Expectant Mothers Take Note: Pregnancy Food Cravings May Be Psychological

ALBANY, N.Y. (November 3, 2014) -- Though reports have shown 50 to 90 percent of women experience food cravings during pregnancy, a University at Albany study found little evidence of craved foods balancing nutritional deficiencies. Instead, it suggests pregnancy cravings to be mostly psychological.

Published recently in Frontiers in Psychology, UAlbany Psychology Department researcher Julia Hormes and graduate student Natalia Orloff examined the cause of food cravings in pregnancy. Food cravings have been shown to trigger episodes of overeating and it has been hypothesized that cravings may be one cause of excess food intake and weight gain during pregnancy. Recently, the University of Colorado Denver reported more than 50 percent of women in the United States gain above the Institute of Medicine (IOM) guidelines for pregnancy weight gain.

UAlbany Study Pregnancy Cravings

University at Albany Psychology Department researcher Julia Hormes and graduate student Natalia Orloff found little evidence of food cravings during pregnancy to be beneficial for maternal or fetal health. Instead, the two suggest craved foods to be mostly psychological. (Photo courtesy of alphamom.com)

The UAlbany study, conducted through a review of existing research and analysis of women’s postings on popular pregnancy-related blogs, found no link between food cravings and required nutritional needs. According to the report, 76 percent of women crave at least one food item by the second trimester, much before the demand for added nutrients or energy by an unborn baby begins. Popular cravings also do not greatly benefit maternal or fetal health, most being high in calories and sugar including ice cream, chips, chocolate, pizza and various fast foods.

Instead, Hormes and Orloff believe pregnancy cravings to be the result of psychosocial factors. According to Hormes, the social norm in the United States is for pregnant women to crave foods during pregnancy, and in particular those they may otherwise prohibit themselves from eating. Pregnancy may signal permission to indulge in a way that is not socially acceptable at other times. Similar research has shown that pregnant women who are perpetual dieters tend to gain more weight than their counterparts.

This ideology may not hold true outside of the United States. While other countries report pregnancy cravings for foods that have cultural significance, such as those that represent hostility, festival foods, rare or expensive foods, etc. these cravings are not primarily for high-calorie foods and do not seem to lead to an increased risk for excess weight gain in the same way they do in U.S. women. For example, the most common cravings reported by a sample of 595 Tanzanian women were meat, fish, fruits, vegetables and grains.

“Our research has found pregnancy to be a time for some women, particularly in the United States, to over-indulge in food intake. This can lead to an increase in gestational weight gain, which negatively affects the health of both mothers and their children,” Hormes said. “Surprisingly, pregnancy cravings are prevalent in other cultures, but the resulting weight gain seems to be much more pronounced in America.”

The study further showed little support for a direct relationship between fluctuating levels of hormones during pregnancy and food cravings – a common attribution. However, a small percentage -- 18.7 of respondents -- mentioned cravings for food that were disliked prior to pregnancy. Hormes believes this may be related to an altered sensory perception during pregnancy, possibly hormone-related. Though, she said the exact nature of that link remains to be explained.

Research data was generated from a review of existing studies as well as an analysis of 200 unique blog posts on pregnancy websites: www.thebump.com and www.whattoexpect.com. Search results unrelated to food cravings were excluded.

Hormes and Orloff plan to continue research with an end goal of developing interventions targeting food cravings as a way to reduce gestational weight gain in the United States.

Visit Professor Hormes’ expert page to learn more about her research.

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