Why Do Pregnant Women Have Cravings? The Meaning Behind Them

If your partner has given you a perplexed expression for adding brussel sprouts and marmite to your morning bagel, you might be interested in understanding the causes behind pregnant women’s strange food cravings and the popularity of specific foods.

A very common craving is pickles, but what is it that makes these irresistible virtually overnight?

Why do pregnant women crave pickles? Pregnant women can sometimes crave pickles due to depleted sodium levels. During pregnancy, a mother’s blood volume increases, which can dilute the sodium in her system, resulting in an urge for salty snack foods, like pickles soaked in brine.

Cravings that satisfy a nutritional deficit make sense, but what about pregnancy cravings that include non-food items like coal or toothpaste?!

We’ve got the expert low-down on why pregnant women have cravings, what the more bizarre ones could mean, and how to eat pickles safely while pregnant.

Understanding Pregnancy Cravings

Pregnancy can have you longing for strange food combinations or urges for foods you never knew you liked, but is there a scientific basis for this common pregnancy symptom? What happens if you ignore them?

Let’s delve further into the why, how, and when of your pregnancy cravings.

Are Pregnancy Cravings Real?

Pregnancy cravings are very real for a lot of women during pregnancy with research finding that between 50 and 90% of women in the U.S. develop cravings for specific foods while pregnant.

Though the research is quite limited as to why these cravings occur, it’s a very normal part of pregnancy and not your imagination (though some women will find they have no cravings at all).

Science Behind Pregnancy Cravings

Many experts have pinpointed hormones, nutritional deficits, and cultural differences in pregnant women as potential links when asked about the possible explanation for pregnancy cravings.

Hormonal Changes

It was long believed that estrogen and progesterone levels caused food cravings, but according to studies discussed in Family & Co Nutrition, it’s possible that hormonal changes experienced in pregnancy may actually change a woman’s sensory perception, steering her towards certain foods more than others.

Findings have demonstrated that test subjects found their perception of texture, taste, and smell had changed in pregnancy, reporting changes in taste and an overwhelming change in smell sensitivity.

Cultural Norms

In a form of confirmation bias, the culture into which a woman is born appears to greatly impact the cravings (if any) she will experience during pregnancy.

Common cravings for pregnant women in Japan, for example, are reported to be rice and sushi, which is a far cry from the more obvious sweet cravings like chocolate that often tops the polls of western pregnancy cravings in the U.K. and U.S.

Nutrient Deficiency

When we’re sick with the flu, we can sometimes crave fruit due to being dehydrated. During pregnancy, this craving for something we’re lacking can be even stronger.

Prenatal dietician and diabetes educator Casey Seiden notes:

“A specific food may signal a nutrient need; craving pickles and other salty foods during pregnancy may be your body’s way of regulating your fluid balance.”

Craving meat, for instance, may point to needing more iron.

What Week Do Pregnancy Cravings Start?

Not every woman will experience food cravings, but those who do can expect them to kick in as early as 5 weeks into the pregnancy.

The cravings can start to feel stronger as you head into your second trimester before stopping in your third, according to the NHS.

What Happens if You Ignore Pregnancy Cravings?

If you crave healthy, nutritious foods, ignoring these could mean you’re leaving out some healthy food groups like protein, carbs, healthy fats, and greens.

Unhealthy foods (in moderation) are also a part of that balance though, so completely ignoring every bad and tempting type of craving may not do you any favors either.

Dietician and certified pregnancy nutritionist Erin Skinner explains that abstaining from the tasty stuff can create a mindset that may not serve you well in other ways:

“I would encourage someone like that to have a more balanced approach to food. We want to be able to model to our children how to live in a world where cupcakes and cookies are real.”

Amen to that!

A hungry pregnant woman eating chocolate cake with her hands.

