Many pregnant women report strong cravings for certain foods. Research shows that the phenomenon is not unique to pregnancy and can arise for all food types – and even for chalk or dirt

If you are pregnant and tend to feel an uncontrollable desire for certain foods, you are in good company. Most pregnant women experience similar urges, and the phenomenon even has a name – food cravings.

What do we crave? That can vary. It can be sweet, salty, sour, or spicy food, and occasionally, strange combinations between them. The phenomenon’s main characteristic is a strong desire that must be fulfilled, as soon as possible. Future fathers will also identify the phenomenon quite easily, after being sent away at any given hour to fulfill our desperate need for ice cream, fries or falafel.

The phenomenon of craving specific foods has spawned numerous and strange superstitions in certain cultures. Some believe that an unindulged craving may cause the appearance of a birthmark in the child, which takes the shape of the object of the unsatisfied desire. Others believe that children will have a special inclination toward the food their mothers craved while they were in the womb. Many newspaper gossip sections report the strange pregnancy cravings of celebrities, and of course, there is the common belief that pregnant women have a thing for pickles. 

Studies have shown that women experience cravings mainly in the days preceding their period and during pregnancy. In recent years, more studies have been conducted on the subject, as more women suffer from excessive weight gain during pregnancy, which puts both the mother and her unborn child at risk. Hormonal changes in the female body, nutritional deficiencies that the craved food can replenish, along with psychological and cultural factors have all been suggested as explanations for specific food cravings.

יש גם נשים, בעיקר בהיריון, המשתוקקות לאכול דברים שאינם מוצרי מזון, אפילו אדמה. אשה אוכלת שוקולד | צילום: Shutterstock
There are also women who crave, especially during a pregnancy, to eat things other than food, even dirt. Woman eating chocolate | Photograph: Shutterstock

The desire for chocolate

Pregnancy cravings are widespread throughout the world, but the type of craved food and the implications of the phenomenon vary among cultures. These cravings are especially common in North America, and not surprisingly, the food most desired is chocolate. A study from the 1990s examined the top craved foods by 250 young pregnant women and found that sweets, dairy products, high-carb foods, and fast food were the most common.

A similar, yet strange phenomenon that may occur during pregnancy is called pica. It refers to women who crave to eat things that are not food products – ice, chalk, starch and even dirt. While the phenomenon is not restricted to pregnant women, it is more common among them than in the rest of the population. One of the main explanations suggested for pica is cultural influence, but others attribute it to severe hunger, mental stress, or mineral and vitamin deficiencies.

When specific cravings were examined in men, it was found that they usually occur under stress. While most women crave sweets, men will usually prefer salty foods.

There are also differences among women. The craving phenomenon is more common in younger than in older women. In addition, most women who experienced pregnancy cravings report that the urges arise mostly during early pregnancy, and subside in the last trimester. The differences between women and men, between women of different ages, and at different stages of pregnancy reinforce the assumption that the underlying mechanism of food cravings is physiological and hormonal.

During the first half of pregnancy, the body prepares itself for fulfilling the requirements of the rapidly growing fetus. For this purpose, during this period, hormones that sustain the pregnancy and affect the mother's metabolism are secreted. This is a stage of dramatic changes in the protein and mineral levels in the woman's body, along with a significant increase in metabolic rate. The mother also stores more fat during pregnancy – until week 30, over 3 kilograms of fat are stored in her body, which will serve her until after birth.

These vast changes in bodily needs are also tied to hormonal changes. The three most influential hormones in hunger sensation are leptin, ghrelin, and insulin. Among them, ghrelin has been found to play a central role in cravings. The hormone and its receptors can be found in the placenta and its blood levels peak during mid-pregnancy.

During pregnancy, sharp changes in the secretion of the female sex hormones, estrogen and progesterone, occur, which can also lead to changes in huger and food preferences. This hormonal storm may also affect taste perception, thereby leading to an inclination toward certain foods and aversion to others.

It seems that the connection between eating habits, specific food preference, mood, and stages of pregnancy or the menstrual cycle is very complex. Specific food cravings during pregnancy reflect this complexity and are influenced by all of these factors – and numerous others. This may be why no simple explanation has yet to be found for the phenomenon, and ongoing research continues in an attempt to answer the variety of questions that remain open. 

 

Translated by Elee Shimshoni

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