Prenatal cravings are renowned for their frequency and intensity and for their association with high-calorie foods. However, indulging in prenatal cravings of unhealthy foods may result in excessive gestational weight gain (GWG). Excessive GWG can be accompanied by various health complications for both the mother and baby, including gestational diabetes, hypertension, and delivery complications. Knowledge of the etiology of cravings could help us better combat and reduce GWG and its associated ailments, but the variety and number of craving catalysts are difficult to narrow down. Instead, researchers have studied what causes pregnant women to give in to cravings and found that the act of indulging is not so much physiological as it is psychosocial.
Craved foods are often deemed “forbidden” because they are assumed to be destructive in some way (e.g., high in sugar or trans fat). However, the very act of labeling an appealing food item as “forbidden” has been found to increase the likelihood of craving it. Researchers found that women who waffle between constraint and overconsumption of “forbidden” foods through dieting were found to be more likely to have GWG than women who typically eat unrestrained.
Research suggests that the reason regular dieters are more likely to experience GWG than women who don’t is largely psychosocial. Regular dieters typically indulge when they deem it appropriate, and pregnancy is a socially acceptable time to indulge. Cultural norms encourage craving indulgences through myths such as the need to “eat for two,” which suggests that overeating is the responsible and motherly thing to do.
This mentality is misleading because during pregnancy is one of the most important times to refrain from unhealthy cravings and to focus on eating nutritious foods as it is important that pregnant women get the nutrients they need to support a healthy fetus. Thus, understanding the social pressures that contribute to craving indulgences can enable women to make healthy food choices while pregnant and avoid GWG.