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Why you crave certain foods in pregnancy

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We’ve all heard stories about weird pregnancy cravings, but what actually causes cravings, and when should we listen to them? 

What causes pregnancy cravings?

Emergency midnight runs to the supermarket. Vegans suddenly devouring a juicy burger. And that smoked salmon and ice cream combo that your bestie swears by. Who doesn’t love a good pregnancy craving story? 

But what’s really driving our pregnancy cravings? Are we just giving ourselves permission to indulge while we're "eating for two", or is there some actual science behind our insatiable appetite for the weird and wonderful? 

The short answer is, we don’t exactly know. It’s estimated that 60 to 85% of women experience cravings while pregnant, but the area remains understudied. 

One popular theory suggests pregnancy cravings are less about our tastebuds and more about making up for missing nutrients.  

The theory goes like this: we crave chocolate because we have low magnesium levels, we get a hankering for a steak to boost iron levels, and so on. 

Then there’s the hormone factor. With all those baby-growing hormones raging around, it’s no wonder your body is crying out for more fuel (whether seven cheeseburgers are considered good fuel is another question altogether). 

While these theories satisfy our need for explanations (and offer an excellent reason to grab another handful of chips), research has found there’s a range of other reasons we crave things – and many of them have nothing to do with our bodies. 

Could pregnancy cravings be a cultural phenomenon?

The fact that people from different countries desire different things is one of the key findings that is debunking the scientific theories around cravings.  

For example, a study of pregnant Japanese women found the most commonly reported craving was for rice, while those in Western countries say chocolate is what their bodies want. And in around one-third of languages the word “craving” simply doesn’t exist.  

This suggests our cravings are driven more by cultural and societal factors than by a biochemical need.  

Should we pay attention to pregnancy cravings?

Whether driven by science or society, you’re probably wondering “Is it OK to indulge in my cravings or should I resist?” 

For the most part, it’s important to listen to what your body needs. As long as your cravings don’t stop you from enjoying a wide and varied diet, there’s no harm in indulging in the odd cake. Or even a doughnut covered with Vegemite and sardines if that’s what floats your boat! 

One exception to this advice would be craving non-food items like ice, dirt and even laundry powder. Scientists refer to this as “pica” and while the exact cause is unknown, it could be a sign that you are lacking certain nutrients.

If this sounds familiar, it’s a good idea to see your GP to run some tests before you give in to these particular cravings.