The Science Behind All Those Bizarre Pregnancy Cravings
Pickles, peanut butter, and even paper. Your taste buds can get pretty strange during pregnancy. Here are some of the oddest cravings—and what's driving your urges.
Cravings are real
Everybody has food cravings. They can be due to dehydration or maybe your body is telling you it needs certain nutrients. But when you’re pregnant, hormones get involved, and that’s where things start to get weird.
“As your body and hormones are shifting and changing during pregnancy—starting for the most part in the first trimester and peaking in the second—though these, for the most part, can be attributed to increases or at times decreases of appetite and metabolism, not necessarily cravings for a specific food,” says Yael Varnado, MD, practicing physician at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Pregnancy can be stressful and full of anxiety about the unknown. Nothing will ever be the same once that little one arrives, says Dr. Varnado. So it’s hardly a surprise that moms-to-be might turn to comfort foods like pasta, bread, or cookies. There’s another advantage to bland carbs: “Certain foods make women feel nauseated. Even smelling them can be a trigger, thus they tend towards simple carbs to relieve that feeling,” says Dr. Varnado.
“I’ve had women who avoided meat for nearly 10 years, then had undeniable cravings for it, and couldn’t get enough when pregnant,” says registered dietitian Elizabeth M. Ward, author of Expect the Best, Your Guide to Healthy Eating Before, During, and After Pregnancy. “I know a woman who ate so much Indian food during her pregnancy nearly 17 years ago that she can’t even look at it today. I couldn’t get enough peanut butter during one of my three pregnancies and would dip just about anything in it, including pickles. I also ate a lot of French fries, and during one pregnancy, I had to have a lot of really juicy fruit every day.”
Sweet or spicy
Some pregnancies trigger a craving for foods that are full of flavor. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense, says registered dietitian Susan Bowerman, director of Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training at Herbalife Nutrition: “A craving for highly palatable foods may be hardwired during pregnancy, as it may be nature’s way to ensure that pregnant women consume enough calories to ensure a healthy pregnancy.”
Pica—the desire to eat non-food items like dirt—is an extreme version of cravings gone really wild. Possibly related to anemia, pica is well-documented in medical research. Some pregnant women will have longings to eat paper, paint chips, and, yes, loam. “I have even heard about a woman eating the stuffing from her sofa cushions,” says Ward. “No one knows the exact cause of pica, but it may be a sign of iron and zinc deficiencies.”
The craving for dirt may have a physiological basis, but it also has a very strong cultural basis as well. “In some cultures—both in the U.S. and outside the U.S.—it is not uncommon for women to consume clay or dirt during pregnancy. In the deep South, some people believe that the practice relieves nausea that comes with morning sickness,” says Bowerman.
Some expectant moms may get the urge to eat raw flour or cornstarch, says Ward. These items are problematic in large amounts because they can lead to blocked bowls and can displace other more nutritious foods in a mother’s diet. If you feel compelled to eat cornstarch, flour, or non-food items, talk to your doctor.
No matter how strong your craving, don’t give in to eating potentially unsafe items such as raw or undercooked meat, unpasteurized juice or milk, cheese made with unpasteurized milk, raw sprouts, and definitely not alcohol, says Ward.
Ice-eating (called pagophagia) is very common in people who have an iron deficiency, says Bowerman, and anemia can be a problem in some pregnancies. However, as she points out, this supports the argument that the nutrient deficit causes the obsession, and not the other way around (because ice doesn’t supply any iron). “Some pregnant women do crave ice, and have been known to eat the frost from the refrigerator or make late-night runs to the grocery store for ice and consume it in the car,” says Bowerman. Again, if your cravings run to the unusual side—some people with pica (and iron deficiency) have been known to consume cigarette ashes, paste, toothpicks, athletic socks, dust, and burnt matches—it’s time to talk to your doctor.
Salty or sour
Cravings for certain sour or salty foods might stem from pregnancy-related nausea, says Bowerman. “It’s often suggested that women eat saltine crackers and a few sips of lemonade—especially first thing in the morning—as these foods do seem to calm the stomach,” she says. Need some inspiration for tasty snacks? Check out these 49 savory options.
- Yael Varnado, MD, practicing physician at the Johns Hopkins Hospital
- Elizabeth M. Ward, MS, RD, author of Expect the Best, Your Guide to Healthy Eating Before, During, and After Pregnancy
- Susan Bowerman, RD, director of Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training at Herbalife Nutrition