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Pickles & Ice Cream

Shira Isenberg, RD, MPH

What is it about pregnancy craving that can push a vegetarian mother-to-be toward meat or a health-obsessed foodie to chips and fast food? The science and psychology behind what we crave — and why.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

It was Seder night in her sixth month of pregnancy when Wendy, a strict vegetarian for fifteen years, was struck by a sudden craving. “Quite out of the blue, and very strongly, the tender brisket drew me in, and I could not stop eating it,” says Wendy, who continued to eat meat for the rest of her pregnancy.

Hadassa, a registered dietitian for ten years, recalls a similar experience. Toward the end of her pregnancy, she found herself craving fat-loaded tortilla chips and Chinese food. “We were driving back home from a long road trip,” Hadassa relates. “I actually made my husband exit the highway to pick up food at my favorite Chinese place an hour out of our way.”

What is it about pregnancy cravings that can push a woman to eat food she would normally never touch? Researchers have been studying the hankerings of pregnant women for over 100 years, trying to uncover their etiology. A report published in 1893 found that 33 percent of pregnant women experienced “longings,” mostly for fruit. More recent research brings the percentage up to between 50 and 90 percent.

Though most common during the first trimester, cravings can occur at any point during pregnancy, and they can be quite powerful — a British Medical Journal report from 1958 claims that pregnant women may be willing to steal to satisfy a hankering!

It turns out that the proverbial pickles and ice cream aren’t the most commonly craved foods. Fruit and fruit juices actually take first place. Other common cravings during pregnancy include milk and dairy products, starches, sweets or desserts, and chocolate. Interestingly, women report that the foods desired during successive pregnancies do not always match up, like Rosanne from Meadville, Pennsylvania. In her first pregnancy, she craved spicy foods, while her third pregnancy brought with it a strong desire for sweets.

Food aversions are also very common during pregnancy, especially for meat, poultry, fish, alcohol, and caffeinated beverages. These can go on the list of “Don’t even mention that food to me,” even if a mother-to-be regularly ate that food prior to pregnancy. For instance Penina, a die-hard peanut butter fan, found she could not touch it during her pregnancies. Katie, another registered dietitian, was surprised to find that she no longer wanted to eat any cooked vegetables while pregnant — although, not to worry, she would “force them down” if she had to.

What is the source of these odd changes in our palates? There are a number of explanations offered by scientists. While each has support in research, it’s more likely that there’s not just one right answer. Rather, a combination of forces come together to produce the pregnant woman’s cravings.


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