wacky food combinations? Have you experienced pica? We’d love to hear about it! Share your experience in the comments.