Published on March 1st, 2020 and Updated on July 13th, 2020
If you tell your mom that you’ve got a hankering for ice cream during your first trimester, you might be surprised when she tells you with absolute certainty that you’re carrying a girl. On the other hand, if you admit that you’ve gone through a whole bag of pretzels—a Costco-sized bag at that—she’ll likely tell you, “it’s a boy!”
It’s a common old wives’ tale that craving sweet snacks means you’re having a girl, while a hankering for salty, savory foods means you’re pregnant with a boy. But where did this myth come from? And is there any truth behind it as a way to predict the gender? Read on to learn the science behind pregnancy cravings and your best option for an accurate gender prediction test.
Why Do Pregnant Women Get Cravings?
You’re surprised every time it hits you—that sharp, sudden urge for ice cubes, brownies, or pickled okra. You can’t think about anything else until you’ve piled your plate high with exactly the food that’s on your mind.
Haven’t had a pregnancy craving yet? It can really take any shape or form. Alicia Keys craved roasted fruit, while Madonna couldn’t stop eating olives. And it’s not just the pop stars among us who find themselves craving specific foods, sometimes in odd combinations. According to a study by Natalia Orloff and Julia Hormes at the University of Albany’s Health Behaviors Laboratory:
- 50-90% of women experience cravings at some point during their pregnancy.
- Expectant mothers tend to crave foods that are high-calorie and high-fat in particular. Only 10% crave fruits and veggies.
- While cravings can hit at any point, they tend to begin in the first trimester, accelerate in the second, and decrease in the third.
Pregnancy food cravings are certainly real, there are theories on what they could indicate for the pregnant woman and the baby’s development. Wondering if some cravings could even be related to different pregnancy belly shapes? Let’s find out!
You’re in Need of a Nutrient
Are you craving a bowl of fully-dressed chili or a whole platter of cheddar cheese? There may be a reason why your body is calling for a particular food. You may not need to eat every ingredient in that chili, but it’s possible that your body is searching for one of the nutrients present in its ingredients. Let’s take a look at some examples:
- Can’t stop thinking about ice cream sundaes? You may be in need of calcium.
- Are you craving a plate of steak frites or red meat? You may be in need of iron.
- Do you want banana pudding more than you’ve ever wanted it before? Maybe it’s the potassium that you really need.
- Are you all about the chips and pickles? Your body might be calling for sodium.
Whatever you’re craving, it’s entirely possible that your body has a particular need that isn’t being met during the energy-intensive process of growing another human. However, your taste buds are interpreting the need for a vitamin as the need for a specific food—maybe even one you used to hate.
Another potential explanation for pregnancy cravings is hormonal change. You probably hoped that you’d seen the worst of your raging hormones in high school, but teen acne’s got nothing on the wild hormonal changes that accompany pregnancy.
Over the course of nine months, your estrogen and progesterone levels steadily rise. These are two of the hormones associated with PMS, so if you usually get cravings during that time of the month, you may experience them when you’re pregnant, too.
Those aren’t the only changes that occur: your body also produces a special hormone during pregnancy, human chorionic gonadotropin or HcG. As the levels of your various hormones fluctuate, so too can your serotonin and dopamine. These you might already be familiar with:
- Serotonin is a neurotransmitter known for its mood-stabilizing effects. Many antidepressants (SSRIs) try to promote serotonin. So, when dealing with hormonal fluctuations during pregnancy, you may find yourself craving comfort foods to help with feelings of depression.
- Dopamine is another neurotransmitter known as the “love” chemical because it increases after sex—and after birth. Of course, that’s not the only time dopamine floods your brain. Eating something you’re seriously craving can also boost dopamine levels in a woman’s body.
The exact role each of these neurotransmitters has on the specific food cravings is unclear. Though what is clear is that as your hormone levels, neurotransmitters, and other key chemicals fluctuate, you may find yourself craving the foods that will comfort you. Maybe that’s why more women seem to crave chocolate chip cookies rather than celery!
When Should You Follow Pregnancy Food Cravings?
As great as it would be to subsist on a diet of nachos—with hot sauce, please!—the food pyramid doesn’t go out the window just because you’re pregnant. It’s still good to maintain a balanced diet, especially since excessive sugar intake or weight gain during pregnancy can result in gestational diabetes.
Here are some strategies for dealing with the cravings (especially the less healthy ones):
- Eat in Moderation – Many women find it extremely difficult to ignore the craving altogether. Instead, eat what you’re craving, but if it’s high-calorie or high-fat, enjoy it in moderation.
- Find a Healthy Substitute – Is part of the pregnancy craving the urge to devour eight times the normal serving size? That may be fine if you’re craving healthy fruits and veggies, but if the food you’re craving are highly caloric or otherwise unhealthy, finding an alternative to scratch your itch might be your best bet!
- Craving a milkshake? While there’s nothing inherently wrong with dairy products, there are less caloric ways to fulfill this craving. These days, Greek frozen yogurt, oat milk ice cream, and a variety of other low-fat and low-sugar options can deliver that creamy goodness without unhealthy weight gain from excessive fat and sugar.
- Craving chocolate? Substitute milk chocolate for dark chocolate.
- Craving a salty crunch? While pregnant women do need sufficient sodium, excessive salt intake is associated with heart disease and may even pose some health risks to your baby’s development. If a nightly bowl of popcorn bathed in salt has become a habit, try cumin or a low-sodium salt substitute to keep your sodium intake under 2,400 mg a day.
- Craving something sugary? Whether you’re craving cereal or baked goods, a great alternative is to go for a whole-grain version.
- Eat Small Meals Frequently – As a pregnant woman, your cravings are going to be stronger the hungrier you are. By eating small meals throughout the day, this may help stabilize your glucose levels and keep the cravings at bay for longer.
It’s usually safe to have some of that food you can’t get off your mind. However, if you’re unsure about a craving, you can always turn to your doctor for clarification. In fact, many expecting mothers may crave caffeine or alcohol, and wonder whether having a cup of joe or drinking wine while pregnant will affect their pregnancy. Unsure? It’s always best to play it safe and check with your doctor.
When you’re craving something inedible, it can be a sign that something’s wrong.
WebMD’s Dr. Peter S. Bernstein of the Comprehensive Family Care Center of Montefiore Medical Center explains that “dirt, laundry starch, crayons, ground up clay pots, ice scraped from the freezer” might be things you crave. When this happens, it’s called pica.
Some non-food items might be harmless to eat, but others could be toxic to you and your baby. In particular, you might end up ingesting lead. What’s more, pica is a sign that you may be lacking in crucial nutrients like zinc or have an iron deficiency.
Whenever you find yourself craving something you’ve never actually seen on a menu, it’s a good time to check in with your doctor.
As you may already know, there is a long list of foods that are usually off-limits to pregnant women. This list typically includes:
- Raw eggs due to salmonella risk
- Raw fish due to salmonella and campylobacter risk
- Raw shellfish due to salmonella, campylobacter, and toxoplasmosis risk
- Unwashed fruits and veggies due to toxoplasmosis and E. coli risk
- Raw poultry and rare meats due to Salmonella, toxoplasmosis, campylobacter, and E. coli risk
- Smoked fish due to Listeria risk
- Pâté due to Listeria risk
- Raw, unpasteurized milk and its byproducts due to Listeria and campylobacter risk
- Deli meats due to Listeria risk
Some of these seem to be obvious. Shouldn’t you always wash your fruits and vegetables? And when are you eating raw poultry? In her book Expecting Better, Emily Oster dives into the research behind these commonly held beliefs to share what’s true and what’s become phobia-legend.
In the end, she deduced that while many items on the above list come with a risk of digesting bacteria, the effect is no worse than when you’re not pregnant.
“[Salmonella, E. Coli, and Campylobacter] cause basic stomach-flu symptoms: diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. Unless you are very lucky or have a stomach made of iron, you have probably been sickened by one of these before. It’s unpleasant, sure. But illnesses from these causes are not especially more likely during pregnancy, nor do they typically directly affect the fetus.*
*There is actually one variant of the salmonella bacteria that can pass to the fetus— the S. Typhi bacterium associated with typhoid fever. Unless you’re traveling to a country with a high rate of typhoid fever, you’re likely not at risk for contracting this bacterium.
After evaluating each food individually, Oster created an updated what-to-avoid guide:
- Raw or rare meats and poultry
- Unwashed veggies and fruits
- Raw-milk cheeses, such as queso fresco
- Deli turkey
The illnesses involved with these foods, Oster felt, were not worth the risk and should be avoided by pregnant women. The rest of the food groups were either too unlikely to cause harm, or as mentioned above, they’re no more dangerous for pregnant women than for non-pregnant women. Plus, remembering 4 foods is much easier than 9.
Lastly, this comes with a caveat that can be summed up in this one piece of advice: Dining at a sushi restaurant is okay; $1 sushi from the gas station is probably not (even if you’re not pregnant).
Pregnancy Cravings and Gender Predictions
Now you know why you have cravings, and when it’s safe to act on them. But of course, you still want to know that all-important question—if you’re craving cupcakes, does that mean you should start painting the nursery pink?
Are there different cravings for a boy and girl?
Unfortunately, there’s no scientific evidence linking pregnancy cravings and baby gender. However, it may put your mind at ease—and even help your cravings—if you let go of the stress of wondering whether you are expecting a boy or girl and ditch the pregnancy myths of gender cravings when you are wanting more sweet or more salty foods.
With The SneakPeek Early Gender DNA Test, you can discover your baby’s gender just eight weeks into pregnancy. The gender blood test kit is ordered online, and you can collect your sample in the privacy of your own home. Your results can arrive in 72 hours.
Between fluctuating hormones, a changing body, and all the steps in getting your home ready for your newest family member, you have enough to worry about. It’s no wonder that the majority of pregnant women want nothing more than to get in bed with a Happy Meal—or two! Knowing your baby’s gender as soon as possible is one great way to quiet down some of the chatter in your mind and can now be accomplished by taking the gender prediction test.
Listening to Your Cravings
When you’re pregnant, it may feel like everyone in your life is giving you advice. Whether it’s your aunt insisting your craving for pickles means you’re pregnant with twins, or your boss telling you about the birthing class you just have to take, it’s important to take the time to slow down and listen to yourself and your body.
Cravings are one way your body might communicate its need for a particular nutrient. Or it may be your mind’s way of calling for a little TLC. Whatever the case, take the time to listen to what you really need based on your pregnancy symptoms.
If knowing your baby’s gender as soon as possible is part of the recipe for what you’re really craving, you can order your SneakPeek kit today.
Johns Hopkins Medicine. Hormones during pregnancy. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/staying-healthy-during-pregnancy/hormones-during-pregnancy
WebMD. Pregnancy Cravings: When you gotta have it. https://www.webmd.com/baby/features/pregnancy-food-cravings#1
Healthline. What does serotonin do? https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/serotonin#functions
Expecting Better. Emily Oster.
Journal of Endrocrionology. High-salt diets during pregnancy affected fetal and offspring renal renin–angiotensin system. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4406098/
Frontiers in Psychology. Pickles and ice cream: Food cravings in pregnancy. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4172095/
This post has been reviewed for accuracy by the following medical professional: