When Do Pregnancy Cravings Start and What Causes Them?
Dr. Angel Rivera
An estimated 50 to 90% of pregnant American women experience cravings for a specific type of food during pregnancy.
These cravings are often associated with strange combinations of foods that the women would otherwise not eat.
There are many different theories as to why pregnancy cravings occur.
In this guide, we’ll talk about the essentials of what you need to know about pregnancy cravings.
What Are Pregnancy Cravings?
Pregnancy cravings are an overwhelming desire to eat a certain food or combination of foods during pregnancy.
These episodes can come on suddenly and may be complete opposites of the types of foods someone would normally eat.
While jokes about weird pregnancy cravings like pickles and ice cream often exaggerate the experience, the reality is that these pregnancy cravings can indeed be strong and may be very unusual.
When Do Pregnancy Cravings Start?
Pregnancy cravings typically begin by the end of the first trimester, which is the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, but cravings are most common and are at their strongest in the second trimester, or weeks 13 through 27 of pregnancy.
Pregnancy cravings begin to decline in the third trimester during the final 12 weeks of pregnancy, with most resolving after delivery.
Some pregnant women may experience a few cravings after delivery as well, but these are typically short-lived.
What Causes Pregnancy Cravings?
Despite the fact that pregnancy cravings are extremely common, researchers don’t know what exactly causes them.
There are a number of different theories as to why women experience a craving for certain textures, flavors, and tastes, but nothing has been confirmed.
Additional research is needed in order to more clearly determine why pregnancy cravings occur, but these are a few working theories:
One theory on the origin of pregnancy cravings posits that women experience cravings because their body needs a specific nutrient.
Doctors theorize that the need for the nutrient is the body’s way of obtaining a specific food.
In this theory, a person who is in need of sodium might crave potato chips, pickles, or french fries.
A woman who has a nutritional deficiency of calcium or fat might crave dairy products, while a woman with an iron deficiency might crave a juice steak.
The need for the specific nutrient is then relayed to the taste buds, which interpret the signal as a craving for a specific food or combination of foods.
These nutrition-related cravings may be curbed with the help of a doctor-approved, pregnancy-safe vitamin supplement.
Another theory on the origin of pregnancy cravings focuses on the surge in hormones that pregnant people experience during pregnancy.
The increase in hormones (which is also responsible for morning sickness in early pregnancy) has been found to affect the way women experience their sense of smell and taste.
This could lead to cravings in some cases and food aversions in others.
During pregnancy, a woman’s body is working overtime to produce excess blood and supply her baby with everything it needs to develop properly.
This increased workload, including the production of additional blood, is akin to doing a difficult workout all day, every day, for 40 weeks.
Therefore, it is possible that women experience pregnancy cravings as a result of the increased energy expenditure during pregnancy.
What Are the Most Common Pregnancy Cravings?
While strange combinations of foods are often discussed, the most common pregnancy cravings are actually far more simple and vary from region to region.
The most commonly reported pregnancy cravings in the United States include:
- Sweets or sugary desserts, such as candy, ice cream, or dark chocolate
- Starchy carbohydrates, such as french fries or potatoes
- Specific vegetables
- Fast food, such as burgers, pizza, or wings
- Americanized Chinese food (particularly chow mein or lo mein)
- Dairy products, including milk, sour cream, and cheese
- Fresh fruits, especially sprinkled with salt or dipped in chocolate
The most common pregnancy cravings in the United Kingdom are notably different, speaking to the regional preferences of each location.
The most popular pregnancy cravings in the United Kingdom include chocolate, ice pops, and fruit, while unique food combinations include boiled eggs with horseradish, grated carrot and ketchup, and garlic mushrooms with mustard.
Can Pregnancy Cravings Be Dangerous?
Most pregnancy cravings are harmless pregnancy symptoms.
However, there are some situations in which pregnancy cravings can be dangerous.
Some women experience the overwhelming desire to consume dirt, soap, clay, and other nonfood items.
This condition, known as pica, may result from an iron deficiency, and can contribute to the consumption of toxic chemicals, such as the lead found in some soils.
Lead consumption can contribute to developmental disabilities in babies and potentially contribute to lifelong problems.
Women who experience cravings for nonfood items should seek medical attention and have their blood tested for iron and zinc deficiencies.
Pregnancy cravings can also be dangerous when they cause women to fill up on junk food that lacks nutritional value and causes them to skip out on healthy foods like fruits and vegetables.
Most women experience cravings for unhealthy foods like carbs-heavy takeout and sweet foods rather than fruits and vegetables, which can contribute to nutrient deficiencies.
These deficiencies can then contribute to developmental delays, birth defects, and other serious conditions in both mother and baby.
Finally, pregnancy cravings can also contribute to excess weight gain, particularly when the foods of choice are unhealthy.
Excess weight gain during pregnancy is linked to an increased risk of gestational diabetes, preeclampsia (a life-threatening condition in which the blood pressure rapidly rises), and increased difficulties during labor and delivery.
Women who are already overweight at the time of conception should work with their obstetrician to minimize weight gain during pregnancy.
The Bottom Line
Pregnancy cravings, or overwhelming desires for certain foods or combinations of foods during pregnancy, typically begin by the end of the first trimester and peak during the second trimester.
The exact causes of pregnancy cravings are unknown, but doctors believe the cravings may be linked to a need for certain nutrients or the rise in hormones during pregnancy.
The most common pregnancy cravings in the United States include starchy carbohydrates, sweets, and dairy products.