While most people can understand what a food craving feels like, food aversions are less straight forward. Aversions are often confused with poor appetite, but the two are different. Poor appetite is more generalized, not specific to any one food, and can sometimes be the result of nausea or vomiting. However, an aversion is a very strong reaction to one or a handful of foods/smells. You may feel perfectly fine one minute and then all of a sudden, the smell, taste, or even thought of a particular food can cause an almost immediate feeling of disgust. You may get nauseous after exposure to the food and feel the need to get away from it immediately. Aversions often show up unexpectedly and without warning, but tend to improve as the pregnancy progresses.
The most common aversions include:
- Dairy products
- Spicy foods
- Foods with strong smells such as fermented foods, fish, vinegar, etc.
The root cause of aversions are not fully understood, but there are likely many factors at play, including psychological and cultural, nutrient deficiencies, as well as hormonal changes. One of the key hormones thought to be involved is hCG (human chorionic gonadotropin) which has been linked to feelings of nausea and food aversions. Hormonal shifts can also heighten your sense of smell, which can intensify the taste of food.
Ice cream and pickles! I bet you have either craved, or spoken to someone who has craved, one or both of these foods during pregnancy. And while many people argue that cravings are the body’s way of telling us that we are lacking in certain nutrients, it seems the root causes of cravings are more nuanced. There is definitely some innate wisdom to certain cravings, one example being salt. Salt requirements increase during pregnancy, which could explain the cravings for pickles, chips and other salty foods. Iodine needs also increase, which can show up as cravings for seafood or dairy products. However, not all cravings are driven by the body’s physiological needs. Research shows that cravings are not universal across all cultures and women in other parts of the world, such as Japan, crave different foods – primarily rice – compared to women in America. This points to cravings that are driven by cultural and psychological factors. It’s also seen that women who give into all of their cravings tend to gain more weight than is considered healthy during pregnancy.
In America, many of the foods typically craved are foods that our culture deems “bad” or are associated with a sense of guilt. Think chocolate cake, potato chips, and ice cream. It can start with a slight desire to enjoy these foods occasionally, but if you fully restrict yourself trying to follow the healthiest diet possible, that slight desire can grow into a full-blown craving and become difficult to control. This can lead to over-indulgence or binging on foods that far exceed what the body actually wants or needs.
Most common cravings include the following (and yes, there is overlap between some of the cravings and aversions! Remember, foods impacts everyone differently):
- Ice cream
- Potato chips
- Red meat
- Fruit juice
Help! What Can I Do to Cope?
Understanding that aversions/cravings are temporary and normal is the first step to coping with either. It’s easy to feel frustrated or afraid when you try to eat nutrient-dense foods during pregnancy but your body is averse, or when you crave foods that are less healthy. Yet aversions and cravings are rarely a sign that something is wrong, with one exception. If you experience non-food cravings for items like soil, clay, burnt matches, or ice, this may be a sign of the condition “pica.” Pica may be the result of significant nutritional deficiencies like iron or zinc, so this should be discussed with your physician because nutritional testing may be needed. However, this is the exception and in most cases, there are things you can do to cope with cravings and aversions on your own.
Coping with Aversions
If you have aversions because your sense of smell and taste are heightened, you may tolerate colder foods because they tend to smell less strong. Homemade smoothies and popsicles are a great way to get lots of nutrition in a way that is often less triggering. Another thing to try is to focus on alternatives that do work for you. For example, if you are averse to meat, try getting protein-rich foods from other sources such as eggs, nuts, seeds, and legumes. And it may seem obvious, but sometimes the answer is simply avoiding the food that makes you feel sick until it’s no longer a trigger! You may have to keep it out of the house entirely, or stay in another room where you won’t see or smell the food as it’s being prepared by someone else.
Coping with Cravings
Instead of depriving yourself, it’s often best to enjoy a small portion of a food you crave when the desire first hits, making it easier to eat less and move on without letting the craving take you over. Sometimes eating a small square of high-quality dark chocolate every day can mitigate those nagging cravings while providing an enjoyable nutrient-dense treat. Practicing mindfulness when you eat can be extremely helpful as well. This is the art of being aware of your experience, without judgment, and paying attention to all of your senses before, during and after you eat. Mindful eating is a powerful way to help you learn if your cravings are more physical or psychological. Mindfulness can enhance your level of satisfaction with smaller portion sizes.