Dealing with weird pregnancy cravings you can’t seem to shake? Here’s the good news: They’re usually normal and harmless (much like period cravings). Read on to understand what could be behind them, how to satisfy pregnancy cravings, and when to be concerned.
Cereal and cold milk, peanut butter and chocolate, French fries, pasta, pickles. This might sound like a random list of foods, but they’re some of the most common pregnancy cravings. Pregnancy cravings are simply hankerings for certain foods, drinks, or flavors that may be stronger or different from the food cravings you experience outside of pregnancy.
When Do Pregnancy Cravings Start?
Cravings can happen at any point during pregnancy, but many pregnant people tend to have the strongest cravings during the second trimester, after morning sickness subsides in the first trimester and their appetite starts to pick back up.
Why Do Pregnancy Cravings Happen?
If you’re expecting, you might be wondering what is driving these cravings: Could your body be craving the nutrients in these foods? Or should you chalk it up to all of the hormonal changes happening in your body?
The reality is that there’s no real research to back up why pregnancy cravings occur. A 2014 review in Frontiers in Physiology cites a small 1978 study that evaluated the cravings of 250 pregnant women and found that the most craved foods included sweets, dairy, starchy carbs, fruits, vegetables, and fast food. Studies have also shown that cravings for savory foods are strongest during the first trimester, while sweet cravings tend to happen in the second trimester.
Scientists hypothesize that hormonal changes, which can alter your taste and smell, nutritional deficiencies, relief from nausea, and psychosocial factors all contribute to pregnancy cravings, but research is needed to confirm this.
For example, a 1983 study from the Journal of Reproductive Medicine suggests that adequate magnesium levels can help improve glucose tolerance and reduce cravings for sweets.
“It’s extremely difficult to do research on pregnant women and for a good reason, of course. And the scant research on cravings is inconclusive,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, nutrition expert, mom of 3, and author of Feed the Belly: The Pregnant Mom’s Healthy Eating Guide.
“Some experts think that nutrient deficiencies or needs are what drive cravings, while others think it’s simply a learned behavior,” she explains. “Society tells pregnant women they should want certain foods, so they do. I personally can tell you that food cravings are very real, as well as food aversions. They definitely vary from woman to woman and can be different for each pregnancy.”
Although the science isn’t quite there yet, your hankerings for ice cream and pizza aren’t just in your head: They might very well point to a nutritional need you might have or the result of your body undergoing lots of hormonal changes. Rest assured, though, pregnancy cravings are very normal—and you’re not alone.
What’s Behind Weird Pregnancy Cravings?
One thing that may come as a surprise is what you’re craving. You may want foods you never used to like before or that are just oddly specific.
As previously mentioned, the research isn’t clear why pregnant people crave certain foods versus others and what causes these cravings. However, Largeman-Roth, who wrote Feed the Belly, says she interviewed several women for her book, including vegetarians and vegans, who craved meat so strongly that they put their beliefs aside to satisfy their growing baby.
“Blood volume increases by 50 percent during pregnancy, and there’s a significantly higher requirement for iron that results (The National Institutes of Health recommends that pregnant people get at least 27 milligrams of iron daily). Therefore, it makes complete sense that a woman who may be low in iron before getting pregnant would crave more of this nutrient,” she explains.
Food aversions during pregnancy are also normal, especially during the first trimester when nausea and vomiting may be heightened. While nausea and vomiting are commonly known as “morning sickness,” it can happen throughout the day and night. The good news is that it usually subsides around 14 weeks of pregnancy, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
“Certain foods you ate regularly, such as yogurt, may not sound appetizing at all during pregnancy, or at least during the first trimester. When something like that happens, you need to work on finding another food that is appealing to you that delivers the same nutrients,” Largeman-Roth says. “For example, if you can’t stomach yogurt, try eating cheese sticks to get enough calcium.”
When Are Pregnancy Cravings Not Normal?
If you’re craving non-food items, like paint chips, ashes, dirt, soap, clary, corn starch, or ashes, you might have pica (a compulsive eating disorder in which people eat nonfood items), Largeman-Roth says. Craving these substances, in addition to ice, is associated with iron deficiency, according to the Mayo Clinic.
There are three different types of pica: geophagy (eating soil, clay, pottery, and bean stones), amylophagy (eating cornstarch, laundry starch, flour, and raw rice), and pagophagy (eating ice of freezer frost), according to UpToDate. Pica is also associated with an iron, zinc, and calcium deficiency. In fact, a January 2015 meta-analysis from the American Journal of Human Biology found that pica is associated with anemia, low hemoglobin (protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen), hematocrit (number of red blood cells in blood), and plasma zinc concentrations.
