Ever felt like you wanted nasi lemak and chocolate chip cookies together? Ever felt surprised by your urge to eat jeruk and cheese at the same time? Sure, food cravings are common companions of pregnancy. But what causes pregnant women to yearn for these otherwise strange foods? And as a pregnant woman yourself, how should you respond — do you succumb to your cravings and let your impulses guide your diet?
Cravings haven’t been the focus of many rigorous studies, but some researchers have discovered interesting trends when it comes to pregnant women and food preferences. Nutrition scientists at the University of Connecticut found that, depending on the trimester of pregnancy, moms taste certain flavours more intensely and either prefer or dislike them. In the first trimester, for example, moms in their study found bitter tastes especially hard to take. This could be why some moms who formerly love such treats turn up their noses at coffee, alcohol, or spicy foods. As pregnancy progresses and the baby’s critical organ formation completes, thus reducing their vulnerability to bitter and dangerous foods, moms tend not to feel sick at the thought or smell of these bitter foods anymore.
The same study found that a mom’s perception of salty and sweet flavours can change as well. In the first trimester, moms tasted salty foods more intensely but preferred this flavour more as they approached the second and third trimester. So it would not be surprising to see that while you may feel like running 100 miles away from a bag of potato chips in your first trimester, you would be popping them and not stopping, in your second and third.
A preference for citric acid, which causes the sour taste in food, can also increase through pregnancy so that moms were more inclined to eat sour foods as the due date drew near. No one knows exactly why this is, but the researchers wonder whether the increased desire for salty or sour foods encourages a varied diet, which sends the baby a wider range of nutrients. A hankering for salty foods, like peanuts, could also indicate the need for more sodium that comes with a mom’s increase in blood volume during pregnancy.
It’s important to note that genes also play a role here, because DNA partly determines how our taste buds register flavours and our brains perceive them. For example, people respond to bitterness differently based on whether they have a particular variation of genes that shape taste receptors for this flavour. So whether or not you’re pregnant, being turned off completely by broccoli but drawn to the creamy sweetness of yogurt depends, in part, on your genetics.
There’s no doubt hormone fluctuations during pregnancy complemented by psychological components can also cause cravings. When you are feeling the fatigue of pregnancy or overwhelmed by your growing bellies, changing lives, and responsibilities, you may resort to your comfort foods; foods that make you feel better. For example, carbohydrates and foods containing tryptophan could give a boost to the mood-regulating neurochemical serotonin. While being sleepless on the other hand can make you crave fatty foods.
But whether or not cravings have a biological basis, you will be more likely to reach out to the foods that make you feel good, repeatedly in the course of your pregnancy. In fact, psychologists say that mental imagery is an important component of any food craving. If you tend to picture a food clearly in your mind, you are going to have a strong craving for it. Can you see the jar of peanut butter or the gallon of Baskin Robbbins’? Then you may be powerless against it.
So what is a woman to do then? Should you indulge in your cravings and literally eat for two? Or should you stick to a strict healthy diet of steamed broccoli and tasteless grilled chicken for that whole nine months? The fact that moms are drawn to, or repulsed from, certain flavours throughout pregnancy suggests that you should listen to these cravings, because they indicate a need for particular nutrients within such foods for your baby. Having said that however, exercising moderation when indulging in your cravings is probably the best approach. So go ahead, have a few potato chips or enjoy a spoonful of chocolate ice cream topped with ketchup if you want to. But do refrain from reaching for that second bag or tub. Remember, pregnancy is a journey of senses that you want to savour and enjoy, and the only way to do that, is by keeping healthy.