Hunger Games: The Mysteries | of Eating While Pregnant | Kids VT | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Hunger Games: The Mysteries of Eating While Pregnant

Published April 29, 2014 at 12:30 p.m.

In the first days after my positive pregnancy test, I threw myself headlong into the world of healthy eating. Good-bye, chocolate-chip cookies; hello, superfoods. I even started a food journal, giddily chronicling my daily servings of protein, whole grains and leafy greens.

Veteran moms know where this is headed: That journal lasted all of two weeks.

That's when the morning sickness hit. Gone were the protein-rich meats, the roasted broccoli, the kale. I spent the next 10 weeks subsisting on cereal and toast, trying not to barf during meetings at work and googling variations of "When does morning sickness end?"

Worst of all, I wasn't just feeling sick; I felt guilty, too. Surely the little creature growing inside of me needed more than saltines to thrive. All along I wondered, Why, oh why, has food become so unappealing exactly when I need to be on my nutritional A-game?

My googling yielded plenty of info about morning sickness, which more than half of all pregnant women experience — typically starting six weeks after conception and lasting until 12 weeks of gestation — according to the American Pregnancy Association. Various explanations attribute the nausea and vomiting to hormonal changes, low blood sugar and even the stretching of the uterine muscles — but the exact cause is unknown.

And, as I'd learn, morning sickness isn't the only pregnancy-related nutritional mystery.

Expectant women also have any number of food aversions and cravings. In the U.S., the most common pregnancy cravings are for dairy and sweet foods, including chocolate, fruits and juices. Less commonly, pregnant women report cravings for salty or savory foods — think pickles or pizza.

Medical professionals have plenty of theories.

"Quite honestly, they can be all over the map," says Rachel Preston, a nutritionist at Fletcher Allen Health Care who works with pregnant women. She says research indicates that the complex chemistry of hormonal shifts during pregnancy plays a critical role. Another theory holds that cravings remedy some deficiency in the mom-to-be's diet.

Still more hypotheses attempt to explain food aversions during pregnancy. Preston says most women have a heightened sense of smell when they're carrying a child. Some researchers believe that those super-charged olfactory powers might have been an evolutionary device intended to help pregnant women identify food that was rotten or unsafe.

Whatever the reason, both cravings and aversions are powerful forces, Preston says. The rumor that a craving is "just an excuse to eat ice cream" doesn't square with Preston's own experience during her four pregnancies. "You realize that some of those aversions are really powerful," she says. Among the most common she sees are aversions to eggs, fish and protein — and occasionally broccoli and cauliflower.

Even sweets aren't always a treat. "Some women are quite sensitive to sweets," Preston says — which flies in the face of the cliché that pregnant women just want chocolate.

"A lot of it seems to be very individualized," she says, adding that cravings and aversions can vary in the same woman during different pregnancies.

Preston says that as long as women are craving something safe to eat, moderate indulging isn't dangerous. "The times we get worried are if someone says they're craving things like chalk, or dirt," she says — a condition called pica that's thought to indicate iron deficiency.

Rachel Stanton, a Burlington doula who is part of the Birth Journeys group, recalls her pregnancy stomach woes all too well. After the morning sickness she lived through with her daughter, now 8, she was hit by even worse nausea while pregnant with her now 4-year-old son.

"My house was trashed. I couldn't function," she remembers now. With both pregnancies, she relied on her husband to "just put food in front of me."

"I literally couldn't go into the kitchen," Stanton says. When her husband was at work, she'd send in her daughter, not quite 3 years old at the time, to fend for herself. Stanton's morning sickness eventually subsided, after around 16 weeks of pregnancy. But at least one aversion stuck around for the entirety — and beyond.

During her second pregnancy, she says, "Celery made me really, really sick." Just the smell of it turned her stomach. Her husband commuted to the state capital for work, and Stanton says she developed a sixth sense about his lunchtime celery intake. "We would joke that I could smell the celery from Montpelier," she says.

Her son was born in July and, that summer, Stanton "put the kibosh" on growing celery in her family's backyard garden. Her husband did plant a little in one corner of the yard; Stanton didn't venture near it for months.

While celery was off the menu, one craving surprised Stanton.

"I would dream about red meat," says the 10-year vegetarian.

"I felt like my body was trying to tell me something," she says — and sure enough, her iron levels were low. She didn't know how to cook meat, though, so she'd head to a friend's house once a week for a hefty serving of steak or a juicy hamburger.

"And one day I just didn't want it anymore," Stanton says.

As for that loathsome celery? It's back on the menu at the Stanton house. Stanton says she added some to a soup just the other day. "We've made our peace, celery and I."

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.