“These items can be dangerous to ingest, so call your doctor immediately if you feel the urge to eat them,” Largeman-Roth says.
A small November 2020 study from the Journal of Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine also found that pica in pregnant women is associated with gastrointestinal disorders, with pica being the most prevalent during the first trimester, followed by the second and third trimesters.
How to Satisfy Your Pregnancy Cravings
Here’s the deal: You’re likely going to crave lots of different foods during pregnancy, and you should honor those cravings. You shouldn’t deprive yourself of the foods you like and want to eat, but there are ways to satisfy your cravings and ensure you’re getting important nutrients at the same time.
“I don’t think women need to prevent cravings—it’s part of the pregnancy adventure,” Largeman-Roth says. “But in terms of having consistent energy levels and staving off nausea, it’s smart to eat small, frequent meals every three hours or so,” she explains.
Below are some meal and snack suggestions from dietitians.
If You Have Sweet Cravings…
For something sweet, consider making a strawberry smoothie, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RDN, CDN, founder of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It — Taking You from Label to Table. The strawberries lend a natural sweetness and provide vitamin C, fiber, and folic acid (an essential nutrient for your baby’s neural development). Add some leafy greens, like baby spinach, for even more folic acid, and use almond milk, which provides 450 milligrams of calcium per cup, Taub-Dix says. You can also add some chia seeds for more protein and fiber to aid digestion.
How can incorporating fiber into your sweet treat help? Many pregnant women become constipated during pregnancy because of the higher levels of the hormone progesterone. Progesterone slows down your digestion process, so it takes your body much longer to absorb nutrients from the food you eat, according to the Cleveland Clinic. This may cause you to be backed up.
“Pregnant women need to stay hydrated because of the increase in blood volume, and having a snack in smoothie form allows you to have the fluid, fiber, and other important nutrients,” she says.
Looking for another idea? Largeman-Roth also recommends muffins for something sweet that feels more substantial than a smoothie.
“Muffins get a bad rap. Sure, they can be loaded with sugar, but if you make your own, you can actually load them up with nutrients that are important for pregnancy,” she says. “These Emerald Muffins are so good, plus they offer iron and fiber, which most moms-to-be have a hard time getting enough of.”
If You Have Crunchy, Salty, and Sweet Cravings…
Make your own trail mix with almonds, dried fruit, dry cereal—and maybe even some dark chocolate chips if you’d like. The dried fruit is high in fiber and iron, Taub-Dix says, and the almonds offer protein and calcium.
Dry cereal is a good addition because it’s fortified with iron (an important nutrient for pregnant people) and whole grains (which lend fiber). “Even if it has some added sugar, it’s not that much, and combining it with some nuts—which have protein and fat—can help slow down the way it reacts with blood sugar,” she says.
If You Have Salty Cravings…
Potato chips and French fries will help you get your sodium fix, but if you’re still left wanting more after finishing a bag, try pairing hummus with vegetables, Largeman-Roth suggests.
“Hummus is such a convenient food for moms, and it’s a bonus that it’s loaded with plant protein and gets you to eat more veggies,” she says. “Make a plate with 1/4-cup hummus and lots of colorful veggies, such as purple cauliflower, carrots, cucumber, and cherry tomatoes, and enjoy the natural flavors and crunch on your plate.”
You could also make yourself a tuna salad and enjoy it with a side of whole-grain crackers. Omega-3 fatty acids are important fats to have during pregnancy, Taub-Dix says, and there are plenty of canned fish that are lower in mercury. For instance, light tuna is lower in mercury than white tuna.
If You Have Spicy Cravings…
When you have the urge to pep things up, you can add some of your favorite spices or peppers to a variety of dishes. “You can make a taco salad with ground beef or turkey and add black beans, cheese, salsa, and a few pickled jalapenos,” Largeman-Roth says. “Or enjoy a bowl of chili of pad thai.”
If You Have Sour Cravings…
If you’re craving pickles, go for it, but they can be high in sodium. “Try enjoying a few tiny cornichons diced up in your salad or rainbow bowl,” Largeman-Roth says. “It will offer enough sour to satisfy you without draining the whole jar.”
You can also try snacking on citrusy foods, like lemons and oranges. “If citrus is more your thing, enjoy a slice of my super lemony Meyer Lemon Pound Cake,” she says.
If You Have Carb-y Cravings…
Satisfy your carb cravings with some hard-boiled eggs and whole-grain bread or crackers, Taub-Dix suggests. Turn them into an egg salad with avocado, and you’ve got a protein-rich snack that’s also filled with healthy fats.
“Eggs are rich in choline, which are important for brain development in babies and helps prevent neural tube defects,” she says.