This post has taken me a long time to write because it is a topic that is very personal. It’s been a long process of learning and acceptance and a surprising lack of answers. Everyone seems to be an expert on this topic, every expert has an opinion, and there are many and varied opinions to be had.
Because this is so near and dear to me right now, I will start with a short and not-so-sweet account of the cravings and aversions I am experiencing during this (my second) pregnancy.
Unlike my first pregnancy, which was morning sickness-free, I experienced 24-hour-a-day morning sickness from Week 5 to Week 15 and I had waves of illness for 3 weeks afterwards. There was instant nausea when I awoke, I had to excuse myself early from meetings because I felt so ill, I drank copious quantities of ginger tea, and I only found relief when I had a plain watercracker in my mouth.
The cravings began at Week 9, with Red Rock Deli Sea Salt & Balsamic Vinegar crisps. I felt guilt mounting with each bag I purchased, but the chips actually alleviated my morning sickness so I went with it. Thankfully, this craving lasted for only 2 weeks. Others, like meat, have proven to be more persistent.
I am not the only person to have craved meat during pregnancy. Famed Australian nutritionist and former vegetarian, Cyndi O’Meara, had not eaten meat for 15 years when she craved meat during pregnancy and then retained it as part of her usual diet.
Even stranger than my cravings have been my food aversions. After enjoying a high raw diet for 12 months, suddenly I could not touch most raw foods without feeling overwhelmingly ill. Even now I can barely think about, let alone look at images, of the healthy foods I love so much. Fortunately, I still enjoy juices, smoothies and leafy salads.
My cravings list: Meat. Cooked foods, including pastas & soups. Cheese. Soft herbs. Bread. Butter. Dense cakes. Red Rock Deli Sea Salt & Balsamic Vinegar crisps (duration: 2 weeks). Hot chips (duration: 2 weeks). Eggs (duration: 1 week). Cheeseburgers (duration: 3 in one sitting).
My food aversions: Agave syrup. Coconut oil. Raw chocolate. Kale salad. Mushrooms. Most raw foods.
Before I started to accept my pregnancy cravings, I was cranky in my self-control — and I found that denying a craving would only strengthen it, to the point that my craving was all I could think about.
Take my Week 10 cheeseburger craving, for instance. Instead of the one cheeseburger I initially craved, I ended up eating 3 in one sitting after denying the craving for 3 days. Over the course of these 3 days, my partner lovingly infuriated me by trying to combat my cravings with “mystery” foods (eg. he would make me close my eyes and try to convince me that I was eating a cheeseburger — then shove a banana into my mouth) and he refused to make the late night drive for cheeseburgers on my behalf. So I took the drive of shame myself.
For the record, I felt instant awesome afterwards — I was incredibly satisfied and happy — and the craving disappeared immediately. I haven’t felt any urge to eat cheeseburgers since.
More than once, I had my partner (who, by the way, is the most beautiful and loving man) ask, “Do you really need that *insert name of food item here* ?” And more than once, I broke down in tears because I was finding it hard enough to find something I could eat without feeling sick, let alone something that was healthful.
[A word of gentle advice to the partners of pregnant women: please don’t judge her for her food cravings. She’s probably already judging herself. As long as she’s not eating cigarette butts, be supportive and trust that everything will be ok.]
Dr Gabriel Cousens, in his book Conscious Eating, introduces Terry Cole Whittiker’s [sic] teaching that it doesn’t matter about what you eat “because it can be transmuted by the mind” (2000: 23). That sounds like something the average person may not be able to achieve easily.
Epictetus, the Stoic Philosopher, wrote that cravings and aversions are within our control [yet our body is not, apparently], however I am not convinced that the issue is so simple. If I take his words literally in light of the food cravings and aversions I am experiencing with my current pregnancy, I am left feeling either grumpy and self-righteous (if I resist) or weak and inadequate (if I cave) — and I feel that neither of these sets of emotions are particularly good for me or baby.
So I chose acceptance, and I chose to find a more scientific and health-related basis for my cravings and aversions.
Where do food cravings come from and what do they mean?
In an article in the West Australian newspaper on 12 July 2011 (Mind & Body Liftout, pg 1), Denise Griffiths states that there is “no research to suggest cravings are an expression of an energy or specific nutrient requirement”. Because we eat for so many other reasons than hunger and nutrition, a craving can come from the memory of a pleasurable food experience, the need for comfort, or to stave off stress or pain.
In the same liftout, Ms Griffiths dismisses the desire for coffee as the need for a break rather than a caffeine hit, and Dr Mary Slater states the view that a craving for bread can indicate a need for carbohydrates while a hot chip craving is likely to be about comfort.
In ScienceDaily (May 2010), Flinders University research on cravings suggests that they are characterised by intense visualisation that interrupts all other tasks — and they can be treated by forcing an individual to “engage in a simple visual task”.
I find it interesting to note that, while it is generally accepted that pica (a craving for non-food items) could be based on specific vitamin or mineral deficiencies, the idea of a food craving does not relate to a nutrient requirement in the minds of many dietitians.
Still, there are those who state that cravings can indicate a nutrient or energy deficiency. These deficiencies can be the result of changing diet and lifestyle, increasing exercise levels, an intense period of stress, and seasonal or hormonal changes (eg. pregnancy).
According to Australia’s New Idea magazine (15 August 2011, pg 89), which is an obviously reliable nutritional reference, a craving for:
- pasta is due to low blood sugar;
- chocolate indicates you need a pick-me-up;
- cakes/biscuits – you are overtired; and
- potato chips – you are stressed, because apparently salty food cravings mean your adrenals are overworked. While this Women to Women article states that overworked adrenals like sweet foods and carbs.
Where do food aversions come from?
I have read that food aversions can relate to a natural avoidance of harmful foods (eg. alcohol during pregnancy — white wine tastes like metal to me!) — but my aversions relate to foods that I know are highly nutritious.
While many women can not stand meat and dairy foods during pregnancy, I have craved these foods insatiably.
When I read that taste aversion is generally “caused after ingestion of the food causes nausea, sickness, or vomiting”, I recalled the fact that, as a primary school student, I ate a cheesy, garlicky bread roll right before showing symptoms of a gastro bug. I couldn’t touch cheesy, garlicky rolls again for more than 10 years after that.
Even though my consumption of the roll didn’t cause my illness, it was the association that led to my aversion. Maybe this was the link between my raw food aversion and my morning sickness, because I was eating a high raw diet when it started. Does this mean I will struggle to enjoy raw foods ever again? Something tells me that, after baby is born, my tastes will normalise again. I hope.
In researching ways to deal with food aversions, I found that many should not be combatted and will pass in time, and that an aversion could point to foods that should be avoided, due to parasites or toxins (eg. alcohol, meat, eggs). People with aversions during pregnancy can consult a nutritionist for substitute foods, so that essential nutrients are not missed.
What about me? My food aversions are to foods that are known to be healthy and make little sense, unless I consider them in the light of the Garcia Effect.
In finding ways to counteract food cravings, I discovered that most advice directs you to eat good, whole foods plentifully and often. This leaves cravings with less chance of entering your mind and taking hold.
- Substitute foods (eg. frozen yoghurt for icecream) — although I would question how real the craving was if you could successfully substitute.
- Eat small, regular meals, to keep blood sugar levels up.
- Get plenty of hugs. Make sure you have adequate emotional support.
- Eat enough. If you reduce your energy intake too far, you may crave sugar and/or salt.
- Eat plenty of high fibre foods.
- Eat mainly whole and unprocessed foods.
- Decrease your intake of stimulants (eg. caffeine, refined sugar).
- Get plenty of sleep. The more tired you are, the more cravings you are likely to have.
- Get moving. Stay busy.
- Make sure your gut flora are healthy, to allow for maximum nutrient absorption. Increase your intake of live (raw) foods and take a probiotic.
There appears to be consensus that the healthier your lifestyle, the less cravings you will experience in the first place. And, if all else fails, accept your craving, but don’t blame or wallow in guilt.
My pregnancy cravings have given me valuable lessons in relinquishing control and in learning not to judge. Now, at 23.5 weeks pregnant, I am eating mindfully, gratefully accepting my food choices into my body, and I am feeling happier and healthier for it.
I may not always understand the ‘why’ but, as was the case for last year’s mystery illness, I have found that immediate answers are not always important. We all have a different journey to travel, and that goes for food as much as any other aspect of life. Listen to your body; be true to you and what you need. It’s different everyday.
In the beautiful wisdom of Stepfanie Romine: “Lead with your heart; the rest of you will follow.”
Addendum of 6 November 2011: With thanks to Girl on Raw via twitter, I have just discovered that Doreen Virtue published Constant Cravings, a book outlining the emotional reasons behind why we eat, on 15 October 2011. Sounds like a relevant and interesting read!