Pregnancy often brings changes in taste preferences, which may include both cravings and food aversions. Food cravings are a desire for a specific food or food combination that feels impossible to resist. While pregnancy often comes with an increased appetite as well, cravings do not always coincide with hunger. Research suggests that between 50 and 90 percent of pregnant women in the United States experience specific food cravings during pregnancy. Whether you are experiencing cravings or aversions, listening to your body is important throughout pregnancy and beyond.
Causes of Pregnancy Food Cravings
Women’s hormones change rapidly during pregnancy, which is likely related to both the cravings and food aversions many women experience. Both taste and smell are heightened during pregnancy, which may contribute to pregnancy cravings and aversions. However, the exact cause of pregnancy cravings is unknown.
Scientists speculate that cravings represent an unmet nutritional need for you or your baby, but research has not made a firm conclusion on this idea. Experts hypothesize that the cravings you experience for specific foods may not signal that your body needs that specific food; rather, your body needs a nutrient found in that food. For example, craving pickles may be linked to needing additional sodium, or craving ice cream may be linked to needing more fat in your diet.
Most women experience their initial pregnancy cravings during their first trimester. Cravings are often most intense during the second trimester and decrease during the third trimester. Food cravings may change quickly, and you may find yourself craving something different every few days.
Most food cravings that last throughout pregnancy will resolve after your baby is born, but it is possible for cravings to linger after delivery. Additionally, some women who choose to breastfeed report continued cravings, as well as an increased appetite, throughout breastfeeding.
Common Pregnancy Food Cravings
Every woman and every pregnancy are different, and you may find yourself craving any food or food combination at any time. Pregnancy cravings may be linked to specific tastes, textures, flavor combinations, or the feelings associated with that food; for example, comforting foods.
The most common pregnancy cravings in the United Stated include:
- Sweets and desserts
- Dairy, specifically cheese
- Starchy carbohydrates
- Fast food
- Chinese food
Research shows that cravings vary greatly between cultures. For example, women in the United Kingdom often crave chocolate, fruit, and ice pops during pregnancy, whereas women in Japan often crave rice.
With all the hormonal changes during pregnancy it is common to crave foods you once disliked or be averse to foods you previously loved. Both cravings and aversions may change at any time during or after pregnancy.
Handling Food Cravings During Pregnancy
Do not beat yourself up over your cravings during pregnancy. Experiencing and indulging pregnancy cravings is normal. When you are eating a food you crave, practice mindful eating. Focus on what you are eating and truly enjoy its taste, texture, smell and other characteristics. Try to avoid mindlessly consuming foods as you crave them.
Cravings may be harmful when nutrient-dense foods are crowded out of your diet by the less healthy foods you find yourself craving. If you find yourself eating large quantities of high fat, high sugar, high salt, or highly processed foods, it is a good idea to discuss your eating habits with your doctor or dietitian.
During pregnancy, make sure you and your baby are getting all the nutrients you need for optimal growth and development. Unfortunately, a pizza and ice cream-only diet won’t provide everything you need!
Additionally, consuming a suboptimal diet during pregnancy may be linked to excess weight gain and complications, including preeclampsia (high blood pressure), gestational diabetes, and labor and delivery complications.
While you are pregnant, build a balanced diet composed of nutrient-dense foods. Include a variety of these foods:
- Complex carbohydrates
- Lean proteins
- Healthy fats
Indulging your cravings, in moderation, in addition to these foods is generally healthy and safe.
Remember that some foods pose a higher risk to both you and your baby and should be limited or avoided throughout pregnancy. These foods include:
- High-mercury and uncooked seafood
- Raw or partially cooked meat, poultry and eggs
- Unpasteurized dairy and soft, mold-ripened cheeses
- Unwashed produce
Talk to your doctor or dietitian before consuming these foods during pregnancy as they may put you and your baby at risk.
Non-Food Pregnancy Cravings
Some women crave nonfood items during pregnancy that may pose a threat to their health or their baby’s health. If you crave dirt, soap, chalk, clay, or other nonfood items, contact your doctor. This may indicate pica, which is often caused by a nutritional deficiency and should be addressed by your physician.
Again, indulging your cravings as part of an overall well-balanced diet is normal during pregnancy. Remember that every pregnancy is different and listening to your own body is key throughout your pregnancy!
If you need support navigating how to nourish yourself while listening to your body and honoring your pregnancy cravings, we are here to help!
Liz has been reading nutrition labels since she learned how to read. Growing up with severe peanut and tree nut allergies she learned that it’s important to know what you are putting into your body. She made her first big lifestyle change as a freshman in high school, when she decided to become a vegetarian. However, it wasn’t until she took a food class in Italy as part of a study abroad program in college that it clicked in her mind that she wanted to make food and nutrition her career. Liz graduated from Penn State University in 2015 with a bachelor's degree in Nutrition, as well as a bachelor's degree in Marketing. She completed her dietetic internship with Aramark in Philadelphia, and her master's degree at Northeastern University shortly after.