They’re such weird little things, aren’t they? All of the sudden, out of nowhere, you need a steak…or chocolate, or ice cream, or…seaweed?
BUT WHERE DO Pregnancy CRAVINGS COME FROM?
I’m kinda obsessed with our bodies and how intuitive they are, so I subscribe to the belief that every craving we have (especially those during pregnancy) is a signal sent from our wise bodies to let us know that we need something.
Am I craving Nutrients?
If you do a quick google search for “what my cravings mean”, you will likely see at least one article with a nice list of nutrients linked to food cravings, and at least one article claiming that cravings have nothing to do with nutrient needs at all.
Because, we’d all crave veggies & fruit if cravings were a signal for nutrients, right?
I don’t really buy into that.
I think craving fatty food is pretty logical since the average Standard American Diet eater is deprived of healthy fats.
It also makes sense to me that an over-worked over-stressed mama might crave sweets for the energy and blood sugar regulation that they can offer when she’s running on empty.
THREE BRANCHES OF PREGNANCY CRAVINGS
Let’s take this journey a bit further by viewing cravings – three-fold.
- Nutrient needs
We’ve already discussed the possibility of craving as a sign of a nutrient need…
SO LET’S TALK PSYCHOLOGY
A review of research by Tufts University has found that a lack of ability to eat certain foods may have a strong correlation with a craving for said foods.
The same article pointed out a study in which a group of young adults were fed a shake that “met all of their nutritional needs”, yet they reported having a severe increase in cravings compared to when they were eating a variety of foods.
Point is, humans tend to want what they can’t have. It happens on a subconscious level and has been linked to our feelings about food.
This might be why you crave sushi and cold-cuts while pregnant. Someone told you that you couldn’t have them!
We also know that food can be addicting.
For example, sugar has been found to induce the same neurochemical changes as certain addictive drugs.
Honestly, I don’t really need a study to tell me that. I know that the more sugar I eat, the more sugar I want. That doesn’t happen with Brussels sprouts…and I love Brussels sprouts…
NOW FOR MY FAVORITE PART!
What is conditioning, you ask?
First, let’s cover classical conditioning
When I was a teenager there was a pizza place just down the road from my school. Everyone would pop in during lunch or after school for a slice of thick crust Sicilian-style pizza with their signature sweet tomato sauce. I liked to dip mine in their homemade blue cheese dressing…because…cheese.
On the days when I could convince my mom to stop, I’d grab my pre-ordered pizza in its flimsy white single-slice box and eat it on the drive home. As much as I pleaded, my mom refused to change the station to music and we proceeded to listen to talk radio.
To this day, I can almost taste the blue-cheese-dipped pizza when I hear that same talk radio station. And boy, do I crave it!
I had conditioned myself to have that craving in that particular situation.
This is called classical conditioning and it’s extremely simple and complex all at the same time. When exposed to the same combination of factors enough times, we store that series in our brains on a completely subconscious level. Our intelligent bodies respond appropriately (and without our conscious permission) when that series of factors arise. This could apply to fear, stress, happiness, food cravings, and…any emotion really!
classical conditioning is often applied to comfort foods
When I’m on vacation I have a really hard time eating well. I often give myself permission to “go crazy”. Why? Because that’s what I do on vacation. It’s what I’ve done my entire life. I’m conditioned.
Same goes for birthday parties or any celebrations of sorts. I have spent years teaching my body to indulge during times of happiness, which has in turn linked my happiness with some pretty nutritionally awful foods.
So in comes the “eat ice cream after a break up” cliché. Our bodies crave happiness when we’re down, and (like in my case) happiness can be associated with crappy food. Our extremely intelligent bodies may crave those nasty little foods in search of the happiness that’s tied along with them.
It’s incredible, isn’t it?! As amazed as I am by the human body’s wisdom, I’m equally enthralled with the subconscious mind & memory.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I felt pretty darn awful during my pregnancy & all I wanted were foods that brought on a glimpse of happiness & freedom from how I was feeling.
Social conditioning also affects us while we’re pregnant.
Not only are we subject to our internal conditioning system, but also that of the environment around us.
Let’s do a really quick experiment. Without putting thought into it, name the first few “pregnancy foods” that come to mind…GO!
I don’t know about you, but I still can’t help but think of pickles and ice cream.
