How to handle those pregnancy cravings
Nutritionist Hannah Gentile interprets your pregnancy pinings and offers advice to help you handle your hankerings.
Remember back when Phoebe from Friends was pregnant? The devoted vegetarian suddenly got a strong desire to eat meat (and this became a running gag for many episodes). I don’t know many women who manage to escape even slightly strange cravings during pregnancy, it just seems to be what our bodies do. However, perhaps even stranger than the oddity of those cravings is the compulsion behind them. And often these cravings, or in some cases aversions, are the complete opposite to what you usually prefer. Some pregnant women cannot stand the taste of meat or the smell of it cooking. There’s also the craving that we joke is a sure sign of pregnancy – where you suddenly want pickles (or chocolate) with everything.
Pregnancy food cravings might seem relatively benign, but what are they really saying about our mental and physical health, and are they hormone-related? There are appetite-regulating hormones which also increase your hunger during pregnancy, and it’s hypothesised that these could stimulate cravings. In my practice I see lots of pregnant women, many of whom report interesting cravings. Here’s a list of the eight I hear about most, what they could mean, and how you can overcome them.
1. A DEEP DESIRE TO LICK CONCRETE
Some pregnant women crave really odd things … like non-food things. If this is you, you’re not alone. This craving even has a name – ‘pica’ – which is Latin for ‘magpie’, and is perhaps used because magpies collect all manner of random objects, and eat with great diversity. Pica is also common in children; 25-33% of young children like to eat non-food items.
Some of the common pica cravings include clay, dirt, sand, starch (such as laundry powder) and chalk. It is typically linked to low iron levels, possibly because many pregnant women find it hard to stomach meat, and don’t replace their iron sources particularly well.
If you do eat meat, then make sure you’re getting a palm-sized serving three or four times a week, with fish and vegetarian iron sources on the other days. If you’re eating a plant-based meal, some of the following may help:
☙ A handful of trail mix containing dark chocolate, nuts and seeds.
☙ A bowl of porridge with coconut milk and a handful of mulberries.
☙ Bake muffins using ground oats, flaxseed and dark chocolate.
☙ A glass of prune juice.
☙ Some chia seed pudding made with coconut milk.
☙ Have some of these with your lunch and/or dinner: quinoa, amaranth, chickpeas, lentils, potato with the skin on, soybeans, tofu and tempeh, beans, green leafy vegetables.
☙ Eat food high in vitamin C at the same time to help increase the absorption of iron in your food. Good sources include citrus, capsicum, potato, and green leafy vegetables.
☙ Avoid calcium with meals, it inhibits the absorption of iron.
2. CHOCOLATE ON EVERYTHING
If you’re craving sugary food, it might be related to your mental rather than your physical health. Perinatal depression and anxiety have been linked to cravings for sugar, in particular chocolate. Sleep deprivation is another culprit. Even after one hour less sleep than normal, your body releases hormones which signal the need to consume more sugar. Being unable to get to sleep because you’re uncomfortable, or because you have too many things on your mind, or having to get up to use the bathroom several times during the night, could actually be contributing to your chocolate habit. What can you do?
☙ Find a meditation app or some guided meditation on Youtube. This might help you relax enough to sleep.
☙ Get a pregnancy pillow to help you get into a comfy position for sleep.
☙ Keep a pen and paper by your bed. If your head is still buzzing before bed, write down all the things you need to do. Then mark the three things (only three!) that you will do tomorrow. Once you finish a ‘doing’ task, move a ‘to do’ activity to the ‘doing’ pile. But only three at a time!
☙ If you think depression or anxiety might be the culprit, then book an appointment with your GP. It’s so important to get on top of your health quickly. With all the hormones floating through a pregnant woman’s body, it’s very common for depression or anxiety to become an issue. Asking for help is the only treatment for this one!
3. CAN'T GET ENOUGH VINDALOO
Some pregnant women find themselves reaching for anything hot hot hot … and this is not just to induce their labour! Throughout the pregnancy hot ’n spicy is on the menu. But why?
The reason could simply be the same reason why anyone has spicy foods: because they can make us sweat, and sweating cools us down. So, if you find yourself tucking into curries during pregnancy, it might just be that your thermostat is a little broken and the spice in your food is actually cooling you.
