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Food Cravings in Pregnancy: Imagined or Real?

by Katrina Wharton | November 12, 2014 8:28 AM
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Pregnancy, pickles and ice cream. Weird cravings are a hallmark of pregnancy, right? Every movie, TV show, and pregnant friend and relative has crystallized the belief that pregnant women have odd cravings, and often for unhealthy foods. However, what if that's only because we have come to expect those cravings?

Researchers from the University of Albany have probably stirred up the proverbial hornet's nest by questioning this firmly held belief. The researchers started with the premise that pregnant women eat more high calorie foods out of a perceived permission or socially acceptable position, rather than from any nutritional need.

University of Albany psychology department researchers Julia Hormes and Natalia Orloff are collaborating with researchers from Albany Medical College to determine whether their hypothesis is on-target or not.

So far, the findings they have reviewed look rather bad for American women. According to data, 76 percent of pregnant women crave at least one food during the second trimester. Most of the food items reportedly craved are not healthy such as those high in calories or sugar, like potato chips, ice cream, cookies, pizza and fast food.

Another interesting aspect of the research they have uncovered is that women with a history of eating disorders, or those who are perpetual dieters, tend to gain more weight than other pregnant women.

"This lends credence to the idea that women may be using pregnancy to indulge in foods they would normally deny themselves," Hormes stated.

The researchers have linked this research with early research into the cravings of women with premenstrual syndrome or PMS.

"In the United States, both PMS and pregnancy may act as socially acceptable excuses to overindulge," said Hormes.

The most damning evidence for their hypothesis, however, comes from research from other countries. While women around the world report cravings, they do not result in higher weight gain, particularly since women in other cultures do not crave unhealthy or junk foods.

For instance, in Tanzania, 595 pregnant women were asked about their pregnancy cravings. Foods like fish, fruit, meat, vegetables, and grains were at the top of the list. That is not exactly the same thing as chocolate chip ice cream sundaes or double cheeseburgers with fries.

Another study published in the journal appetite in 2010, looked at a similar topic. For this, researchers looked at women with gestational diabetes and their sweet cravings during pregnancy. Researchers found that from week 34 to 38 of pregnancy, women with gestational diabetes reported cravings at a rate twice that of non-gestational diabetes-affected women.

How to Outsmart Your Cravings

Most pregnancy cravings fall into these food categories; sweet, salty and sour. However, you can satiate these desires, without feeling guilty, with some simple substitutions. For example, if you are craving salty potato chips, try making air popped popcorn, or a rice cake?

If you are craving a chocolate milk shake, replace that with a chocolate yogurt smoothie. Be extra good, and add a few slices of a banana to that. If you just want chocolate, go ahead and indulge in some dark chocolate with fruits. That's okay!

Are you more of a candy fanatic? Opt to pop some trail mix into your mouth instead.

If you're like me, the hardest thing to give up is soda or pop. Carbonated water mixed with juice, or with a slice of lemon or lime is a great alternative.

Your Plan to Overcome Cravings

It's important to have a plan for eating. If you shop the same, eat dinner out at the same spots, you'll ensure your old habits of eating the same unhealthy foods. Here are 5 tips to help you stay on track.

1. Instead of only focusing on the "no's" make a go-to list.

Think of healthy snacks and treats you can have handy to indulge in. Dried fruit, yummy flavored yogurts, hummus and pita chips, pecans or walnuts.

2. Find healthy ways to prepare favorite meals.

Bake that pork chop, roast those potatoes in olive oil and try ground turkey in your chili instead of ground beef.

3. Shop for healthy foods.

It's much harder to cheat on your meal plan if it's not in your cupboard or refrigerator.

4. Do not shop hungry.

People tend to buy more unhealthy foods if they shop when they are hungry.

5. Read menus at home before going out.

You can more easily check out the nutrition info at home ahead of time and make a good decision in advance instead of settling for something familiar, and unhealthy.


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