Obesity and Pregnancy: How to Beat Food Cravings

Health Professional

Weird food cravings have long been associated with pregnancy in our minds —  for example, the stereotypical pickles and ice cream craving. And while about 39 percent of pregnant women do report food cravings — most frequently for sweets, fruit, and dairy — these women don't typically gain too much additional weight, despite a slight increase in the number of calories they eat.

That said, about 50 percent of pregnant women in the United States will gain more than the recommended amount during pregnancy, as defined by the Institute of Medicine and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. These guidelines give a range of weight gain recommended during pregnancy. For example, a woman with a normal body mass index (BMI) should gain between 25 and 35 pounds in a normal pregnancy with one baby. These numbers may be higher or lower depending on your pre-pregnancy weight and other factors.

If you are overweight or obese, however, it’s generally believed that you should gain fewer pounds in pregnancy, while taking the baby’s growth into account. Read on for tips to help you overcome food cravings to help maintain a healthy weight during pregnancy.

Why do people crave certain foods?

Outside of pregnancy, there are many reasons why people have food cravings, typically for foods that are high in calories. Some of these reasons include the food tastes good, there is an emotional attachment to food, we are trained to eat certain foods at certain times, and it’s readily available.

Sometimes, something as simple as imagining eating the food that you are craving may reduce your desire to actually eat it. For obese pregnant women, one study showed that cravings for sweets, snacks, and sodas predicted additional weight gain over what was needed to sustain a healthy pregnancy. They found that focusing on stopping the snacking was more effective at limiting additional weight gain than having women follow stringent diets.

One small intervention was designed to have overweight and obese pregnant women self-monitor their food intake, their exercise levels, and their weight. This had a high drop-out rate — about one-third of the participants — but of those that stayed in the study, there was a noticeable increase in physical activity and a decrease in the consumption of trans fats. This was a small sample, but it did show promise, and hopefully more studies will look at similar tactics.

In the meantime, food and exercise logs can be beneficial for some pregnant women trying to monitor their weight. Consider doing this on your own or with the help of your midwife or doctor.

While many doctors and midwives may not have specialized training in nutrition, you can ask for a referral to a nutritionist or registered dietitian. Working together with your care provider, you may be able to design a program that works for you and is specific to your needs both mentally, emotionally, and physically. This “whole person” approach is often more successful than traditional programs where you’re simply told that some foods are bad and you should avoid them.

Tips to help you beat food cravings

Struggling to figure out what you should be eating? Try the MyPlate quizzes online. These take into account not only your BMI but your stage of pregnancy and help you customize a plan of eating for each trimester. Using the MyPlate suggestions as a guide can also help you keep cravings in control.

Catherine Arnold, M.S., R.D., L.D., of The Mindful Dietician offers these additional tips to help you stay on track:

  1. Keep a food log: “While it’s tedious, keeping a food log helps garner better accountability,” Arnold tells HealthCentral. “Think about why you’re eating and keep notes on your log. This can help you identify potential areas where you can put some mental energy and replace the action of eating mindlessly with something else until the craving has passed.”

  2. Watch your portions: “Be smart and watch the quantity — if you’re craving chocolate, have a piece, but be mindful about your serving size,” she says. “This simple step can really help with portion control. You can also employ tricks like brushing your teeth after meals to help curb cravings.”

  3. Stay hydrated and maintain a balanced diet: “Ensuring that your body has all of the essential nutrients it needs, it can prevent filling the gaps with foods that are not as healthy for you.”

  1. Don’t stray from your grocery list: Make a list before heading to the store, and stick to it. Purchase healthy snacks so that when you feel hungry, you have smart options to choose from. That’s not to say that you can’t have treats. Arnold suggests that you just keep portion control in mind: “Limit the amount of high-calorie snacks that you purchase. If you have cravings for these foods, purchase smaller quantities to help prevent overconsumption.” Selecting single serve packages or even portioning the servings when you get home from the store are good steps in preventing overeating.

In the end, having a great partnership with your provider, your dietitian, and having a few tricks up your sleeve like food logs, quality snacks, and mindful eating habits will go along way to help you prevent excess weight gain during your pregnancy.

See more helpful articles:

Want to Lose Weight Permanently? Eat Regularly and Don't Diet

How Your Baby Grows During Pregnancy: Month by Month

Breastfeeding and Obesity: Health Links You Should Know