Food Cravings During Pregnancy - Expert Guide for 2024

Amelie, a nutritionist who specializes in fertility, pregnancy, and postpartum, shares her insights into food cravings during pregnancy.

Food Cravings During Pregnancy - Expert Guide for 2024

This article was written based on an interview with Amelie van der Aa, a nutritionist who specializes in fertility, pregnancy, and postpartum, who is the founder of Goodnest.

What are food cravings, and why do they occur, especially during pregnancy?

Food cravings are a real phenomenon, particularly common during pregnancy. Estimates suggest that 50 to 90% of pregnant women experience these cravings at some point. Hormonal changes play a significant role in affecting taste and smell, making certain foods more or less appealing. Nutritional deficiencies, such as low iron or insufficient protein and fat intake, can also drive these cravings, especially toward the end of pregnancy when nutritional demands are higher. Additionally, emotional factors like stress and anxiety can influence food cravings in pregnant women.

What are the physiological changes that happen during pregnancy that contribute to these cravings?

Looking at the physiological changes that happen during pregnancy, it is the hormones that contribute to the food cravings. Hormones like estrogen and progesterone are really high during pregnancy, and they can influence the taste and smell receptors, which can make certain foods desirable or off-putting. Also, during pregnancy, our nutritional needs are higher, which can lead to cravings for specific nutrients. The most common nutrients related to cravings are minerals like iron, magnesium, and vitamin B12. Those are deficiencies that can often manifest in cravings.

What are the most common food cravings that pregnant women experience?

“Ah, well, in my practice, I see many different cravings, from the classic strawberries and pickles to things like canned sardines. Some women really crave this even though they didn't really like it before pregnancy.”

Food cravings that pregnant women experience vary based on the individual. There are many different preferences for cravings, such as strawberries and pickles, to things like canned sardines. Some pregnant women enjoy eating certain fruits that they did not previously enjoy before their pregnancy. 

How can these cravings impact a pregnant woman’s overall diet and nutritional intake?

The impact of cravings on a pregnant woman’s overall diet and nutritional intact depends – it can have both positive and negative impacts. For example, if you’re craving sweets and refined carbs like bread and chips, this can have an impact on weight gain and can also increase the risk of gestational diabetes. It can create nutritional imbalances and deficiencies. On the other hand, if you are craving fruit and vegetables and red meat if you are vegetarian, it can help you get some of the nutrients that you might be lacking. Cravings are not unhealthy per se, as long as they’re part of a balanced diet. If a pregnant woman is craving ice cream, it is okay to have that craving and to give in to that craving, as long as the overall diet is pretty balanced. 

What are some healthy alternatives for common cravings like sweets or salty snacks?

The trick is to have a variety of snacks available so you are not initially reaching for a less healthy option. Carrying food with you in your purse or backpack is something that can allow you to have snacks on hand, as many pregnant women are spending their day at work. You can easily pack fruit or nuts in your bag. Another option is to have a jar of peanut butter in the office that you can pair with a banana, apple, yogurt, or dark chocolate. 

Amelie has a list of recipes on her website that you can find here

Do you have any tips for managing cravings in a way that supports both the mother’s and baby’s health?

​​First, it's crucial to listen to cravings and determine if they stem from a deficiency, or if they relate to blood sugar levels, which is often the case. If someone constantly craves food, especially throughout the day or an hour after lunch, her blood sugar might be unbalanced. Managing blood sugar to prevent frequent spikes is essential. Starting the day with a balanced breakfast rich in protein, fat, and fiber, such as Greek yogurt, nut butter, seeds and berries, can help. Additionally, getting enough sleep is important, as poor sleep can increase cravings due to stress and anxiety. For pregnant women experiencing high anxiety, seeking support from a coach or psychologist is vital. A nutritionist can also help identify the root causes of cravings and address them healthily.

There are many myths about cravings indicating the baby’s gender. Is there any scientific basis for these beliefs?

“No, there’s no scientific evidence to support that idea. I think these myths are fun, and it’s part of cultural traditions. But there is no scientific evidence.”  

How much of an influence do emotions and stress have on food cravings during pregnancy?

It is difficult to really see how much of an impact emotions and stress have on food cravings during pregnancy, as many women go through lots of emotional changes during pregnancy, and this is due to many different factors. This is hormonal but can also be due to a stage in their life that comes with a bit of anxiety about what is going to come, which can translate to cravings. 

How do food cravings differ from food aversions, and why might someone experience both during pregnancy?

Food cravings and food aversions are two sides of the same coin. They are both due to these hormonal changes, and they are guided by very ancient mechanisms. For example, in the first trimester, you see women having aversions to vegetables, and that was a mechanism to protect women in the times of hunter-gatherers, so they would not eat poisonous plants. That is also why our smell is more developed in pregnancy, to really make sure that our smell and our senses can guide us to not make the wrong food choices or to detect if food is off. Amelie has also seen women go from a very strong craving for food to a very strong dislike in the same pregnancy. 

How can partners and family members support a pregnant woman dealing with intense food cravings?

Family members and partners can support pregnant women dealing with intense food cravings by not making fun of them for their cravings. It would be nice to help find or make food to help with these cravings. For example, if a pregnant woman is craving cakes and desserts, it would be nice to look up healthier recipes and make them for her. 

When should a pregnant woman seek professional advice regarding her cravings, and what kind of help can a nutritionist provide?

A pregnant woman should seek professional advice regarding her cravings if it has reached an extent where she cannot have a balanced diet anymore. “If the cravings are so strong, and especially the unhealthier cravings that it's hard to still have a balanced diet.”At this point, it is important to reach out to a nutritionist to receive help and support. A nutritionist can help identify the reasons behind these cravings, identifying deficiencies through blood work.
Another time to reach out to a nutritionist is when pregnant women crave non-food items such as clay, washing powders, and dirt, which is called pica. This is almost always a sign of a severe mineral deficiency, and this is also when you should reach out to a nutritionist. 

Based on your professional experience, what is the most surprising or interesting craving you've come across in your practice?

“I'm sure they don't tell me everything, my clients. The weirdest was somebody who liked to eat pickles with peanut butter. So yeah, nothing really bad about that.”