Intense desires for certain kinds of food and food combinations during pregnancy are the rule rather than the exception. Though there have been no in-depth studies, 90% of pregnant women seem to experience pregnancy cravings.

This phenomenon occurs globally in various cultures — so it’s not your imagination that pickles and ice cream or marshmallows on nachos suddenly seem like a great idea.

These cravings are most likely to occur in the first and second trimesters of your pregnancy. During that period, you’re unlikely to need any extra calories if you’re a normal weight.

That doesn’t mean you can’t give into your obsession to pair a kosher dill with something sweet. Just avoid consuming additional empty calories and sacrificing your nutritional needs.

What Are Cravings?

Human beings tend to crave sweet and salty foods. It makes sense that most of us crave things that taste good. The science behind it is more complex.

Studies show that certain foods trigger the reward centers of the brain. When a food registers as rewarding, it influences future food choices and eating behaviors.

Some of these foods trigger the release of dopamine — a happy hormone. This is often how we develop a positive and comforting feeling toward foods like macaroni and cheese, for example.

With the fast and furious hormonal changes pregnancy brings, cravings become amplified, increasing appetite and changing how certain foods taste and smell. Some studies suggest that food cravings may have something to do with nutrient deficiencies.

For example, while pregnant you may crave milk or milk products because you need more calcium. These correlations have proved mostly anecdotal so far.

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What Do Pregnancy Cravings Feel Like?

Triggered by hormonal changes, pregnancy cravings are an intense compulsion to eat something very specific.

The cravings themselves can range from fruits and vegetables to seemingly bizarre combinations of food that lack nutritional value. Though cravings are a psychological desire for certain foods, they can get so strong that a pregnant woman’s body feels a physical need for them.

When Do Cravings Start in a Pregnancy?

Pregnancy cravings tend to fade in the later stages of pregnancy, peaking in the first and second trimesters. You can begin experiencing cravings as early as five weeks into your pregnancy — perhaps before you even know you are pregnant. Cravings often coincide with food aversions and morning sickness.

In the first trimester, many pregnant women have food aversions rather than cravings. A food aversion is when you can’t stand to eat, smell, or even look at a food or food group. It’s the polar opposite of a craving.

Like cravings, food aversions are very common during pregnancy. They also fade as your pregnancy progresses.

What Is the Most Common Pregnancy Craving?

Not surprisingly, the most common pregnancy craving is ice cream. It’s cold, soothing, and satisfying. You can crave nearly anything during your pregnancy, but some of the other most common ones include:

  • Chocolate.
  • Coffee.
  • Dairy products.
  • Fruit.
  • Pickles.
  • Red meat.
  • Spice.

Should You Fight Your Pregnancy Cravings?

For the most part, you don’t have to fight your pregnancy cravings. You can indulge them in moderation.

Stay conscious of the empty calories you consume, which can contribute to extra weight gain. Talk to your doctor about your caloric needs. They’re different for everybody.

Pregnancy cravings are usually harmless, but there’s also a disorder called pica, which is a compulsion to eat inedible items, including:

  • Chalk.
  • Cigarette ashes.
  • Clay.
  • Coffee grounds.
  • Glue.
  • Ice.
  • Metal.
  • Paint.
  • Paper.
  • Sand.
  • Soap.

Anybody can develop pica. It’s an eating disorder. It’s also a possible sign of a nutrient deficiency or anemia.

It’s not uncommon in pregnancy. Talk to your doctor immediately if you develop cravings for any nonfood items.

Indulging your cravings for sushi or other undercooked seafood, meat, eggs, and unpasteurized dairy products and juices is also dangerous during pregnancy.

Bacteria found in these foods can make you sick and even cause pregnancy complications. It’s also important to wash the fruits and vegetables you eat well and maintain a sanitary kitchen.

Can I Reduce Pregnancy Cravings?

If your pregnancy cravings become overwhelming, these tips and tricks can help you manage them:

  • Carry healthy snacks with you on the go to stave off temptations during the day.
  • Consider meal planning. Knowing exactly what you plan to eat during the day will reduce the chances of unplanned snacking and keep you satisfied. Plan and shop so you can prep healthy meals ahead of time.
  • Drink water. Make sure to stay hydrated. Thirst can sometimes be mistaken for hunger. Have a water bottle handy throughout the day.
  • Eat mindfully. Watching television or scrolling on your phone can prompt mindless snacking. When we eat intentionally, we’re eating to satisfy hunger rather than soothe our emotions. Nutritionists or mental health professionals can help you recognize your patterns and eat more mindfully.
  • Eat small, nutritious meals. Pregnancy can make eating large meals all at once uncomfortable. Eat smaller meals packed with protein and fiber more frequently to avoid becoming overly hungry, which can prompt cravings.
  • Exercise. Keep moving with a physical activity you enjoy. A brisk walk can help curb cravings and reduce stress. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week. A little time outside can help boost your mood and reduce cravings.
  • Limit processed snacks. Foods that are high in sodium, fat, sugar, and calories with little nutritional value may trigger “rewards” in the brain that lead to overindulgence and more intense cravings. Opt for whole foods like fruits, nuts, and veggies instead.
  • Limit salty, sugary, and fatty snacks in the house. Buy only single servings of the foods you crave most. This will make it easier to satisfy those cravings without overindulging.
  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule. Eliminate electronics and screens before bed and develop a routine that works for you. The later you stay awake, the more likely you are to snack.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About UPMC Magee-Womens

Built upon our flagship, UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital in Pittsburgh, and its century-plus history of providing high-quality medical care for people at all stages of life, UPMC Magee-Womens is nationally renowned for its outstanding care for women and their families.

Our Magee-Womens network – from women’s imaging centers and specialty care to outpatient and hospital-based services – provides care throughout Pennsylvania, so the help you need is always close to home. More than 25,000 babies are born at our network hospitals each year, with 10,000 of those babies born at UPMC Magee in Pittsburgh, home to one of the largest NICUs in the country. The Department of Health and Human Services recognizes Magee in Pittsburgh as a National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health; U.S. News & World Report ranks Magee nationally in gynecology. The Magee-Womens Research Institute was the first and is the largest research institute in the U.S. devoted exclusively to women’s health and reproductive biology, with locations in Pittsburgh and Erie.