What Really Causes Pregnancy Cravings?

Pregnant women are bound together by an unspoken bond — an understanding that a foreign entity has apparently seized control of their body for nine months and is making it behave in decidedly unpleasant ways. They know it's pointless to complain about this loss of control (at least incessantly). Better to suck up the unpleasantness, minimize the symptoms as much as possible, and pat their stomachs lovingly, assuring all those within earshot that every minor discomfort will be worth it in the end. Understandably, many pregnant women cheered when the Food and Drug Administration added ginger to its so-called "safe to consume" list to quell pregnancy-related nausea, which is probably the most dreaded way the little body invader exerts its growing influence (via Forbes). If only ginger could be leveraged to harness the other raging effects of pregnancy, including constipation, hemorrhoids, gas, bloating, and the frequent urge to pee, per Babycenter

Compared to dealing with these inconveniences, cravings are often the last thing a pregnant person worries about. Ranging from normal to quirky to downright weird, pregnancy cravings can hit at all hours of the day and night. While less unpleasant than many of the other side effects of pregnancy, the particular cravings that pregnant women are often struck with can certainly cause some head-scratching.

The power of changing hormones

Three factors (though not necessarily together) are generally thought to trigger pregnancy cravings: hormones (especially progesterone), an exaggerated sense of smell and taste, and nutritional deficiencies, per Pampers. For example, a woman who craves salty snacks may be subconsciously trying to replace the sodium her body has lost during the first trimester. But mostly, cravings are the simple and natural result of pregnancy hormones.

However, the BBC explains that there may not actually be a link between nutritional deficiency and pregnancy cravings, which may also come down to cultural and psychological factors. In particular, the restrictive diets that pregnant women follow may make them more likely to crave unusual foods, and they may also develop cravings because society judges pregnant women less harshly for overeating. 

The more common cravings seem to surface time and again, like spicy food, pickles, ice cream (sometimes together), and such "unusual" food pairings as grilled cheese and bananas, popcorn dipped in ketchup, and fries smothered in honey, per Intermountain Healthcare. Chicken and waffles, and pickles and peanut butter, have shed their air of oddness and apparently have entered the mainstream, says Eat This, Not That! In this enlightened age, even obstetricians have learned not to label any edible food craving as "off-limits".

Cravings trigger different responses

A woman could develop cravings as soon as she learns she is expecting. And though most cravings begin to subside during the second semester, some women experience cravings throughout their entire pregnancy, All About Women Obstetrics and Gynecology explains.

Healthcare providers may differ quite a bit in their advice about managing cravings. Some, like Intermountain Healthcare, say it's okay to indulge in an occasional unhealthy craving in moderation. Some providers advise their patients to stick with healthy foods and to distract themselves from cravings so that they don't pack on weight that's unhealthy for them or their baby. Others may listen sympathetically — to a point — before reminding their patients that cravings are "products of the mind" that can be controlled, especially if a woman starts every day with a well-rounded breakfast and stays physically active and hydrated throughout the day.

Most doctors agree that a pregnant woman who craves non-edible things, such as dirt, soil, or clay, may be signaling a need for extra vitamins or minerals. This is not the type of craving a woman should keep to herself. It's called pica, which describes prolonged craving or eating something that is not food (via Healthline). If you experience pica, be sure to discuss it with your healthcare provider.