By Marra St. Clair
I am someone that listens to my body, eats real food, indulges in moderation and fuels myself with quality nutrients that I sense my body is seeking through its subtle signals. However – when I became pregnant five months ago, these once subtle signals quickly transformed into intense and confusing mixed messages.
UNDERSTANDING MY CRAVINGS DURING PREGNANCY
During my first trimester I devoured carbs, wanted salt, developed a new-found love for sugar (especially in the form of citrus fruit – tons of it), and “needed” fat and more fat (lots and lots of fat).
Despite studying over one hundred different dietary theories during my nutrition education & career, I have never actually been on a traditional “diet” and I have never studied nutrition specifically for pregnancy.
So, at first, I was simply going with the flow of it all and indulging in each weird pregnancy craving, but five weeks and fifteen pounds into the experience – I realized that I had a choice to make:
A) Take a holistic look at things and get a handle on my pregnancy cravings.
B) Risk putting on an ungodly amount of weight during these nine months that I would have to troubleshoot a solution for later.
Not willing to deal with the aftermath of B (remember I have never been on a diet), I chose option A and got to work on researching why I suddenly found it totally normal to eat four to five oranges on a daily basis.
Here is what I learned:
I want carbs because my hormones are going haywire
As a pregnant woman, my hormones are going cray cray, some of them doubling by the day!
HCG, or human chorionic gonadotropin, is the hormone known for being the root of early pregnancy symptoms and doubles by the day within the first two weeks of pregnancy. Estrogen and progesterone levels both surge. And all of this hormone activity means that I can’t trust my body’s normal signals quite as much.
Typically, if my mood were to dip, I would look to a hearty complex carb to get a quick serotonin fix and restore balance. Well, not any more. All of the steel-cut oatmeal in California could not combat sky-rocketing estrogen levels. Trust me, I know — five of that first fifteen pounds is attributed to this failed attempt.
I want salt all of the time – the struggle is real!
Pickles are my BFF. True story. I couldn’t be more cliché if I tried! But, it turns out there is legitimacy behind this craving.
Increased blood volume during pregnancy (blood volume will increase by over 40% during pregnancy) increases a woman’s need for salt. According to studies, its proven that “it is not possible for a healthy pregnant woman to eat too much salt.” Salt is essential to increasing blood volume during pregnancy since, as Dr. Tom Brewer of the Brewer Pregnancy Diet highlighted, “salt has osmotic pressure which helps to pull extra fluid out of the tissues and into circulation.”
Hallelujah because I am not going to lie, I may have eaten a full jar of Clausen’s Kosher Dills in a single day.
MY CITRUS LOVE AFFAIR = a VITAMIN C & FOLATE boost
I am not typically much of a fruit person. I tend not to love sweet things and if I go for dessert, I would always choose a dark chocolate option over the fruity one. This all changed the moment I got pregnant – so much so that on one desperate night when I was just feeling too lazy to go to the market, I actually stole a few oranges off of my neighbor’s tree. I confessed to it the next morning, but it still felt like a low point. The cravings were winning for sure.
While there may not be definitive proof that food cravings indicate nutrient needs during pregnancy, my own research with Dr. Google revealed that my sudden preference (and desire) for all things citrus, could be related to a need for extra folate and Vitamin C. After consulting with my real doctor, I decided to up my dosage of these two nutrients and guess what happened – the cravings went away.
Fat is my hero and I don’t discriminate – BUT, I need to moderate, at least a bit.
About two weeks into pregnancy, the morning joke in my house was my husband asking me if I would like toast with my slab of butter (it was organic and grass-fed of course), but nevertheless I was eating it in excess!
My mornings would start with a full avocado, three whole eggs and two giant chunks of butter with some gluten-free toast buried underneath. Pretty sure I had well exceeded the recommended daily amount for fat before I stepped foot out the door for work each day.
Research and a talk with my doctor exposed that fat is essential to baby’s developing brain and more fat than normal is totally acceptable, but a high quality DHA oil can ensure I fulfill baby’s needs without pushing my calorie consumption into overdrive. I have been taking Nordic Naturals and I have to say – it did the trick in curbing my fat cravings. The toast is at least visible under my butter in the mornings now!
COMMON PREGNANCY CRAVINGS
Oatmeal, oranges, butter and salts… these were the primary pregnancy cravings that I experienced and have worked to manage during my first trimester, but there are many others that women report, most commonly: chocolate, cheese, peanut butter and sugar.
Here is a look at the related nutrients that you could check in with your doctor about for these cravings and a healthy swap suggestion that can also fulfill the “want”.
If you find yourself craving chocolate, your body could be signaling for magnesium. Other magnesium rich foods are dark leafy greens, fish, beans, avocados, and walnuts. If chocolate is the end-all-be-all for you, opt for dark chocolate made from 70% cacao or higher, which is very healthy in moderation.
Cravings for cheese could be an indicator that you need more calcium. Some healthy swaps are dark leafy greens, organic, kefir, almonds or dried figs.
Dipping into the peanut butter jar throughout the day could be a sign that you want B vitamins or potassium, both delivered by this scrumptious food. Peanut butter itself is not unhealthy, just be sure to choose natural, preferably organic, without any added sugars, and enjoy in moderation.
Cravings for sugar can be more fierce than any other cravings during pregnancy. Fulfilling the desire for sugar is tricky because unless you are simply not eating enough – chances are that you don’t actually need anything the sugar is delivering.
There are also real risks for both you and baby if you consistently overindulge in sugar, such as Gestational Diabetes, which can increase your baby’s glucose levels and put your own pancreas into overdrive.
Point is, before you reach for that pint of Ben and Jerry’s, make sure you are eating frequent meals that are rich in protein and healthy fats to help stabilize your blood sugar and avoid dips that leave you craving the sweet stuff.
If you have the frequency and quality of your meals covered, but are still desperately craving sugar – chock it up to your multiplying hormone levels and try a few strategies for boosting serotonin, endorphins and dopamine without the sugar. Up your daily hug intake, have long talks with good friends, have sex, or get a massage.
And for all you soon-to-be mamas out there, remember to be kind to yourself during pregnancy. You are growing a human!! It is tough work. It is scary. You are vulnerable. And you need lots and lots of vitamin L (love).