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Do pregnancy cravings and food aversions serve a purpose?

There are so many expectations about what you’ll go through during pregnancy, but perhaps most publicized are pregnancy cravings and aversions.

Pickles and ice cream?
Nauseous at the smell of raw meat?
Unshakeable need for sushi?
Utter disgust at the sight of green vegetables?

I certainly expected to have weird cravings when I was pregnant and I feared that I would have aversions to healthy foods. Yours may or may not be like the list above, but there’s a good chance you’ll run into cravings and aversions at some point during your pregnancy.

How Common are Pregnancy Cravings and Food Aversions?

Research shows that up to 90% of women experience cravings during pregnancy, with most occurring during the first and second trimesters. (Food Cravings, 2015)

Although common, cravings and aversions typically don’t last your entire pregnancy. They usually pop up for a few days/weeks/months at a time (I know, I know, a few months can feel like an eternity!). Aversions are especially tough and go beyond “I’m not in the mood for xyz”; It’s more of a “If I smell, taste, see, or even think of that food, I’m gonna hurl.” It’s no surprise that food aversions tend to go hand in hand with nausea.

I like to give this reminder in case you’re in one of those tough phases. Most of the time, it will pass, you just have to give yourself some grace and be patient. Even if the rational part of your brain thinks this is crazy, you’ve got to trust your body.

What Causes Pregnancy Cravings and Food Aversions?

No one really knows why pregnancy causes certain cravings and food aversions, but plenty of theories are out there, ranging from metabolic and hormonal changes to nutritional deficits, to even cultural and psychosocial factors. There’s some speculation that food aversions may serve a protective purpose, such as preventing you from eating foods that could make you sick or a combination of nutrients that’s not right for your body.

When it comes to cravings, sometimes they are not necessarily pregnancy-specific, but a sign that your blood sugar or diet is imbalanced. Refined carbs, sugar, and processed foods trigger cravings in virtually everyone, pregnant or not. In this case, cravings for unhealthy foods may be a reminder to eat a more balanced diet of real food (and to prioritize getting enough fat + protein at meals to stay satiated).

There is no one-size-fits-all mechanism here; there are many underlying reasons that cravings and food aversions show up in pregnancy. Your job is to stay mindful of the possible reasons and do your best to determine whether riding it out or making some dietary tweaks is the best path forward.

For most health-conscious moms, pregnancy cravings and food aversions come with a lot of self judgement and guilt. “I really want to like eggs right now, but all my body wants is crackers!” I, too, had a lot of those thoughts when food aversions were at their height.  

For the most part, cravings and aversions are nothing to fear and not a sign that anything is wrong. With the exception of cravings for non-food items (termed “pica”), pregnancy cravings may not always be a bad thing and, within reason, I’m a proponent of following your body’s lead.

For myself and my clients, putting some context behind why food aversions or cravings might be happening helps you accept the current state of affairs and stay positive.

More on Pregnancy Cravings and Aversions

I recently sat down for an interview with my friend and fellow dietitian, Steph Greunke of the Real Food Mamas podcast, and we tackled the pregnancy cravings and food aversions topic head-on, including my personal experience with pregnancy cravings and aversions.

Given that prenatal nutrition is the focus of both of our professional careers, we couldn’t resist talking about a number of other topics, including controversial foods, prenatal supplements, salt, and much more.

We split the interview into two, so take your time!

Highlights from Part 1 (Real Food Mamas, Episode 83)

  • My story: why I wrote Real Food for Pregnancy and how my pregnancy influenced the book. How I found the time to write this book with 900+ references and a baby-turned-toddler in the house. (Also, see my interview with Startup Pregnant.)
  • My experience with nausea and what worked best for me.
  • How to navigate food cravings and aversions. Why cravings and aversions may serve an important role.
  • The physiologic basis for carbohydrate cravings in the first trimester.
  • Controversial foods (conventional “foods to avoid” lists) – Is there strong evidence to warrant avoiding runny yolks and raw fish?

Highlights from Part 2 (Real Food Mamas, Episode 84)

  • Prenatal supplements – which to take and why. We talk about the most important ones to prioritize and how to choose a prenatal vitamin.
  • The importance of glycine and choline (where to find them in real food + supplements).
  • Salt during pregnancy – why pregnant women may need more salt than what’s currently recommended.
  • Healthcare providers – How do moms approach mixed messages – what they believe vs. the conventional recommendations from their provider?

If you’ve managed to listen to both Part 1 and Part 2 of my interview on the Real Food Mamas podcast, I’m seriously impressed. I know these interviews went rather long and into a lot of detail, but hey, this is what I hear people like about my writing/interviews.

If you want to dive even deeper into the research on the topics of pregnancy cravings and food aversions, plus more about managing nausea/vomiting in pregnancy, check out Chapter 7 of my book, Real Food for Pregnancy.

I go into waaaaay more detail than is possible to cover in an interview and cite every source, if you’re curious to read the primary literature yourself.

Check it out here.

Before you go, I’d love to hear your experience with pregnancy cravings and food aversions.

  • What foods did you crave? Did you crave different foods at different times of your pregnancy? If you could guess, what did you think triggered your cravings?
  • What food aversions did you have? Was it the smell, taste, or something else that bothered you? How long did they last?

Let me know in the comments below.

Until next week,

Lily

PS – If you want to learn more about prenatal nutrition, including pregnancy cravings, food aversions, and managing nausea, check out Real Food for Pregnancy. Get a taste of it before you buy. I give away the first chapter for free over at realfoodforpregnancy.com. Making informed lifestyle choices puts you in the driver’s seat of your pregnancy, so you know you’re doing everything within your control to avoid complications and have a healthy baby.

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Lily Nichols is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist, Certified Diabetes Educator, researcher, and author with a passion for evidence-based prenatal nutrition and exercise. Her work is known for being research-focused, thorough, and unapologetically critical of outdated dietary guidelines. She is the author of two bestselling books, Real Food for Pregnancy and Real Food for Gestational Diabetes.

11 Comments

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  1. When I was pregnant with my son, I absolutely could not stomach anything green for my first trimester! One day while cooking green beans (a favorite of mine), I caught a whiff of it and wanted to hurl — made my husband finish cooking them and couldn’t eat a bite. After that during my first trimester, I literally couldn’t eat any green veggies — green beans, green peppers …. it was really distressing because I felt I should be eating healthy to grow this baby!

    My first month or two of pregnancy my biggest craving was black olives — it actually was such a strong craving before I knew I was pregnant that my family joked about my craving “Are you pregnant or something?! Haha” Little did we know, I was!

    • Not uncommon at all, actually!

      PS – I’ve found that cravings for salty items (olives and pickles) is often a sign that you need more salt and there’s pretty solid data showing that salt needs increase in pregnancy. See this post for more.

  2. I couldn’t stand the smell of coffee or bacon for the first trimester. Basically my husband’s breakfast! I also didn’t really like to chew too much so ended up having thick smoothie bowls to try get in greens and some protein

    • I was also repulsed by bacon for part of my pregnancy. Strong odors were a no-go for a while.

  3. Currently 9 weeks with my second and the nausea and vomiting I thought I might have avoided this time hit me HARD this week! The first couple weeks after finding out I was pregnant, I was craving cheese and meat (I have not been consuming meat or dairy for over a year). Soy products turn me off, even tempeh (the kind of soy you recommend if choosing to consume it!) but I’m still loving eggs (thank goodness!) I’m also craving orange juice. Water is hard to keep down. Ginger tea and crackers and similar traditional things that used to help nausea, I have no interest in. Occasionally, I’ll have a plant-based protein shake with marine collagen. Most of the time, I’m just able to stomach white rice with some salt or sourdough bread with olive oil-based buttery spread. Using the principles from your book and also just trying whatever it takes to survive this first trimester nausea, vomiting and exhaustion! Thanks for your work!

    • Hang in there, Maria! That phase is HARD.

  4. Under normal circumstances, even the thought of drinking milk is repugnant to me. One night, I found myself chugging milk straight from the carton like it was the most natural thing in the world. Standing there, I had the flash realization that I must pregnant. Did the mental math and, yup, I was two days late. That kiddo is 15 years old now. Some things you never forget!

    • Milk cravings seem to be very common. I’ve heard from many, many women who were paleo or dairy-free or lactose intolerant prior to conceiving who can’t get enough during pregnancy. I suspect that, in this case, there’s a nutritional need that’s being filled (whether it’s iodine, calcium, protein, vitamin A, or something else entirely).

  5. Mine was coffee! Coffee and eggs (which I knew I should be eating a lot of!)The thought of coffee made me nauseous, and eggs were SO unappealing. As I make my way into my second trimester, both aversions have largely abated and I am so thankful to be able to eat eggs again in the morning, and to be able to enjoy a cup of coffee here and there!

  6. Now at 33 weeks, I have never eaten so many hamburgers in my life (sans bun). I typically eat a lower carb, paleo style diet. It was such a blessing to get past 15 weeks and finally feel like eating veggies, avocados, and chicken. I think I lived on yogurt, apples, puffins cereal, and PB for about 4-6 weeks. Except for the random night when I scarfed down 2 egg rolls.

  7. I can’t eat fried meat any longer and certain types of cheese while I absolutely crave for some other types. What is strange, there is no system why I need or hate a certain cheese. They may be be done in nearly the same way, look and taste nearly the same, and still I eat one of them all the time and I’ll never eat the other one again.
    And I started eating fruit again, I just can’t do without it any longer. And now I crave for goat milk.
    And I always know how much protein and veg I need. I’m awfully hungry when I start eating and when I’m full I feel that I’ll vomit if I continue eating. The feeling of fullness is separate for meat, cook veg, raw veg, fruit and dairy.

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