Michele Leiberman had always kept a strict vegan diet, but that quickly changed in her first trimester. Why the drastic switch? Believe it or not, it had nothing to do with doctor’s advice or dietary needs; Michele abandoned veganism because she simply could no longer stomach her beloved tofu. “It made me gag,” she says.
In fact, this Westminster, MD, marathoner had such strong food aversions during the early months of her pregnancy that she couldn’t eat her usual sandwiches, salads, and soups. Instead, she craved hamburgers, hot dogs, fried chicken, and McDonald’s hash browns, all things she never would have eaten before she got pregnant.
Most pregnant women—between 60 and 80 percent— experience food cravings, according to Ann Douglas, author of several parenting guides, including The Mother of All Pregnancy Books. Those cravings tend to peak during the evening when moms might have little willpower to fend them off. Such desires are normal, says Toby Amidor, a senior lead nutrition instructor in New York City and an expecting mom. You can chalk it up to hormones, she says, and the fact that your body, in its wisdom, is seeking certain nutrients that you and your growing baby need. For example, your desire for milk might mean your body needs calcium, while a passion for fruit may signal a need for vitamin C.
But that’s just one theory. Some experts argue that pregnancy cravings are hormonal and biological, while others believe they are psychological and/or environmental. The truth, says Robert Massaro, M.D., associate program director of obstetrics and gynecology at Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch, NJ, is that there is no one answer to what causes cravings. What’s certain is that cravings are real. “One thing we do know is that women’s taste preference changes during pregnancy,” he explains. “A woman who normally loves a certain food may not want to look at it; while another who never cared for a specific item may need to eat it several times a day.”
Along with the cravings come some concerns about overindulging, especially if a mother is overweight or obese before pregnancy. Experts say that on average, a woman should gain 25 to 35 pounds when pregnant—the equivalent of about 300 extra calories a day. If you’re not sure how much you should be eating, ask your doctor. Dr. Massaro advises different weight gains for different patients. “If a woman is over her ideal weight pre-pregnancy, she’ll most likely want to only gain from 15 to 18 pounds; if she’s underweight, we often suggest at least 35 pounds,” he says. And though he’s the first to say women deserve their “treats” a couple times a week, he’s quick to point out that there are easy substitutions for high-fat, high-caloric cravings (such as sorbet instead of ice cream, or a whole-grain bagel with fruit preserves instead of a doughnut) and that women should exercise while pregnant.
You don’t have to completely deprive yourself of indulgences, but you should be mindful of what you put in your mouth. For example, according to Camille Liburd, M.D., an ob/gyn at North Shore Medical Center in Miami, FL, “there’s nothing wrong with eating a piece of chocolate, but when chocolate and other craved foods become the mainstay of the diet, the craving is out of control and the woman’s health may be compromised.”
Instead Liburd suggests eating nourishing foods, such as fruits, vegetables, dairy, and lean proteins, as well as regular meals. Drink plenty of water and have healthy snacks between meals to avert craving binges. You should also try to eat a controlled portion of your “must- have” treats, so a few squares of chocolate instead of the whole bar, or just cup of ice cream—go ahead and measure it to be sure. And don’t forget to talk to your doctor about what foods are off-limits (soft cheeses, alcohol, sushi, and under- cooked eggs) as well as healthy alternatives to high-fat favorites.
— Jeanne Muchnick
Frequent contributor Jeanne Muchnick of Larchmont, NY, ate so many hot dogs during her second pregnancy that it took a full year before she could eat them again.