Season 1

Episode 8



WTF am I eating?

One of the things that is hard to explain to anyone who has never experienced the nausea of pregnancy is the eating habits of a pregnant woman. Before getting pregnant, I prided myself with being a relatively healthy eater. I liked to eat whole foods, veggies, and free-range meat. We ate relatively little processed foods and when we did it was like organic corn tortilla chips. I do admit I like my sweets too but organic candied chocolates are better than M&Ms right? 😉  But getting pregnant made food a whole new experience. The nauseating smells, tastes, and look of some foods suddenly became impossible to ignore, which meant my diet changed significantly as a result. And not for the better.  
Although I would love to say that I ate lots of greens and protein, the truth is that craved white, starchy, bland foods and could barely stomach anything else. Mashed potatoes, french fries, white rice…. mmmm…. all so good during that first trimester. Particularly if I could top them with a bit of salt and butter. Few other things were appealing. I had very little appetite and eating was generally not enjoyable or desirable. And when I did eat, I ate rather crappy. I felt guilty about it at first — the first of many mama-guilt experiences. But I had to “Trust My Body”, which is a philosophy I ascribed to long before ever getting pregnant. Now, it just seemed extra helpful, I think? Actually, I had no other choice but to trust it because forcing myself to eat what nauseated me was counterproductive. I couldn’t stomach much else and if was going to eat at all, it was going to be something I could at least eat without wanting to throw up. I think that logic made sense?! Part of me believed that the baby growing inside of me was requesting (and rejecting) foods with some intelligence even if I could not fully grasp it. 

As my pregnancy went on, I developed food aversions to things that I had loved beforehand. I remember one time grabbing a piece of goat cheddar from the fridge — a very common food in our house — popping it in my mouth and instantly spitting it out as if it were the most disgusting thing I had ever tasted. The smell, look, and thought of all meats turned my stomach. I remember going to a new gourmet BBQ restaurant for dinner one night with friends while pregnant before I really knew how aversive meat was. I learned pretty quickly how nauseating meat was to me. To this day, I get nauseous thinking of it. Eggs, which I loved before as a major source of protein in my diet, were absolutely revolting to even consider. Because of all of these food aversions to animal products I was convinced this kid was going to be a vegetarian, maybe even a vegan! 

In addition to have strong aversions, I started to crave comfort foods from my past. Kraft dinner became a staple because it was both white and starchy and held a place in my heart as a childhood favorite. Except that I found an organic brand that made me feel better about it. Ha! I think it was spurred by hearing someone talk about Kraft dinner and then I couldn’t get it out of my mind… for 9 months! The cheese didn’t bother my cheese aversion because, well, let’s be real, that powdered cheese hardly resembles cheese in any way — smell, taste, consistency, or actuality! ! I also craved McDonald’s strawberry sundaes and Special K cereal, other nostalgic dishes. And lemon - pie, candies, in my water. I couldn’t get enough lemon. I love lemon on a good day and pregnancy just seem to exacerbate an existing craving.

I wondered about why this actually was the case. Why would someone who typical eats healthy resort to eating like crap upon getting pregnant? And I’m not the only one who does this. It’s actually quite common. Some good theories emerged in my search. The first is the maternal-embryo protection hypothesis, which assumes that these aversions protect the fetus from potential toxic and life-threatening encounters with bacteria. So lots of green vegetables (like spinach or broccoli or lettuce), which is a common aversion during pregnancy — could be a source of listeria, which is fatal to a fetus. Some soft and unpasteurized cheeses, like Brie, are potentially toxic for pregnant women, so maybe a general aversion to cheese is safe way to go. Meats, when stored at room temperature are also tolerable by an average person but much less so for a pregnant woman who is immunosuppressed. Much of these concerns relates to the pregnant woman’s immunocompromised stated. When pregnant, we are immunosuppressed, likely so we don’t reject the fetus with different DNA in us. But a side effect of that adaptation is that we are vulnerable to other bacteria (like listeria) and viruses (flu). For a larger list of what pregnant would should avoid, see below.

The nausea and vomiting in pregnancy itself has been studied with respect to the maternal-embryo protection hypothesis (links available below). There is evidence that foods that become aversion to pregnant women are generally ones that pose some kind of risk. However, although there seems to be some support for the hypothesis the relationship between aversions and potential harm appears more complicated than that. Even cultural expectations plays a part in aversions. I also wonder if there is something to the comfort-seeking of the foods that I began to crave. 

I couldn’t find much science on the cravings but some naturopaths I know believe that the cravings are associated with the fetus (or our body, or both) trying to bring in necessary foods, so the opposite of what is happening during the pregnancy-induced aversions. Perhaps the cravings for white, starchy foods that I was experiencing was because those foods are generally the safest and easiest to eat, typically having little potential for harm compared to meats and raw veggies or cheese. I also remember my first biological psychology professor telling me that we don’t get sick of foods like white rice and potatoes. We also don’t experience classical conditioning to them either, if we were to pair those foods with, for example, nausea. So, we could actually eat those endlessly so if we were ever on a desert island and only allowed one or two foods to eat exclusively, we would be better off choosing rice or potatoes because we would not get sick of them. I suspect a similar recommendation could be made for people undergoing chemotherapy. And of course, when nauseas as a pregnant woman. If we spend a good chunk of our time nauseous and vomiting, it would not serve us well to lose our ability to eat all foods! So palatability could be important to avoid unnecessary food aversions, but they may manifest as food cravings. 

Whatever the case, I’m pretty sure we have some smart biology developing inside of us. These babies seem to know what they want and what they don’t. Doesn’t seem that much different than when they grow into toddler’s actually.