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Maybe the pickles and ice cream craving is just a myth, but unusual longings for certain foods during pregnancy are more the rule than the exception. “Probably because of fluctuating hormone levels, pregnant women develop nearly insatiable desires for specific foods, which seem to change with the wind,” says Harvard nutritionist Elizabeth Ward, M.S., R.D., author of Nutrition for a Healthy Pregnancy (Chronimed Publishing, 1998). Research reveals that approximately 85 percent of pregnant women experience cravings during their time in waiting.
While sweets, dairy products and salty snacks are among the most commonly craved foods, must-have foods run the gamut. For example, Alla Kirsch, 37, a family-practice physician in a Cleveland suburb, craved whole lemons and anchovy paste by the spoonful during her five pregnancies.
Giving in to an occasional craving is OK, according to nutrition professor Keith Ayoob, Ed.D., R.D., of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, as long as you keep the cravings — and yourself — under control. “The trouble is, pregnancy cravings drive even restrained eaters over the edge,” he says. When they’re not pregnant, many women do a great job of balancing their appetite for treats with healthy eating practices. “Some women consider pregnancy a permission to overeat, not realizing they only need 300 extra calories per day in their second and third trimesters [100 extra calories or less in the first].” This can lead to undesirable consequences.
Women who gain more than the recommended 25–35 pounds tend to have larger-than-normal babies, which increases the risk of Cesarean delivery. But there are other concerns as well. “Research also shows that women who gain too much during pregnancy have a harder time losing all the weight after pregnancy,” Ward says. In one survey from the National Center for Health Statistics and the University of California at Berkeley, pregnant women who gained more than 35 pounds held on to at least 20 of those pounds for a minimum of two years. And research from the University of Washington in Seattle found that laboratory animals that gained excessively during pregnancy had lingering consequences into the third generation, with problem pregnancies and small offspring.
“I advise women to use the 80–20 rule to control cravings,” says Ward. “Eighty percent of the time, eat the healthy foods you and your baby need. Give in to your cravings just 20 percent of the time.” Also, don’t be caught off-guard when cravings strike. Rather, plan for them by having smaller portions and healthier versions on hand. If you must have chocolate, for example, pass up candy bars for the Totally Decadent Banana–Chocolate Chip Muffins on page 116. Instead of 10 cookies, plan on eating one or two with a tall glass of nonfat milk. “You’ll generally satisfy the craving within the first couple of bites,” says Ward. These strategies leave you plenty of calories to spend on healthful foods bursting with the nutrients you and baby need.
“Getting all the recommended nutrients gives your baby the brightest possible beginning,” says Ayoob. Right from the moment of conception, babies require the highest caliber of building materials — and good nutrition helps ensure high-quality construction. According to traditional research, women who practice good nutrition are 12 times more likely to deliver a healthy baby than women who don’t eat well.
It also appears that babies who are born to women who eat wisely are more likely to be healthy adults. “Research now shows that a mother’s diet during her pregnancy may affect many aspects of her offspring’s adult health,” says Elizabeth Somer, M.A., R.D., author of Nutrition for a Healthy Pregnancy (Henry Holt, 1995).