In one infamous “I Love Lucy” episode, a very pregnant Lucy sends Ricky out at 4 a.m. for pistachio ice cream, hot fudge and sardines. In another episode, pregnant Lucy dips a dill pickle into a papaya milk shake (as Ricky stands by the fireplace and groans).
While these wild and crazy food cravings are the stuff of classic sitcoms, apparently there is some basis for the intense food cravings that some studies say 50 percent of pregnant women experience.
According to nutrition experts, pregnancy cravings may be a sign of the body’s need for certain nutrients, especially in the early stages of pregnancy. In Lucy’s case, the sardine craving might have indicated a need for the “good fat” found in coldwater fish, avocado, almonds, walnuts, eggs and milk.
One pregnancy guru, Dr. Joey Schulman, (Dr.Joey.com), in fact, thinks fish oil can prevent allergies in the developing fetus and contribute to overall immune system functioning. She calls fish oil, which contains omega 3, “critical” to a healthy pregnancy.
Julie Wagner, 47, of Portland, runs the Portland chapter of the Holistic Moms of Maine. She remembers craving salmon and asparagus before her now-10-year-old son was born. She ate that meal two to four times a week, and she can only assume that she “inherently knew” that she needed it as baby brain food. Salmon is one of the richest sources of omega 3s, while asparagus is high in folate, which many pregnant women are urged to take as folic acid, a supplement.
“I may be biased, but he’s a smart cookie,” Wagner says.
Wagner still loves salmon and asparagus, but her son isn’t crazy about them.
“He loved salmon when he was little, but at 10 is not a fan. He’s also never been a fan of asparagus spears, though he will eat the tips,” she says.
Another thing many women crave is fruit, which may be a sign of the need for increased vitamin C. Since papaya is on the list of fruits with the highest levels of vitamin C per serving, Lucy’s craving for it in a milkshake makes a little more sense. Papaya also has a high concentration of vitamin A and folate.
Spicy foods are often high on the list of food cravings. Actress Halle Berry is said to have had a thing for peperoncini, that medium-spiced, salty Italian pepper found in antipasto, when she was pregnant. People surmise the craving is because a pregnant woman needs them to help her cool off, but peppers are actually higher in vitamin C than most vegetables.
Pizza is such a common food in our culture that it’s overlooked as a craving, but many pregnant women say they could devour a whole pie. Actress Drew Barrymore, who is pregnant with her second child, recently confessed to an “all-day” pizza craving. I remember wanting anchovy pizza (that sardine thing again), but any kind would do.
Pizza does have fruit (tomato), dairy (cheese) and good carbs (if you order the whole grain crust) and is considered a healthy meal in moderation – as long as the cheese is pasteurized. Cheese from raw milk can harbor listeria, a bacteria that can harm the developing fetus.
While some attribute a woman’s pregnancy cravings to nutritional needs, the desire for chocolate needs no explanation here. But what to make of Lucy’s dill pickle need or those sudden cravings for Cheese Whiz or bacon that you hear about? The answer might lie in the fact that hormones wreak havoc with a woman’s sense of taste and smell and can create as many food aversions as cravings. I remember I couldn’t stand the sight or smell of salmon when I was pregnant, but give me a tuna sandwich slathered in mayonnaise, and I was in heaven.
Likewise, a fast food burger topped with bacon – or highly salted foods like pickles and Cheese Whiz – might override the yuck factor of more healthy choices such as chicken, broccoli and cottage cheese.
Whatever the reasons for the cravings, nutritionists say pregnant women should indulge themselves to a point. If the cravings involve sugar, look for a low-sugar substitute and eat smaller meals more times a day to keep blood sugar levels constant. According to WebMD.com, the goal should be to consume no more than 300-400 extra calories a day – and to gain no more than 20-30 pounds depending on your pre-pregnancy weight.
Otherwise, like Lucy, you’ll have “some ’splainin’ to do!”