The American culture strongly portrays pregnancy as a time to eat what you want, when you want, and as much of it as you want. You’re “eating for two” after all.
Even after years of preparing my body for babies & learning the value of real food during pregnancy, I still slipped into moments of “but you’re pregnant, eat what you want”.
This conditioning stuff is no joke.
When it comes to pregnancy Cravings, hormones may also play a role.
While science has yet to pin down an exact cause for food aversions and pregnancy cravings, there is a link between the first twelve weeks and a higher incidence of both.
This happens to be when we have the highest surge of pregnancy-maintaining hormones flooding our bodies. Around 10-12 weeks, the placenta takes over the bulk of the hormone production, giving our bodies a break.
Just some food for thought.
SO LET’S PUT IT ALL TOGETHER: CRAVINGS & PREGNANCY.
- It’s arguable that our bodies need more nutrients while building babies than any other time in life-which may induce cravings
- We are bombarded by a surge of hormones that may affect what we eat
- We are told that we can’t have certain foods while pregnant, which could attribute to wanting them more
- We may experience increased stress or sadness during pregnancy which can cue a conditioned response
- Our cultural ideas of appropriate pregnancy foods may lead our cravings in the wrong direction
A typical situation:
Pregnant mama is tired (duh). Her brain sends a signal that it needs energy. Her body knows that sweet and sugary food can quickly boost energy. So the craving begins to kick in.
The thought of a sweet food triggers the feeling of happiness and readies the brain for that opiate-induced chemical surge, which it loves.
Mama knows that there are healthier options, but the strength of the snowballing craving mixed with the voice in her head telling her “it’s completely appropriate to eat whatever she wants while pregnant” make it almost impossible to make a “better” choice.
Not only did Mama “cave” to the craving, but she felt guilty afterward…which only induces another cycle of craving. Not to mention, unnecessarily stresses her out.
Sound familiar? It was my experience for sure!
SO, HOW SHOULD WE DEAL WITH PREGNANCY CRAVINGS?
First things first, when you feel a craving coming on listen to it.
All too often we get a craving for something and ignore it until we “give in”.
No matter where they stem from, cravings are a signal from our bodies for something, so hear em’ out.
If you’re craving healthy food, easy fix. Eat it. Some of the healthier foods I have craved in the past are:
- beets: turns out I needed betaine for some gallbladder issues that I didn’t know I was having
- meats: could have been a need for the protein, amino acids, iron, or an array of nutrients
- seaweed: I later found out I was iodine deficient
- chocolate: I was magnesium deficient (there can be other factors with chocolate-but I don’t like the taste of chocolate, so it was clearly a sign of a need for me)
- real salt: was a sign that I needed more trace minerals
- sweet potato: yes it is sweet, but I find that my craving for sweet potatoes directly correlated with breastfeeding-I needed the carbohydrates
If you can easily identify the emotion with which it stems (do you need comfort? calm? energy?) you can take a more full approach to “feeding” the craving.
- For comfort: speak to a friend, family member, midwife or doctor; or take to a journal
- For calm: give yourself a minute to relax. Take some deep breaths, go for a walk, pull out that journal again, read a book, exercise, or meditate
- For energy: NAP! I know, I have a hard time with that one too. You could also indulge in some starchy veggies (like squash or sweet potato), or simply take a minute to rest on the couch
If you can’t identify where the craving is coming from, or it feels more like an addictive response, try this:
- Change the scenery: go for a walk, head into the kitchen to prep for dinner, go outside to water the plants. Sometimes the change of pace can be a beautiful distraction!
- Do a quick burst exercise: depending on how far along you are, you can do a few push-ups, power walk around the house, or carefully climb up a small flight of stairs. The extra oxygen to the brain & pumpin’ blood can really recharge the brain & body, satiating it’s needs.
If the steps above aren’t working, or you just really want the food, eat it.
But only under one condition…you have to be gentle with yourself afterwards. Pregnancy is not the time to stress over spilled milk. I can speak from experience when I say that the guilt you feel from “caving to a craving” is more harmful than eating whatever it was.
Take a bite, heck, eat the whole thing! Then let it go. Reset. Push out the guilt. Refuse to get stuck in the cycle. And enjoy this time while you are baby are one.