Pickles, lemons and ice cream—these are just a few of the foods commonly associated with pregnancy cravings.
According to research from the 1970s through today, 50 to 90 percent of women experience cravings for specific foods during pregnancy. The most commonly craved foods include sweets like juice, candy, ice cream, chocolate and fruit. Fatty, starchy foods—think pizza, fast food and bread—also rank high.
Read More: What to Eat (and Avoid) When You're Pregnant
While pregnancy cravings may not seem like a big deal and might even be entertaining at times (peanut butter and pickles at the same time?), they are actually associated with excess weight gain during pregnancy. Gaining too much weight while pregnant can lead to adverse outcomes for both mom and baby. Not to mention, no mom wants any extra baby weight hanging around post-delivery.
The good news: it is possible to satisfy your cravings without going overboard. You have permission to indulge from time to time, but you should also keep a watch on your overall calorie intake. Here are three ways to splurge in a healthy way, plus three ways to reduce cravings.
Cravings get a bad rap. They're often associated with unhealthy foods, like ice cream and candy. Moms-to-be may feel pressured to control their cravings and not give in. If they do eat what they're craving, they may feel guilty or try to "make up" for the snack later by eating too little. This type of thinking can lead to an all-or-nothing mentality, and that often leads women to restrict and then later overeat.
Next time you are itching to eat a specific food, stop and assess your cravings. Ask yourself these questions before eating:
• When was the last time I ate, and what did I have?
• Do I have physical signs of hunger? For example, is my stomach growling? Am I shaky?
• Am I just stressed or bored?
"Many times, cravings stem from hunger," says Rachael Hartley, R.D., a private-practice dietitian and blogger at The Joy of Eating. If in fact you are hungry, you can satisfy the craving in a healthy way by eating a small meal or healthy snack. Don't ignore hunger or discount it.
Recipe to Try: Sweet Potato Chips
Of course, perhaps you really just want that piece of chocolate you've been thinking about all day. Don't keep yourself from eating it. Pregnant or not, ignoring a craving will just make you want it more.
"Trying to not eat something you're craving will only lead to eating a lot of other things you don't really want in an attempt to satisfy your craving, before finally eating the thing you were craving in the first place," Hartley says. This can lead to overeating or out-of-control eating.
Allow yourself to eat the food you're craving, but do it in a thoughtful, controlled manner.
"I encourage clients to slow down and savor the food they're craving mindfully, which allows you to actually satisfy the craving, often with a smaller amount," Hartley says.
Giving yourself time to focus on the food and how it makes you feel as you eat it can prevent overeating, increase enjoyment and diminish guilt.
Recipe to Try: Brussels Sprouts & Pepperoni Pizza
It's OK to indulge in some pizza, ice cream and french fries while pregnant, but doing it regularly could lead to extra weight gain and deprive your baby of the important nutrients he or she needs to thrive. If you find healthier alternatives to your typical cravings, you can have the best of both worlds.
For example, if you're craving fries, try baking sliced sweet potatoes with olive oil for a dose of vitamin A and healthy fats. If pizza is calling your name, throw a whole-wheat pita or tortilla on the stove, and load it with cheese, veggies and a lean protein like chicken. Want something sweet? Try berries, watermelon or pineapple for a naturally sweet treat with fiber, water to hydrate, vitamins and minerals.
You might not prevent cravings altogether, but you may be able to reduce the number of cravings you have during pregnancy. Frequency of cravings during pregnancy is associated with excess weight gain, so reducing the number of times you crave foods can improve outcomes for you and your baby.
Read More: Healthy Pregnancy Recipes
Recipe to Try: Nutty Rice Cake
Experiencing cravings because you are hungry isn't uncommon. You might confuse a persistent hunger for temporary cravings and either ignore them or snack in all the wrong ways.
Dividing up your day's typical three meals into five or six can help you prevent hunger, reduce cravings and eat a variety of healthy foods. This strategy is especially good for women who have difficulty eating large portions. Frequent small meals may be easier on your sensitive stomach. They may also keep the hunger pangs at bay longer.
"Eat balanced meals and snacks containing a mixture of fat, protein and carbohydrate, and try not to go longer than four hours without eating" Hartley says. This combo of nutrients will energize you and keep you full.
"Avoid skipping meals and snacks or omitting major food components, as these can help keep you satisfied and prevent food cravings that feel overwhelming," says Crystal Karges, a San Diego-based private-practice dietitian. Try whole-wheat toast with peanut butter and strawberries, a rice cake with almond butter, or carrots and hummus.
Protein is the building block of all cells, so it is crucial that mothers-to-be eat enough of this nutrient throughout the day for the baby's proper growth.
As a bonus, protein can kick cravings to the curb, too. Eating protein at breakfast is associated with increased satiety and reduced hunger and cravings. One study found that eating Greek yogurt with 24 grams of protein in the afternoon helped keep nonpregnant women full and delayed their desire for subsequent meals.
Pair a healthy protein like eggs, nut butter or Greek yogurt with a healthy carbohydrate that is high in fiber and low in sugar, like whole-wheat toast or a high-fiber cereal. The protein-fiber combo will satiate you and keep cravings away.
Learn More: What a Healthy Serving of Protein Looks Like
There are many reasons to stay active during pregnancy: to keep weight in check, be fit for labor and decrease stress.
"Effectively managing stress can help prevent food cravings, as stress can induce food cravings and influence eating behaviors," Karges says. "This is where exercise comes into play. Be sure to move your body in a way that feels rejuvenating, as this can help you manage stress levels."
Exercise might also reduce food cravings. Running has been linked to reduced levels of appetite-stimulating hormone and increased levels of an appetite-suppressing hormone in nonpregnant individuals. Interestingly, researchers have found that exercise can reduce cravings for cigarettes in pregnant women who are temporarily abstaining from smoking.
More research needs to be done in this area, but in the meantime, lace up your shoes (with your Doctor's OK). No matter what, hitting the pavement or gym can distract you from your craving, lift your mood and help you feel better about your changing body.