If you're pregnant and experiencing cravings, you're not alone. Research suggests cravings effect 50 to 90 percent of pregnant women in the United States. And while the most common hankerings are reportedly for sweets like chocolate, high-calorie, savory carbohydrates like pizza and chips, animal proteins and fruits, many women say pregnancy brings with it a sudden need for all things spicy.
So what’s to thank (or blame) for this phenomenon? We caught up with Registered Dietitian Stephanie Lauri, RD, CLEC, to find out why you might be fixing for fiery foods when you're expecting, and if it's safe to indulge your spicy food cravings.
Why do I crave spicy food during pregnancy?
If you’re wondering why pregnancy brought with it a newfound need for fiery nachos and extra hot buffalo sauce, you might be surprised to learn that scientists aren’t entirely sure.
“While spicy foods are a common craving among pregnant women, it's not completely understood why food cravings occur during pregnancy,” says Lauri.
Even in the absence of real research, there are plenty of theories as to why pregnant women often experience intense (and sometimes bizarre) cravings.
“One theory is that it could be due to fluctuating hormone levels,” says Lauri. Indeed, some experts contend that hormonal changes during pregnancy may alter smell and taste receptors, which can result in intense cravings. Others posit that pregnancy-induced changes in the fullness and hunger hormones, leptin and ghrelin, make pregnant women more prone to cravings.
Another possible explanation has to do with a seemingly unpleasant side effect of spicy foods. “Another theory is that spicy foods induce sweating, which is a natural way to cool your body down,” says Lauri. Pregnancy brings an increase in internal body temperature so those who subscribe to this theory believe that spicy food cravings—and their ability to activate sweat—might be a natural mechanism for controlling body temperature.
Still another theory is that cravings reflect nutrient deficiencies—you crave ice cream because your body needs more fat or calcium, sweets because you need more carbohydrates or salty snacks because your body needs more magnesium. As with all of the spicy food and pregnancy theories, there's no scientific evidence to support this one.
Does craving it mean anything?
Itching to find out the gender of your unborn baby? Lucky for you, there’s no shortage of theories about how to predict if you’re having a boy or a girl. From the size, shape and position of your belly to your little one's heart rate, everything in pregnancy is supposedly an indicator of a baby’s gender.
You’ve probably heard the old adage that if you're craving salty, savory or spicy foods, you're having a boy.
But is there any merit to this?
Not according to Lauri. “There is no evidence that craving spicy foods means anything regarding your baby (such as the gender) or the health of the pregnancy,” she says.
Until more research is available on this topic, it’s safe to assume this one is just an old wives tale—just like all the others.
And while it may be fun to speculate, if you really want to know whether you’re having a boy or a girl, prenatal blood tests and anatomy ultrasounds are among the most reliable methods of determining an unborn baby's gender.
Is it safe to eat spicy foods during pregnancy?
If pregnancy has you feeling like you could drink an entire bottle of hot sauce in one sitting, you’ll be happy to know that it’s perfectly safe to indulge cravings for spicy foods when you're expecting. In fact, it might even be a good thing: Research1 suggests that prenatal exposure to spicy foods may increase an infant’s enjoyment of them during weaning.2
But Lauri offers a word of caution: “Spicy foods may lead to undesirable symptoms like heartburn and gastrointestinal (GI) upset, so pay close attention to your symptoms after consuming your favorite spicy foods.”
Gas, bloating, reflux, indigestion and diarrhea can all be some of the unpleasant side effects of eating these types of foods. In addition to digestive system distress, some women find that too many spicy foods can also exacerbate morning sickness symptoms like queasiness.
This can be especially problematic since pregnant women are advised to avoid certain medications commonly taken for digestive issues and nausea.
If you decide to satisfy your craving, experts advise starting small and slow—begin with eating something only slightly spicy and increase the level of heat over the next few meals so you can get a read on how your body will tolerate the spiciness. And always keep a glass of water nearby—many spicy foods are high in sodium and it’s important to stay hydrated to avoid dehydration.
If you start to experience GI issues, nausea or vomiting, make sure to contact your doctor for guidance prior to taking any medication.
Can spicy foods really help with labor?
Anyone who’s ever been pregnant before knows that once you hit the third trimester, time slows to a creep. This can lead many expecting moms to try any tactic possible to speed up labor.
Along with taking long walks and bouncing on an exercise ball, eating spicy foods has long been rumored to help naturally induce labor. But is this really an effective approach?
Lauri says probably not. “Unfortunately, there is no evidence that spicy foods will in fact help induce labor,” she says. But if you’re so desperate you’ll try anything, she says there’s no harm in giving it a try.