I was recently asked by a reader about why she craves carbs so intensely during her pregnancy. Given that 80% of women experience pregnancy cravings, I thought this would make a spectacular next blog post topic. Please keep your comments and questions coming. Your questions inspire my future posts and direct my otherwise mindless evening research projects, preventing me from online shoe shopping purchases that I will likely regret. Who really needs purple patented leather wedges after all?
What’s a craving?
By definition, a craving is “a powerful desire for something” (like my frequent shoe purchases). Food cravings can totally hijack your brain and consume your thoughts. This is a common and well documented occurrence among dieters who are restricting a certain type of food or calories in general. Why do cravings happen to so many pregnant women who are not dieting or restricting? Is there any science to help us understand this phenomenon? Well, according to the research, not really….but, here’s my take on the situation.
There seems to be no defined physiological reason for pregnancy food cravings, however, they do seem to have a sort of 'bio-psycho-social' paradigm. What do I mean by that? Research suggests that cravings, particularly in pregnancy, may be influenced by a complicated relationship between sociocultural factors, stress and hormonal fluctuations. Basically, we are complicated creatures and we sometimes turn to food for reasons that aren’t simply nutritionally driven.
To demonstrate this complicated relationship, let’s look at a crowd favourite ...chocolate.
Chocolate contains certain properties that influence our feelings of satiety and contain compounds such as tyramine, tryptophan and magnesium that act as mood altering psychoactive agents. Milk and turkey have these same compounds and yet don't seem to elicit the same intense cravings.
"I just NEED to eat a turkey breast", said no one ever.
The answers may lie in our complicated socio/cultural influences. Chocolate cravings, particularly among women, may result from a combination of factors such as, a reaction to stress, hormonal fluctuations and modulations of certain neuropeptide concentrations but also from our relationship with food. For example, studies from countries, like Spain, where chocolate consumption viewed as a part of a healthy diet and is generally higher, report very limited cravings for chocolate. This is contrasted by American women, who’s chocolate consumption is more restricted or considered a "treat". American women report the strongest craving for this rich delicious treat.
In North American culture, chocolate, and carbs in general are often turned to in order to treat and soothe our emotional selves. It is possible that when pregnant, especially in the first trimester, when we might feel nauseous, bloated, tired and crabby (because of hormones), we turn to foods that are easy to digest (make us less nauseous and require less energy to process), increase our comfort levels and boost our feel good serotonin levels.
Chocolate is also rich in magnesium. Pregnancy, the first trimester in particular, is a time when the body's demand for magnesium is elevated. Perhaps you're body is telling you it needs some magnesium? Satisfy the urge with some high quality 80%+ dark chocolate or mix raw cacao with some psyllium husk (great for constipation) and water or nut milk. When you make this cacao "paste/pudding" and eat it with a spoon (I like some cacao nibs on top), it will eliminate your cravings and give you a solid dose of magnesium, potassium and a shot of iron. Other foods rich in magnesium include: dark leafy greens (spinach in particular), cashews, almonds and sesame seeds (eg tahini).
Carb cravings in particular, in the first trimester may also be a result of a few different things going on inside your body.
First, a more relaxed attitude surrounding food when pregnant. Women who were previously restricting carbs, a common practice in the Paleo/Keto community, may see pregnancy as a ‘hall pass’ to enjoy carbs in all forms and as a result may experience intense cravings for these starchy and/or sweet delights. I say, go for it, just remember to take your vitamins and don’t go ‘hog wild’ on sugar. Whole grain gluten free toast, pastas, rice, quinoa, sweet / white potato, squashes and cereals are your best bet.
Secondly, when nausea hits sometimes all your body can tolerate are carbs. They are easily digested, bland and palatable to most women who feel nauseated. If this is all you can get in, go for it. As I’m writing this, I myself am pregnant in my first trimester, nauseated AF and I’ve eaten nothing but gf toast/ bagels, muffins and pasta over the past 48 hrs. I don’t feel bad about it one bit.
While we are on the topic of carbs, I think it’s also important to recognize the biological aspects of carb cravings, aside from chocolate, in pregnancy. Your body needs carbs when you’re nourishing your fertile and pregnant self. Carbs are required for proper hormone function and once you become pregnant, your body becomes increasingly more insulin resistant as a way of increasing fuel availability to your growing baby. This insulin resistance can cause carb cravings particularly in the first trimester. More on Carbs can be found on my previous post, "How Many Carbs Should I Eat When Pregnant?"
Many women experience strong cravings for the fat and salt. In particular, the combination of the two. This craving seems to be more prominent in the second and third trimesters when our body's increasing its blood volume. During this time we naturally want to hold on to excess water and building new fat stores. Just as carb cravings are not 100% biological, the combination of fat and salt have a real psychological component. This combination seems to activate certain pleasure centres in our brains, again, making us feel happy and satiated. I have had several friends who just couldn't get enough Cobb salad (blue cheese plus bacon = fat + salt heaven). Real Food Liz's most intense craving was Caesar salad...much for the same reason.
