Pregnancy cravings are a typical side effect of pregnancy, which can start early in your pregnancy and may continue throughout.
‘Pregnancy cravings can be caused by various factors including hormonal changes and a heightened sense of smell and taste. They may even reveal nutritional deficiencies,’ explains Mr Ellis Downes, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at The Portland Hospital, which is part of HCA Healthcare UK. ‘Cravings tend to differ for each woman. You may experience cravings for ordinary foods like chocolate, fruit and vegetables. At other times, it could be for foods that you might not have liked before you became pregnant.’
‘Cultural and psychosocial aspects have an influence too,’ says Hayley Pedrick, nutrition expert and founder of Habitude. ‘Chocolate is consistently found to be the most commonly craved food in the US, while in Kenya pregnant women eat clay due its perceived positive impact on fertility and reproduction,’ she says.
What are the most common pregnancy cravings?
‘The most commonly craved foods are sweets, fruit and fruit juices, sour fruits, dairy, chocolate, starchy carbohydrates, fast foods, pickles and ice cream,’ says nutritionist Hayley. ‘It’s also fairly common for pregnancy craving to include salty or spicy foods, or hard and chewy foods,’ she says.
‘Cravings for savoury foods tend to be strongest in the first trimester,’ adds Hayley. ‘While a preference for sweeter foods reaches its peak in the second trimester, and urges for salty foods tend to emerge in the third trimester.’
Then there are the more unusual cravings for non-foods. This is called pica. ‘Pica may be diagnosed if you compulsively eat non-food items – or items that have no nutritional value – for at least one month,’ says Mr Downes. ‘It’s thought that pica could indicate a nutritional deficiency of some form [often iron]. It’s vital that you resist the temptation to eat non-food items to avoid causing harm to the foetus,’ he warns.
There are different types of pica: geophagia – the consumption of mud and clay which may be rich in iron; amylophagia – the consumption of starches; and cautopyreiophagia – a craving for burnt matches, cigarettes and cigarette ash. ‘The most unusual craving I’ve encountered was an expectant mother who craved ice. I referred her to her GP to check for iron deficiency and she was anaemic, so it was a confirmed case of pica,’ says Hayley.
Research indicates that a healthy breakfast such as porridge and herbal tea can cut your cravings, so avoid skipping the first meal of the day. And rather than fighting a food craving ‘aim to eat a healthier version of what you fancy 80% of the time – for example, if you crave carbohydrate-rich donuts try swapping them for a wholemeal bagel or breakfast muffin,’ says Hayley.
‘More than just craving foods you may feel as if you can’t eat a lot of the foods you normally would,’ says mental health campaigner and TV & radio broadcaster, Neev Spencer. ‘Food aversion is a big thing during pregnancy – more so in the first trimester. Dry crackers, bread and bananas may be the only thing you can stomach and smells of foods like fish, meat and eggs are a huge trigger of morning sickness at the start.’
When do pregnancy cravings start?
‘Cravings tend to vary with each pregnancy,’ says Mr Downes. ‘However, they are most likely to occur in the first trimester (weeks 1-12), which coincides with when you may be feeling nauseous or have gone off certain foods.’
If you do start craving certain foods or non-foods, don’t be alarmed. ‘As long as you know what you’re eating is safe and healthy for you and the baby there’s no reason to be concerned,’ says Neev. ‘It’s important have knowledge of what could be harmful for your foetus and avoid those foods. These include seafood that may contain high levels of mercury, uncooked raw fish and meat, high levels of caffeine, and unwashed and properly prepared foods. But sending your partner out into the night to get you ice cream that you can eat with sprinkled chopped up pickles will always be a safe and bizarre part of the wondrous journey that is pregnancy,’ she says.
Even if you don’t feel like it, try to eat a variety of foods throughout your pregnancy. This will provide the necessary vitamins and minerals for the optimal development and growth of your baby. Include foods containing iron – such as red meat, oily fish and eggs – to help prevent anaemia. And fill up on wholemeal bread, lentils and leafy green vegetables. If you’re concerned about your diet, or any cravings, speak to your GP or midwife.
18 seemingly weird pregnancy cravings and what they mean
Take a look at some of the pregnancy cravings that women experience and the possible reasons why.
Craving coal, mud, matches, Guinness or dust
‘A craving for coal, mud, matches, Guinness or dust could be a sign of pica,’ explains Mr Downes. ‘For these particular items it could be a deficiency in iron. In some cases, taking iron supplements can help to reduce these cravings,’ he says. Check with your doctor before starting any supplements.
If you crave Guinness, or anything containing alcohol, see your doctor as soon as possible. Drinking during pregnancy is linked to foetal alcohol syndrome. This condition can have a detrimental effect on the development of your baby.
Craving seaweed during pregnancy
Craving seaweed is another sign that you’re missing an essential nutrient – in this case iodine. Edible seaweed includes green, red and brown seaweed – and brown seaweed is particularly high in iodine.
‘Seaweed contains high levels of iodine, so if you’re craving this it could indicate that you’re deficient in this mineral,’ says Mr Downes. ‘Iodine is essential for the production of hormones that regulate the development of the foetal brain and nervous system.’
However, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. ‘During pregnancy intake of iodine should be limited to 220 micrograms daily,’ he advises.
Seaweed also contains B12. This vitamin is crucial for vegetarians as it’s one of the few non-animals sources of this nutrient.
Craving toothpaste and sponges
Some pregnancy cravings are a little strange. For example, many women can’t help but eat non-food items such as toothpaste and sponges.
‘This again may indicate pica,’ says Mr Downes. ‘Again, resist the temptation to eat non-food items,’ he says. ‘If you’re struggling, it can help to consult a doctor or midwife,’ he says.
Sometimes, the craving can be caused by your emotional state. A mum-to-be may crave a special food or object that reminds them of their childhood. Talking it through with a health professional should help.
Craving chocolate during pregnancy
You may think that you crave chocolate because the sugar provides a quick energy boost. You may also feel like you deserve a treat. While you’re right on both counts there are other reasons that may explain this yearning. ‘Craving chocolate in pregnancy may indicate deficiencies,’ says Mr Downes. ‘Chocolate contains B vitamins, so it may be that you’re low in these vitamins.’
‘However, chocolate contains high levels of sugar, so it’s important to enjoy these items occasionally and in small amounts,’ he adds. ‘Try to replace them with other healthy foods such as milk, unsweetened yogurt and almonds.’
Dark chocolate has health benefits as it is also full of antioxidants. Research shows that a lack of antioxidants in your body during pregnancy can cause exaggerated oxidate stress within the placenta and maternal circulation, which could result in pre-eclampsia symptoms and miscarriage.
‘If sweet food is your weakness try using more sweet tasting flavourings and spices such as vanilla and cinnamon, which enhance the sweetness of a food,’ advises Hayley. If you’re worried about calories, studies have shown that women get the same goodness that chocolate provides with flaxseed oil, even though it isn’t as delicious.
Craving strawberries during pregnancy
‘Strawberries contain a high level of vitamin C, which can aid your baby’s development,’ says Mr Downes. ‘So if you’re experiencing cravings for strawberries, you may be lacking in vitamin C,’ he says.
‘Vitamin C also helps you to absorb the necessary amounts of iron from food,’ adds Mr Downes.
Craving ice cream during pregnancy
Aside from the fact that ice cream is a sweet treat, craving it could be a sign that your body is lacking something. ‘Craving ice cream in pregnancy may indicate a deficiency. Ice cream contains calcium, so it may be that you are low in this mineral,’ says Mr Downes.
When the baby is growing inside you it needs high levels of calcium to stay healthy, but some women can’t stomach milk and cheese during pregnancy. As a result, ice cream becomes a great way of getting calcium into the body. During pregnancy, your core body temperature can naturally make you feel hotter than usual, and by the time you go into labour you’ll have gained around 10-12.5kg during your pregnancy, which can make you sweat more than normal. So it’s no surprise you crave something cold and refreshing!
Craving fruit during pregnancy
This is one of the better cravings a pregnant woman can have as fruit is good for us and will provide a variety of vitamins and minerals, depending on the particular fruit.
For example, you may crave fruit that’s high in vitamin C. Prevalent in blackcurrants, cantaloupe melon, citrus fruit, strawberries, vitamin C helps with the proper formation and growth of bones, teeth and other vital tissues of a foetus.
If you hanker after fruit such as bananas, cantaloupe melon, apricots, nectarines or dried fruit you may be lacking potassium. Research has found that low potassium levels in pregnancy can lead to weakness, fatigue, muscle cramps and constipation, occasional bouts of muscle weakness in the legs, arms and eyes and an abnormal heartbeat.
Be aware that you should wash always fruit before consuming it, and avoid unpasteurized fruit juice during this period. Eating a lot of fruit can cause diarrhoea in some people.
Craving rice during pregnancy
‘Rice is an energy-rich carbohydrate,’ says Hayley, so it’s understandable that some pregnant women will crave it. Rice is also a source vitamin B6, which helps the body use and store energy from food.
‘It’s commonly craved in Japan,’ she adds, ‘highlighting the strong influence of culture on food cravings.’
If you do crave rice, opt for brown rice which is more nutritious and will provide a steadier stream of energy.
Craving pickles during pregnancy
One of the most famous pregnancy cravings is for pickles. It’s very normal in pregnant women so don’t worry if you’re reaching for the gherkins or pickled onions at 3 o’clock in the morning!
‘Cravings for salty foods are common and pickles are certainly one such food,’ says Hayley. ‘It may reflect low sodium levels.’ Salt holds water in the body and is really important in keeping the fluids running from mother to baby. Try not to add too much salt to food; instead, get your salt fix from a snack of pickles or green Spanish olives, or by eating roasted vegetables seasoned with salt and herbs.
Craving red meat during pregnancy
A lot of women have cravings for red meat while they’re pregnant. ‘It’s usually because they need protein and iron,’ says Hayley. Red meat has high levels of protein as well as iron, which is important in the formation of red blood cells.