Most Common Pregnancy Cravings

According to Good to Know magazine and research published by Frontiers in Psychology, some of the most common pregnancy cravings include:

  • Pickles
  • Ice cream
  • Ice pops
  • Chocolate
  • Salty foods
  • Starchy foods
  • Spicy foods
  • Milk and other dairy
  • Fast food
  • Pizza
  • Sweets and candies
  • Fruit and fruit juice
  • Fruits and vegetables

Weirdest Pregnancy Cravings

The following bizarre cravings are thought to speak to the same nutrient deficiency that common food cravings do.

There are also some non-food cravings on this list that may point to an eating disorder known as pica or simply reflect a woman’s strong emotional state and comfort in childhood memories, according to experts.

  • Barbecue sauce and butter
  • Rice and brown sugar
  • Brownies with mustard
  • Oreos topped with pickles
  • Goldfish crackers dipped in strawberry ice cream
  • Coal
  • Mud
  • Matches
  • Guinness
  • Dust
  • Seaweed
  • Toothpaste
  • Sponges
  • Cigarette butts
  • Vanilla ice cream with beef jerky
  • Lucky Charms and kids’ cereal in general
  • Room-temperature French fries

Pickles While Pregnant

Pickles are thought to be a popular craving due to their high sodium content — a nutrient pregnant women can find themselves deficient in.

According to registered dietician Samantha Broghammer at Pregnancy Food Checker, sodium is necessary in the blood for optimal organ function, and during pregnancy, a mother’s blood volume increases.

This process dilutes the blood which can throw her sodium levels out of balance.

In moderation then, pickles not only help to regulate your sodium levels but are also packed with:

  • Vitamin K: Essential for helping your baby’s blood clot and contributing to strong bone development
  • Vitamin C: Important not only for your own tissue repair, wound healing, and iron absorption but also beneficial for your baby’s teeth, tissue, and immune development!

But what is moderation? While it’s hard to say how many pickles may be too many for you, moms on the What To Expect community forum shared that horrible gas and heartburn were a sign to put the lid back on the pickle jar!

Eating Pickles Safely While Pregnant

While most types of pickles are safe to consume during pregnancy, Healthline warns against eating homemade pickles as these carry a higher risk of listeria, a bacteria that can cause infections, leading to serious pregnancy complications.

To practice safe pickle-eating during pregnancy, keep the following things in mind:

  • Opt for store-bought pickles that are low in sodium and sugar.
  • Buy pickles prepared in vinegar as these have been pasteurized to kill all bacteria.
  • Adhere to the storage instructions on the jar. Always seal the jar securely, and note that depending on the production method, some pickles may need to be refrigerated to prevent spoiling.
  • Try mindful eating practices — stop when you’re satisfied!
  • Use a utensil to remove pickles from the jar to minimize the risk of harmful bacteria contamination.

Common Pregnancy Food Aversions

Foods with pungent smells appear to be foods that put you off during pregnancy. These are things like:

  • Tea or coffee
  • Eggs
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Meat
  • Milk
  • Spicy foods
  • Fatty foods

It can help to have someone else cook the stronger-smelling foods if you can stomach them on the plate.

Be sure to speak with your doctor if food aversions continue to be strong well into your second trimester to ensure you’re getting the nutrients you need.

Related Questions:

Does Craving Pickles Mean You’re Pregnant?

Though pickles are a common craving in early pregnancy, an urge to eat pickles is not a scientific indication that you are expecting.

Craving pickles can be your body’s way of telling you that your sodium levels are low, something pickles are abundant in from being soaked in saltwater brine.

Is It Bad To Eat Pickles Every Day?

In moderation, pickles can be beneficial in pregnancy as the tangy taste helps with nausea and they are a good source of iron and calcium.

Eating this high-sodium snack every day, however, risks high blood pressure, hypertension, and increased water retention and contributes to chronic health conditions.

Final Thoughts

To sum up, pregnancy can bring on cravings for specific foods and downright bizarre culinary combinations, but some pregnant women may not experience food cravings at all.

Pickles are a very common craving as pregnant women can find their sodium levels dip due to changes in their blood and thus crave what’s lacking in the body.

Don’t be afraid to give in to the less-than-healthy cravings; just be sure it’s in moderation and part of a balanced pregnancy diet.