Food cravings during pregnancy

Food cravings during pregnancy

Pregnancy and food cravings are commonly described hand in hand, as they are frequently associated with one another. Many women will experience food cravings at some point during their pregnancies. Here we touch on pregnancy cravings to shed light on the topic.

1. What are pregnancy cravings?

Pregnancy cravings are the intense desire to consume specific types of food during pregnancy. These cravings are commonly reported in women of different backgrounds. Its prevalence is indicated anywhere within the range of 40-85% of pregnant women.1,2 Pregnancy cravings are normal and does not indicate problems in a pregnancy. Common types of foods craved by expectant mothers include sweets, fruits, dairy, salty snacks, sour/pickled foods and savoury foods.1,3 Although food cravings are frequently linked to pregnancy, it is also perfectly normal to not experience any cravings during pregnancy. The absence of food cravings (especially for fatty or sweet foods) may also mean that pregnant mothers are more likely to have a balanced and healthy diet.4

2. What causes pregnancy cravings?

Your pregnancy cravings may be caused by the hormonal changes during pregnancy. This in turn may contribute to change in sensitivity to tastes and smells, leading to preferences towards certain foods.1,3

Pregnancy cravings may also be a natural mechanism to accommodate the increased requirement of energy and other nutrients during pregnancy. These cravings ensure that you consume adequate nutrition for healthy foetal development.3

Further possible explanation to the causes of your pregnancy cravings is to encourage the intake of pharmacologically active substances present in certain foods, which might help to alleviate symptoms such as nausea and vomiting during pregnancy.3

3. When do pregnancy cravings start and how long does it last?

The nature of food cravings and its intensity during pregnancy is unique from person to person.1 Generally, food cravings may arise by the end of the first trimester. The frequency and intensity of these cravings may reach a high point during the second trimester. Many women experienced reduced cravings towards the end of their pregnancies.3,5

4. Is it okay to give in to pregnancy cravings?

While the occasional indulgence may not be harmful, you must pay attention to the cravings and indulge within reason.6 You should exercise caution when consuming less-than-healthy foods and search for healthier alternatives to satisfy your food cravings.7 For example, you could substitute ice cream with frozen yogurt, or fried chicken with baked chicken.7

substitute ice cream with frozen yoghurt

Substitute ice cream with frozen yoghurt

If you have gestational diabetes (GDM), you should not consume too much sweet foods. Using smaller plates or bowls encourages portion control; the limited capacity would help you take smaller servings so you would not overeat. 

Some types of foods pose certain risks when eaten in large amounts. Consuming a lot of anchovies, for example, may inadvertently lead to excessive salt intake, which aggravates swelling in pregnant mothers.8,9 You should make sure your sodium intake does not exceed 2300 mg/day and drink plenty of water.8

substitute ice cream with frozen yoghurt

Substitute ice cream with frozen yoghurt

Expectant mothers should not let their cravings dictate their daily diet. You must maintain a healthy balanced diet with adequate intake of nutrients and energy.6 Prenatal supplements are a good way to keep these nutritional requirements in check.

use smaller plates & bowls for food

Use smaller plates/bowls to encourage portion control

Giving in to cravings for foods high in fat or sugar can lead to excessive weight gain, GDM, or other problems that can last beyond the pregnancy. It is helpful to determine whether it is safe to indulge in your food cravings by categorising them into different groups: green light foods for healthy foods (e.g fruits and vegetables), yellow light foods for foods which are good in small amounts but bad in large amounts (e.g. chocolate and salted nuts) and red light foods for unhealthy/harmful foods (e.g. foods with excess refined sugar).10

use smaller plates & bowls for food

Use smaller plates/bowls to encourage portion control

5. Should I be worried about weird pregnancy cravings?

‘Pica’ is the persistent craving for substances with no nutritional value, such as earthy items (e.g. soil, clay and chalk), raw starches (e.g. corn starch and uncooked rice) and ice.11 It afflicts many pregnant women around the world.11 Although the causes are not fully clear, pica is suggested to be a symptom for mineral deficiency as well as a way to cope with emotional stress, among others.3,12

If you engage in pica, you potentially run the risk of problems such as micronutrient imbalance, heavy metal poisoning and gastrointestinal tract damage.11 Pregnant mothers are advised to not indulge in non-food cravings and consult a doctor if any such craving arises.

Alcohol cravings have also been reported among pregnant women.1 Alcohol cravings are dangerous to give in to, as it contributes to development of fetal alcohol syndrome disorders (FASDs) such as learning disabilities, hyperactivity and growth problems.13,14 FASDs are completely preventable by abstaining from alcohol during pregnancy.13

Raw / undercooked meats and eggs, and soft cheeses should be consumed with caution on general, and especially avoided during pregnancy. These foods are likely to carry a high level of bacteria such as salmonella and listeria. Consuming these foods increases risk of infection, which may be harmful for both mother and baby.14 If you crave these types of foods, be sure to opt for safer options such as well-cooked meats, pasteurised eggs and cheese made from pasteurised milk.14

avoid raw meats, eggs, and soft cheeses

avoid raw meats, eggs, and soft cheeses

Avoid raw/undercooked meats and eggs, and soft cheeses

Manage your unhealthy food cravings with these tips15:

• Make sure to take regular, balanced meals to prevent sudden feelings of hunger

• Find healthier alternatives to substitute unhealthy food cravings.

• Pick some healthy snacks (such as dark chocolate) to savour throughout the day.

• Don’t buy food when hungry.

• Eating low glycaemic index (GI) foods keeps you full until the next mealtime.

• Don’t skimp on good sleep. Sleep deprivation increases one’s tendency to crave for high-calorie foods.16

• If you find your cravings are constant, then sometimes a little meditative therapy can help. Practicing yoga, going for a walk, or    spending time doing enjoyable things with friends will help take your mind off your cravings.


Article contributed by Dato’ Dr Siti Zaliha, Consultant Obstetrician & Gynaecologist




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