Craving Citrus and fruit?
The craving for citrus is another very common one. Like salt, it tends to become more prominent in the third trimester. Real Food Liz has been going crazy over pineapple and I have TONS of clients who just can't get enough orange juice and watermelon. What does this mean? Well, it could indicate a deficiency in vitamin C but I think that it could also be your body's way of trying to boost your natural iron levels in preparation for the inevitable loss of blood during birth and the postpartum period. Your body requires high vitamin C levels to absorb iron from your diet...maybe your cravings are trying to help you fill up on nutrients? Just a theory. These cravings also may be a result of your increasing insulin resistance in the third trimester. During this time your body is a sugar monster. It does this to try to create a robust baby who can withstand the stress of the first weeks of life.
Cravings for salty foods, in the first trimester in particular are often associated with the body trying to increase it's blood volume. During pregnancy, by 20-28wks, the body has increased it's blood volume by almost 50%! If you've been suffering from morning sickness and vomiting, you also may need extra electrolytes. Salt, helps your body draw in more water. Go ahead, satisfy these salty cravings with some healthy treats like sauerkraut, naturally fermented pickles, a well salted potato/sweet potato, salty bone broth or some good organic salty cheese (if tolerated), US Wellness meats Grassfed Franks dipped in mustard are a client favourite. Stay away from excess deli meats if you can. They aren't the best choice in pregnancy and if you must have them choose nitrate free, clean meats (like US wellness meats), being sure to heat them well before consuming to reduce the risk of listeriosis.
Cravings to pay attention to
While the most cravings are more or less meaningless from a health standpoint, there are a few that are worthy of paying attention to and telling your health care provider about:
Ice: If you crave the crunch of ice and find yourself chewing on ice cubes this is a strong sign of anemia. Why ice when you have low iron? Being anemic causes swelling of the tongue and mouth. Ice relieves it. That's why it feels soooo good. Have your blood levels checked and increase the animal based heme iron rich foods in your diet.
Chalk, dirt or other 'non-food' based items (aka Pica): These cravings may seem insane but women DO experience them. They often indicate a mineral or vitamin deficiency. See your doctor and don't eat chalk. It can be harmful to you and your baby.
What should a Real Food or Paleo Mama do about these cravings?
Eat carbs, just don’t go crazy. Aim for a diet of between 40-45% carbohydrates from a variety of sources such gluten free grains, non-starchy vegetables, starchy veggies like sweet potato, winter squash, plantains and purple potato (more on that little jewel on my next post). If you need a better list, check out this post all about carbs.
Limit your sugary treats. Notice I said limit, not restrict. Don’t deprive yourself. Deprivation only creates stress and will intensify your cravings. Practice portion control, enjoy your treat and then be done with it.
Meg the Midwife Approved Craving Busters
While it's reasonable to 'cave' into some of your cravings, pregnancy is not time to fill your diet with garbage. Try to find good paleo, primal or real food versions of the things your heart so desires. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
Watch out for refined or concentrated fructose sources of carbohydrates like sodas, sports drinks, agave, honey, juice and dates (in excess). Stick to glucose based sources of sugars such as bananas, berries, potatoes. Eating too much refined fructose can wreak havoc on your liver and increase stress within your body.
Consume your carbs with a fat or protein. This will slow the glycemic response in your body making it gentler on your system. Added bonus, your body will LOVE the combination of fat and sugar so hopefully it will satiate you and put a halt to your craving.
Baked hot Yam/Sweet Potato smothered in Almond, Sunbutter or Coconut butter and sprinkled with cinnamon (cinnamon will also slow down your glycemic response and balance your blood sugar)....feel the need for salt? Pop a pickle on that bad boy. No joke. I've tried it and it's a winner.
Full fat dairy or coconut based ice creams. Try my Dairy Free "Cherry Garcia" Recipe...it's sure to satisfy your chocolate, fruit and fat cravings!
Dianne has a great avocado based chocolate mousse.
Yams, plantains or purple potatoes sliced thin and then either baked or fried in ghee or coconut oil. Once cooked, salt those tasty nuggets (duh!) with mineral rich sea salt or pick up a bag of Jackon's Honest chips. My fav is the purple potato.
Need salty? Jackon's Honest chips, Siete tortillas, plantain chips (fried in coconut oil or palm oil), a few naturally fermented pickles, olives or a simple potato with a touch of sea salt and a bit of butter or ghee will satisfy most urges.
Craving pizza…eat the pizza. The biggest thing here is portion control. Eat a few slices then stop. That is usually enough to satisfy your craving and hunger without going overboard.
There is a LOT more real food friendly recipes, and a TON of information to help you optimize your fertility, have a healthy pregnancy and nourish your postpartum body over at Baby Making and Beyond so please check it out!