Iron is also a vital component for making haemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to other cells. During pregnancy, blood volume increases by almost 50%, so it’s even more essential to increase iron stores to ensure oxygen is transported efficiently around the body. Low iron levels can also lead to iron deficiency. Also known as anaemia, it’s a condition that – according to the World Health Organisation – is found in more than half of pregnant women worldwide. Symptoms of anaemia include breathlessness, fatigue, feeling faint, heart palpitations and pale skin.
Craving broccoli during pregnancy
‘Broccoli is good for calcium and folate (vitamin B12),’ says Hayley, so if you crave it you could be lacking in these.
‘Your body requires more folate during pregnancy due to this nutrient’s role in foetal development,’ says Mr Downes. ‘So, if you’re experiencing an increased desire for these vegetables, it may indicate a folate deficiency.’
Also known as folic acid, folate can reduce the risk of having a baby with a serious birth defect of the brain and spinal cord, so the pregnant body needs lots of it – so much so pregnant women are advised to take a folic acid tablet every day.
Broccoli is also rich in vitamins A, C, K, B6 and calcium and fibre. Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron, calcium promotes strong bones, and fibre can help prevent constipation during pregnancy.
Craving vegetables during pregnancy
If you crave other vegetables during pregnancy, it’s most likely due to a vitamin or mineral deficiency.
‘For example, vegetables such as dark leafy greens are another good source of iron,’ says Hayley. Peppers are a great source of vitamins A, B12 (folate) and C and also contain potassium, fibre, folate, and iron, while tomatoes are a good source of vitamins B12 (folate), C and K, as well as potassium and the antioxidant lycopene. Too much of anything can be detrimental, though. For example, tomatoes are acidic and may cause heartburn in pregnancy if eaten to excess.
Don’t forget to wash all vegetables thoroughly before eating.
Craving carrots during pregnancy
Carrots are another vegetable pregnant women may crave – and for understandable reasons.
‘They provide good levels of betacarotene, a precursor to vitamin A needed for skin and eye health,’ says Hayley. ‘Carrots are also a powerful antioxidant,’ she adds. Munch on one as a snack or dip carrot sticks into low-fat hummous.
Craving yogurt during pregnancy
‘Yogurt contains calcium, so it may be that you’re low in this if you’re experience cravings,’ says Mr Downes.
‘The craving is thought to be for calcium, adds Hayley. ‘But studies also show that yogurt in particular may exert beneficial metabolic and anti-inflammatory effects, possibly in part due to its probiotic qualities,’ she says.
If you’re craving something cool and you’re trying to avoid calorific ice cream, try frozen yogurt. It comes in lots of great flavours and will meet some of your calcium needs without the added calorie count.
Craving beetroot during pregnancy
This is another vegetable that pregnant women may crave because of its high folate content. Beetroot is rich in B12 (folate), which is essential to the development of a growing foetus. It also contains the minerals magnesium, potassium and phosphorous. And if you’re vegetarian or vegan, beetroot is a good source of plant-based iron.
Beetroot helps keep blood pressure in check, boosts immunity, and keeps you regular – welcome news to pregnant women!
Craving salad during pregnancy
If you’re pregnant and can’t stop eating salad this is a very healthy craving to have, although remember to wash all vegetables thoroughly before eating. Salad is made from a variety of nutritious items including tomatoes and peppers (see our craving vegetables section, above) and avocado (see below) – all of which provide a range of vitamins and minerals.
Salad is also hydrating. For example, lettuce and cucumber are both made up of around 96% water. So, if you crave salad you may be slightly dehydrated. It’s recommended that we drink between 1.5-2 litres of water a day to stay hydrated. This includes liquids such as tea and fruit juice. Pregnant women should drink slightly more to get all the benefits of drinking water, however. Aim for up to 3 litres a day if it’s hot or you’ve been exercising.
Craving avocado during pregnancy
Another great source of B vitamins including B12 (folate) and vitamins C and E , plus magnesium and potassium, avocado is a superfood that’s worth eating even if you’re not craving it. Nutritious and filling, the healthy fat content also helps to build your baby’s brain tissue.
If one of your pregnancy cravings is avocados in the third trimester it could be that your body needs potassium. This mineral known to ease leg cramps, which are common in the later stages of pregnancy.
Craving curry during pregnancy
‘Cravings for spicy foods are common,’ says Hayley. Women’s penchant for spicy curries could be because many of us associate is as a comfort food. If your baby is overdue, curry also has a reputation for bringing on labour.
Worried about gaining additional pounds during pregnancy? Opt for vegetable curries like dhal or chickpea curry. Served with plain rice as this will be easier on your digestive system.
Can you predict the gender of your baby based on pregnancy cravings?
There are many gender predictor tests that claim to determine the sex of your unborn baby. For example, according to one Chinese belief if you crave sweet foods you’re having a boy and if you crave sour foods you’re having a girl. However, there’s no medical research to back this up and it’s likely to be just another pregnancy myth.
‘There’s no evidence to back this up,’ says Mr Downes. ‘A baby’s gender may be confirmed by a blood test after 10 weeks gestation,’ he says. ‘Or at the fetal anomaly scan after nineteen weeks of pregnancy.’