Pregnancy does all sorts of wackadoodle things to your body—there are the swollen ankles, the aching hips, the tender breasts. But you know what might be the cruelest body disruption of all? Food aversions, the tummy-turning flip-side of food cravings, which suddenly leave pregnant women wanting nothing to do with their once-favorite foods.
"Typically, about 50 percent of pregnant women in the U.S. will experience food aversions of some type during their pregnancy," says Kecia Gaither, M.D., NY-based double board certified specialist in Ob/Gyn and Maternal Fetal Medicine. "They generally start—and peak—within the first three months of pregnancy, correlating with the rise, peak, and decline of the pregnancy hormone human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG)."
Some women, however, experience aversions throughout their entire pregnancy—and even afterward. (Gah!) "In my experience, pregnancy can alter a woman's preference for certain foods for years, and sometimes, indefinitely," says Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD, author of Expect the Best: Your Guide to Healthy Eating Before, During, and After Pregnancy.
While food aversions can strike any unsuspecting mom-to-be, a small 2015 study in the journal Physiology & Behavior suggests that women carrying baby boys are more likely to experience disgust toward particular foods. The theory is that male embryos are more vulnerable than female ones, so feeling eww toward potentially dangerous foods is a way to protect these more at-risk fetuses.
"There's always been talk about prenatal food aversions occurring to protect mother and baby-to-be from foodborne illness and toxic substances, but there's really no definitive scientific basis for that," says Dr. Gaither. And, honestly, the theory doesn't really hold water, especially when you consider that some of the most common food aversions are protein-packed meat, chicken, and fish. "Plus, if your body naturally was averse to known dangers to baby, we'd all experience an aversion to alcohol, which we don't," Ward says.
So if it's likely not gender nor potential harm keeping you from devouring your once-loved onion-and-garlic-topped meat pizza pie, what is it?
"It's probably the smell," says Dr. Gaither. Women who have an excellent sense of smell prior to pregnancy may be more prone to food aversions. "The normal hormonal surges you experience during pregnancy can intensify your sense of smell, which heavily influences food preference—and distaste," says Ward. "The odor seems to set all of the feelings of nausea, and perhaps vomiting, into motion."
In addition to smells, foods that are more difficult to digest, like meats and fried and/or high-fat foods, can be repulsive as well.
The most common food aversions include chicken and red meat, which topped a poll by health and fitness app Lifesum as the most likely cause of first trimester queasiness. Fish and eggs came next, followed by fried foods, and starchy foods like popcorn or white rice.
The good news? "Most aversions are more interesting than serious and, for the most part, will cause no harm," says Elizabeth Somer, RD, author of Nutrition for a Healthy Pregnancy: The Complete Guide to Eating Before, During, and After Your Pregnancy.
"A healthful diet is one that meets your nutritional and emotional needs, as well as your personal preferences. So don't worry about not liking coffee or chicken right now, just look for other healthy foods to replace them with."
But if you are worried, just bring it up with your physician, suggests Dr. Gaither. "If your doctor thinks your aversions are keeping you from certain nutrients, he or she will refer you to a nutritionist where supplements and/or other recommendations will be provided."
Here are Ward's top tips for eating your way through your pregnancy food aversions.