Curry will not harm you when you’re pregnant. It has actually been shown in numerous studies that mums-to-be who eat a variety of flavours during pregnancy have children who are more likely to enjoy a variety of flavours. Do try to cook your curry from scratch though – the restaurant versions can be loaded with calories.
4. Reaching for toothpaste
It’s believed the craving for toothpaste and similar items such as cough drops or breath mints could be due to the fresh, minty-like flavour, which could relate to calming an upset tummy. Toothpaste should definitely not be eaten in large quantities, especially toothpaste containing fluoride. This can cause stomach upsets, intestinal blockages, pain, nausea and vomiting, seizures, difficulties breathing, or even a heart attack. This is only for large amounts though, that pea-sized portion of toothpaste on your toothbrush is less harmful than the coffee you drink in the morning.
To eliminate the temptation, try some plain toast or a cracker first thing in the morning before you get out of bed. Having a little dry food in your stomach can bring your blood sugar up and help reduce nausea. Otherwise, chewing on some minty fresh gum could also help to reduce the urge.
5. FIZZ ON THE BRAIN
Not a great craving to have, given the huge amount of caffeine and sugar in many of these drinks! However, the reasons for craving them can be quite preventable. It could be the sugar hit (see my points on chocolate). Or, if you’ve been dealing with morning sickness, you may be craving the bubbles which ironically can sometimes settle a funny tummy.
The third, slightly less common reason could be a lack of calcium in your diet, but ironically, soft drinks might actually be the cause of your calcium deficiency. The phosphoric acid in carbonation can cause calcium to leach from your bones, creating even more of a deficiency. Along with the tips for sugar cravings, my best advice here is to switch to soda water you make at home.
Foods you can add to your diet which contain calcium include:
☙ Low-fat dairy products
6. Yearning for cheese
Are you a bit anxious? Maybe you have quite a bit on your plate getting ready for baby. I know cheese was my comfort food with number one, and I was under
a heap of stress at the time.
Cheese helps with the release of relaxation hormones, making us feel a bit better. There is also evidence to suggest that we crave cheese when we’re feeling a bit foggy in the head – you know, pregnancy brain.
There isn’t too much wrong with having a small portion of cheese, but try to keep that craving in check, as many cheeses are high in salt and fat. Find a nice relaxation meditation to try each time you feel that craving creeping up on you. Taking deep breaths, trying a yoga pose, or having a relaxing shower, may also get you past the craving.
7. PINING FOR PIES
Are you craving stodgy fatty foods? You may be lacking the ‘healthy’ fats we get from essential fatty acids – but sadly, not the fat found in pies or potato chips. There are some fats the body cannot produce itself, it needs to get them from foods. If we’re lacking these in pregnancy, we might start to crave fat, but our body isn’t able to recognise which type of fat. So where do we get these essential fatty acids? They’re found in oily fish, avocado, seeds, nuts and vegetable fats such as olive oil. Pop together a healthy trail mix, have tinned salmon in your salad with some seeds sprinkled on top, or whizz up a yummy smoothie with avocado, fruit, coconut milk and seeds.
8. SOLD ON SALT
I had one client who would sprinkle salt on everything – even icecream! (Although, to be honest, that doesn’t sound too bad.) Salt cravings can be a sign of mineral deficiency. Calcium, zinc and magnesium are usually the top culprits. Sources of calcium are discussed above under the fizzy drink craving. Magnesium and zinc are found in:
☙ Brazil nuts
☙ Dark chocolate
☙ Fatty fish
☙ Leafy green vegetables
So, your cravings are your body asking for a diet rich in healthy, mostly plant-based foods, and more sleep! While this may be challenging given everything mums and mums-to-be are juggling, even small improvements in your diet and routine will help to keep those cravings at bay.
Hannah Gentile is a registered nutritionist and mother of two. Her pregnancy craving was carrot with cheese, and ginger on top, perhaps an ode to her ‘morning’ sickness, with the blandness of the carrot and the ginger acting as a tummy soother. These days she provides nutritional support and advice for conception, pregnancy, starting solids and fussy eating. Find her at nourishedbynature.co.nz.
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 44 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW