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How dieting influences food cravings during pregnancy

And why denying yourself food is only making things worse

Might food cravings be caused by a tension between the desire to indulge in tempting foods and efforts to restrict consumption of these very same tempting foods? Most women in the US try to restrict their consumption of calorically dense foods in an attempt to meet culturally defined ideals of beauty. Diets may come in different brands, packages, and labels, but in essence, most diets rely on this process—the restriction of certain types of foods thought to cause weight gain.

During pregnancy, cultural norms around food are different. In many ways, our society gives pregnant women permission to consume foods that would otherwise be restricted. The most commonly craved foods are those that are both appealing and “forbidden.” Ironically, efforts to avoid foods that cause conflicting feelings have the paradoxical effect of increasing craving and consumption, often resulting in overeating or binge eating of those foods.

It is estimated that 50-90% of women in the U.S. experience cravings for specific foods during pregnancy. Food cravings typically emerge by the end of the first trimester, peak in frequency and intensity during the second trimester, and subside as pregnancy progresses to term. In the US, chocolate is the most commonly craved food. Despite the ubiquity of food cravings during pregnancy, little is understood about the cause of these unique cravings.

In their 2014 research review, Orloff and Hormes investigated four commonly believed hypotheses about food cravings during pregnancy and evaluated the scientific evidence supporting or discounting each hypothesis. The authors define food cravings as “strong urges for foods that are more specific than mere hunger and very difficult to resist.” You can read my full summary of this article here, but in this post I want to focus on the hypothesis that the researchers found the most evidence for: the effect of dieting and restrictive eating.

Women with a history of dieting, restrained eating, or disordered eating (and how many women don’t fall into that category?) are more likely to experience overeating and excess weight gain (defined by recommendations from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists) during pregnancy.

The message that I took away from this research is that we should encourage pregnant women to listen to their bodies, mindfully eat foods that their bodies crave, and try to nourish their bodies during this most vulnerable time of life. Is this a novel idea? When I hear about the medical recommendations doled out to pregnant women, this simple solution sounds downright revolutionary. Pregnant women are cautioned about the risks of excess weight gain and warned about the dangers that they could cause to their unborn children if they “give in” to their cravings. Pregnant women are tracked at frequent doctors visits to ensure that they are gaining the “right” amount of weight—not too much and not too little.

Even prior to birth, women are made to feel as though they are being bad mothers. These fears are capitalized on by the medical and weight loss industries to encourage restrictive eating behaviors during pregnancy. The very same dieting behaviors that have been linked to increased cravings, binge-eating, and excess weight gain are recommended to treat these very same issues; the solution is the problem! Even Orloff & Hormes’ findings about the detrimental effects of dieting are couched within the premise of the “dangers” of excess weight gain during pregnancy. Does this make sense to you? We continue to be sold the same idea that there is only one ideal body size and a narrow definition of healthy weight gain during pregnancy. These myths encourage us to manipulate our bodies in ways that are detrimental to our health. Mindful eating is a path towards health that encourages us to work with rather than against our own bodies.

Reference: Orloff, N & Hormes, J (2014). Pickles and ice cream! Food cravings in pregnancy: hypotheses, preliminary evidence, and directions for future research. Frontiers in Psychology 5, 1-15.

To learn more about Dr. Conason and mindful eating, please visit www.drconason.com.

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