There are plenty of theories about why pregnant women find themselves pining for specific foods—some experts blame hormones, others say nutrient deficiencies are the culprit—but there’s little scientific evidence to support any of them.
Regardless of their origins, pregnancy cravings are common: According to one source , as much as 50 to 90 percent of American women experience urges for specific foods, flavors or textures when they’re expecting.
If you’re one of them, and pregnancy has brought with it a hankering for hot sauce or a need for mac and cheese, you know just how intense these cravings can be—and how challenging they are when you’re trying to eat healthy.
So what’s a hungry pregnant lady to do? Satisfy those cravings! Just do it with healthier versions of the foods you’re itching for, so you and your baby get the nutrition you need without feeling restricted.
Here are five common pregnancy cravings, and tips for indulging them the healthy way:
In a BabyCenter survey, 40 percent of expecting mothers reported experiencing a need for something sweet at some point during their pregnancy.
Some experts speculate that sweet cravings are the body’s way of regulating blood sugar—when it’s low, eating something sugary can help bring it up. Whether that’s true has yet to be proven. But there is one thing that is certain about sweet cravings: Indulging them too often can lead to excessive gestational weight gain, and may lead to pregnancy complications like gestational diabetes, preeclampsia and preterm
If you’re experiencing sweet cravings, of course it’s OK to indulge in moderation. A better option, though, is to find healthier alternatives—foods that satisfy your cravings without all the added sugar. For instance, if you’re craving ice cream, try making “nice cream” by blending up frozen bananas and milk, or nosh on frozen berries (frozen grapes, cherries and blueberries are great options for sweet lovers). If it’s chocolate you’re after, enjoy a chocolate protein bar (Zing offers plant-based versions that are low in added sugars and will give your body a protein boost). And if gummy candies are more your thing, try unsweetened dried fruit.
Sodium is important: It regulates your body’s temperature, fluid and pH levels. If you don’t get enough of it, your muscles, nerves and organs will be unable to perform as they should. But that’s not to say sodium should be enjoyed in excess—too much of it can lead to high blood pressure, which can lead to stroke, heart and kidney failure, stomach cancer, osteoporosis and more. Not only that, excess sodium in your diet can cause bloating, which is already an undesirable side effect of pregnancy for many women.
If pregnancy has you itching for salty foods like chips or nachos, it’s OK to enjoy them on occasion, but look for lower sodium options. When making your own meals and snacks, skip the salt shaker and experiment with other herbs and seasonings instead. And watch for sneaky sources of sodium, like pasta sauces, salad dressings, soups, condiments, deli meats and cheeses, frozen and “seasoned” meals, plus prepackaged baked goods, breads and snack foods—surprisingly, for many Americans, “hidden salt” like the kind added to these types of foods accounts for more of their sodium intake than the kind that comes from the salt shaker.
There’s nothing quite like biting into a doughy bagel or soft pretzel—especially during the first trimester when morning sickness is common. And who doesn’t love to dive in to a pile of pasta? But consuming too many carbs can lead to weight gain, poor metabolic health and an increased risk of heart disease.
Keep your carb cravings in check by loading up on fruits and veggies. If you’re making a rice dish, consider combining equal parts while grain brown rice and cauliflower rice. If you’re making pasta, try supplementing with zucchini noodles or spaghetti squash. Add volume with extra veggies like broccoli, spinach and squash.
And always opt for the most nutrient-dense carbs. Oatmeal, sweet potatoes and fruit are all rich in beneficial nutrients. And whole grain pastas, breads and rice contain more nutrients than refined options like white rice, bread and pasta.
If pregnancy has you saying “more cheese, please,” that’s OK! Dairy foods like cheese, milk and yogurt contain important, bone-boosting nutrients like calcium and vitamin D. But overdo it, and you could be loading up on a whole lot of fat, sodium, sugar and calories your body really doesn’t need.
When choosing cheese, yogurt and milk, opting for low fat versions is a great way to minimize your fat and calorie intake. When shopping for yogurt, cut the sugar content by opting for low fat, plain versions and adding your favorite fruit for flavor—often, low fat foods are high in sugar, which is used to add flavor after the fat has been removed.
When you’re itching for something fried and greasy, there’s little that compares to a big, juicy burger. And an occasional indulgence is certainly OK. But if you find yourself visiting the drive-thru on the daily, it might be time to rethink your hamburger habit since fast food tends to dish out lots of fat, sodium and calories.
Luckily, no matter what fast food you’re craving, there’s a way to satisfy your hunger without wreaking havoc on your health. If you’re hankering for a hamburger, opt for lean ground turkey patties instead of beef, or load up on fiber, protein and other important nutrients with a black bean or veggie burger. Cut a few extra carbs by eating half the bun, or replacing the bread with a whole wheat wrap or lettuce leaves, and trim the fat by sticking with low fat cheese. And don’t forget to load up on nutrient-rich add-ons like lettuce, tomatoes and other veggies.
If you’re fixing for fries, make your own by slicing up potatoes, tossing them in a bit of olive oil, sprinkling them with your favorite seasonings, then roasting them in the oven.
Wish milkshakes were on the menu? Whip up a smoothie with low fat milk (or your favorite milk alternative) and your favorite fruit. Sneak in some greens for some added nutrition. Pining for pizza? Make your own! Try your hand making your own dough from scratch, or opt for a whole wheat or cauliflower crust. Choose low sugar or low sodium pizza sauce, low fat cheese, and pile on the veggie toppings.