pregnant woman with a bowl of pasta resting on her belly

Why We Get Pregnancy Cravings and How to Satisfy Them

By Kerry Weiss
Reviewed by Alyssa Quimby, M.D.
May 03, 2023
You can listen to this article.

Ice cream. Pickles. Pizza. Pickles on pizza. Pregnancy is known as a time for food cravings. You might find yourself with an overwhelming urge to eat a specific food or a strange combination of foods. Cravings can vary from day to day, or even hour by hour.

In some ways, pregnancy cravings are a bit of a mystery. But here’s what we do know about pregnancy cravings and how to handle them.

How Common Are Pregnancy Cravings?

Pregnancy cravings are common. Some research has estimated that up to 90% of pregnant people in the U.S. experience a food craving at some point.

“Some people get them, and some people don't… everybody is a little different,” says Monique De Four Jones, M.D., board-certified ob-gyn and associate chief of labor and delivery at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, New York. “But we know pregnancy cravings are real.”

When pregnancy cravings happen can vary from person to person, says Bianca Falcone, M.D., board-certified ob-gyn at Atrium Health in Charlotte, North Carolina. Though there does tend to be a general pattern. Cravings may start in your first trimester, then heighten in the second trimester. Then they can start to lessen in your third trimester.

Why Do We Get Pregnancy Cravings?

“The cause is not clear,” says Falcone. But a few theories do exist.

Theory #1: Pregnancy hormones. “Most theories suggest that it is a hormone mediated reaction that creates both cravings and aversions,” says Falcone. (Aversions are the exact opposite of a craving; it’s when you can’t stand or don’t want a certain food.)

The hormone theory could explain why cravings can peak in the second trimester, says Jones. “Because that’s when many of the hormones of pregnancy are at their highest.”

Theory #2: Nutritional deficiencies. It’s thought that cravings may be your body’s way of telling you what vitamins or minerals you’re lacking. For example, if you’re craving salmon, it may be a sign that you need more vitamin D in your diet.

Theory #3: Comfort. Research suggests that it’s possible non-pregnant people crave certain foods during their menstrual period because it makes them feel better. For example, chocolate contains ingredients that may help with symptoms like fatigue, irritability, bloating, or cramps. This same idea may apply to pregnancy too. You may be reaching for comfort foods to help you get through the tough parts of being pregnant.

The culture you grew up in may also impact cravings. For example, pregnant people from Japan are more likely to crave rice, whereas pregnant people from the U.S. are more likely to steer toward that oh-so-comforting chocolate.

“There is no consensus on what cravings mean,” says Falcone.

How Can I Satisfy My Food Cravings and Stay Healthy?

Most cravings are totally fine, but there are a few things you should be careful of when you’re trying to satisfy them.

Avoid Foods That Aren’t Safe During Pregnancy

Certain foods need to be avoided during pregnancy so that you and your baby can stay healthy. It’s important to avoid these foods and drinks even if you’re craving them:

  • Alcohol
  • Deli meat
  • Raw and undercooked eggs
  • Raw and undercooked meats
  • Raw and undercooked seafood, such as smoked salmon and sushi
  • Unpasteurized juice
  • Unpasteurized milk and cheese

Limit High-Sugar and High-Calorie Foods

If you have a healthy pregnancy and crave a food that isn’t considered healthy, it’s generally okay to indulge a little bit. “Everything should be within moderation,” says Jones. “If you want to sit and eat a whole box of chocolate, no, I don't recommend that. But if you're one day craving a slice of pizza, I'm okay with that.”

Moderation really is key to keep you on track for healthy pregnancy weight gain. Some research suggests that gaining too much weight during pregnancy may increase your risk of developing issues like gestational diabetes or preeclampsia, as well as complications during labor and delivery. It may also affect the postpartum period, making chest/breastfeeding and losing pregnancy weight more challenging.

Research also suggests that overindulging in pregnancy cravings may have a negative impact on the baby’s brain and metabolism in the future.

Be Extra Careful If You Have a Health Condition

Indulging isn’t right for everyone. You may have to be extra careful about what you eat if you have a health condition. “If you have gestational diabetes, for example, and are craving high carbohydrate foods that you’re indulging in every other day, that would not be beneficial to your diet and the pregnancy,” says Falcone.

Make Healthy Food Swaps

Instead of caving into every craving, try to come up with healthier substitutions, advises Falcone. For example, “if you’re craving ice cream, try to have a small portion of frozen yogurt instead.”

Making your own turkey burger is better than getting fast food. If you’re craving something crunchy, see if carrot sticks with hummus help before reaching for a giant bag of chips.

Stop Cravings Before They Start

You may be able to prevent some cravings by using these strategies:

  • Eat regular meals and snacks so you don’t get too hungry, which is when you’re more likely to indulge.
  • Eat a variety of foods to help you stay satisfied and nourished.
  • ​​Avoid buying foods you know aren’t great for you. If you aren’t around it, you’re much less likely to eat it!
  • Keep healthy foods and snacks nearby, so you can easily reach for them when you’re hungry.
  • Don’t grocery shop when you’re hungry so you don’t load your cart with filling foods that aren’t good for you.

Never Eat Things That Aren’t Food

If you ever crave non-food items, like soap, clay, dirt, or ice, don’t eat them, says Jones. Tell your doctor right away. Those cravings could be the sign of an eating disorder called pica.

Non-food cravings may also be a sign of a nutritional deficiency, so it’s important to let your doctor know.

For example, “there are a lot of people that will eat ice, which may mean they're severely anemic,” says Jones. Anemia is when the body doesn’t have enough iron. “So early on, we should provide them with IV iron transfusions, start them on high dose iron early, and provide healthy food options that may be high in iron for them,” says Jones.

Check In with Your Doctor

A good rule of thumb: Talk to your doctor about your cravings throughout your pregnancy. Together, you can come up with a plan for how to handle them, says Falcone.

You should also ask your doctor for help if you don’t have access to healthy alternatives, adds Jones. They may be able to refer you to programs like The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children (WIC), which provides low-income pregnant people with access to healthy foods.

You May Also Like: