How to eat healthy when you crave chips and chocolate.

Pregnancy cravings
Credit: Kaysh Shinn

Overcoming the Cravings

I had always held the rather cavalier belief that eating right when expecting would come instinctively. I'm a nutritionist, after all. I've had numerous pregnant clients over the years, and I've talked them through their various complaints: they crave sugar and salt, they're exhausted, healthy foods hold no appeal. And, of course, it's easier to rip open a bag of chips than whip up a batch of steamed veggies.

Yet I just assumed that when I became pregnant, none of these issues would apply to me. I was in for a rude awakening. In those first few months, my baby was no bigger than a blueberry, but she'd already taken charge of my taste buds and willpower. The mere sight of a vegetable made me nauseous. Protein mainstays such as salmon and egg whites couldn't have been less appealing. Whole-grain anything seemed revolting. Yet food was always on my mind -- specifically the starchy sugary kind that I'd told my clients to avoid. I craved gnocchi and cheese, challah bread, fried dough. (Do you see a trend?) Saltines dipped in mayonnaise grew to be one of my favorite snacks. I fantasized about McDonald's fish sandwiches. After hitting a new nutritional low by inhaling a pint of ice cream before breakfast, I knew it was time for me to eat my words. Gradually, I started replacing the junk with healthy foods I did enjoy, such as nuts, low-fat yogurt, and oatmeal. The following four challenges were difficult to overcome, but I worked hard and did the best I could. In sharing them I hope to help you avoid the same pitfalls.

Pregnancy cravings
Credit: Kaysh Shinn

Veggies Make Me Green

1. I can't stand vegetables!

They're full of vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber, but many pregnant women can barely choke them down. For one thing, pregnancy heightens our sense of smell, so we taste bitter flavors more. Many women report that the vegetables they once loved, like mushrooms and broccoli, just stink. (The culprit is sulphur.) The trick is to add veggies to foods without smelling them. Some ideas:

  • Stir pureed carrot or butternut squash into tomato-based pasta sauces (to avoid cooking smells, use baby food, if you like).
  • Stir applesauce, pureed pumpkin, bananas, or prunes into a low-fat brownie batter or muffin mix instead of oil. You'll be adding fiber and vitamins, and you'll never know the difference.
  • Disguise sugar snap peas, carrots, and spaghetti squash with tomato sauce and Parmesan.
  • Try dousing almost any vegetable with lemon juice. Many women crave citrus and find that even the scent can stave off nausea.
Pregnancy cravings
Credit: Kaysh Shinn

I Need a Sugar Fix

2. I'm exhausted and craving sugar.

Many of us reach for food when we're exhausted, in a last-ditch effort to rev ourselves back into gear. Again, we usually reach for sweet, carb-loaded snacks, as they affect our blood sugar the fastest. Trouble is, fill up on those, and you'll never want the grilled turkey burger or the avocado, which are packed with nutrients you need.

The solution? First, eat a small, healthy snack, and promise yourself you'll address the craving afterward, when you're in a better frame of mind to manage portion size. Quick snack ideas include yogurt and fruit, string cheese and nuts, and soy chips with hummus.

To keep your cravings from getting out of control, buy individually wrapped, single-portion treats, and keep them in the freezer. Enjoy one with a glass of something warm (warm drinks curb appetite), like sugar-free cocoa, decaf tea, or skim milk with honey. If you don't trust yourself to stop at one, keep nothing tempting in the house, and go out for your daily treat (one scoop of ice cream, one cookie, one latte).

Pregnancy cravings
Credit: Kaysh Shinn

Protein? Yuck!

3. Protein makes me nauseous.

Protein is essential when you're expecting, but often the thought of fish or eggs make us turn green. Not to worry! These days we have so many alternatives. Almost all carb-rich favorites (pretzels, bagels, crackers, cereal) have high-protein counterparts. In terms of dry cereals, Kashi GoLean has 13 grams per serving, and Quaker Oats Weight Control Oatmeal has 7 grams per serving. You can even get high-protein bagels (such as Weight Watchers). Hop online to find any of these products.

Another idea: chicken soup (it goes down easy, plus it satisfies a salt craving). Stir in pureed white beans, which are mild in flavor, but full of protein and fiber.

Natural almond and peanut butter are also excellent sources of protein. And if you're craving citrus, lemon- or lime-flavored yogurt has up to 8 grams of protein per cup.

Pregnancy cravings
Credit: Kaysh Shinn

I Feel Guilty

4. I just can't eat right all the time.

Perfection is not the goal. This last point is probably the most important. Pregnancy makes us worry about everything, from the temperature of our bathwater to whether the vibrating massage chairs at the nail salon will cause fetal distress. We know too much. While we should all strive to do the best we can, 100 years ago (or merely 20) we didn't have half as many don'ts, and babies were just fine. That hot dog you ate before you realized you were pregnant is okay -- stressing about it will do more harm than good. Indeed, our body works in mysterious ways, but there's a method to its madness. Baby's health always comes first, and she will get what she needs from our sometimes erratic food choices. I look at my daughter, Madeleine, and marvel that she's made almost entirely of oatmeal, cheese, and almonds!

Originally published in the December 2007 issue of American Baby magazine.

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American Baby