What Pregnancy Cravings Mean (For The Love of Radishes)

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Pregnancy cravings are usually harmless urges to eat unaccustomed foods, and they can be funny and entertaining. It’s a lovely reminder that your body is changing to accommodate a new life growing within you. Satisfying cravings can be a way of celebrating your baby, of saying ‘Hi honey, what do you want to eat today?’ No wonder people enjoy asking pregnant ladies about it, and often do.

Research reports that women the world over experience pregnancy cravings, but the most common items craved vary with geographical location. This suggests that cravings are universal, but the way they are experienced is not. This indicates that they are not only initiated by the body, but also the mind.

It is worth noting that ‘Pica‘, the craving of non-food substances, is recognised as a different to pregnancy cravings, because it is not just experienced by pregnant women and is a symptom of some illnesses, such as anaemia. If you do feel drawn to non-food items like chalk or bleach, it is a good idea to talk to your doctor about it. Here is one mother’s account of her pica experience.

A Fairy Tale Case Study

The other day, my 5 year old daughter and I were reading Rapunzel from her Grimm’s Fairy Tales picture book. The beginning of the story is all about pregnancy cravings. Even for a fairy tale, I found the way cravings were shown surprising.

Before I go on, here is a recap of Rapunzel:

Once upon a time there was a peasant couple, who were expecting their first baby. I’ll call them Betty and Frank. All was joyful anticipation in their little cottage, which overlooked an abundant kitchen garden. The garden belonged to a powerful Enchantress who was feared by all. 

Betty was gazing out of the window one day, when she spied a succulent crop of radishes. They looked so inviting, she decided that she would not, could not eat anything else. She must have the radishes or starve. Frank was concerned and offered to sneak into the garden and steal some for her.

True to his word, he scaled the garden wall, while his wife got ready the butter, a salad, and a light vinaigrette. The couple feasted on buttered-radish salad, but alas! Betty wanted more radishes, and persuaded her husband to return to the scene of crime.

After nightfall the following day, Frank crept back into the garden. As he bent down to take another bunch of radishes, the witch appeared. He threw himself on her mercy. He explained that his wife was expecting their firstborn and would not, could not eat anything but her radishes. Without them, he feared she and baby would die.

Not one to miss an opportunity, the Enchantress offered to make a bargain. Frank could take all the radishes he wanted for his wife and unborn baby, but in return they had to give up their child to her. He agreed.

So, the newborn Rapunzel was taken away by the witch and locked in the top of a tall tower. There she stayed until a handsome prince heard her singing and came to the rescue. He battled with the witch for her freedom and reunited Rapunzel with Betty and Frank, for whom she harboured no resentment. Prince and Rapunzel fell in love and lived happily ever after with their many offspring.

Though I accept that fairy tales have their own logic, I had a number of questions, chief of which was…

‘What was it about those radishes?!’

There are a number of reasonable explanations, but no one knows what causes pregnancy cravings. The favourite theories are:

  1. They are a natural response to hormonal changes;
  2. They are a message from the body telling the woman she needs a certain nutrient;
  3. They are a way that the body encourages women to eat foods with pharmacological properties;
  4. They are a part of how pregnancy is seen in particular cultures.
  5. They are a product of psychological state.

So based on this, Betty might have needed those radishes for several different reasons:

I Need Those Radishes Because…..

…Radishes Will Balance My Changing Hormones!

There is little scientific evidence to confirm that this would be true. Were it the case, cravings would only happen at the same time that major hormonal changes occur: during the first trimester. Though they are often reported at this time, they tend to peak in the second trimester, when hormones are more stable.

On the other hand, a link may exist between food sensitivity and hormonal changes, especially those that happen in the first trimester of pregnancy. Many pregnant women report food aversions early on to substances like alcohol or coffee because they become unpalatable. It is suggested that the increased sensitivity to particular odours and flavours could explain the urge to make unaccustomed food choices. I guess there is no way of knowing if Betty ate radishes in general. If not, they may have appealed more to her during pregnancy because of her altered palate.

….My Body Needs Radish-Based Goodness!

Like other brassica, radishes contain iron, folic acid, vitamins B-6 and C, magnesium, calcium, and are a good source of dietary fibre. Plenty of reason for a pregnant lady to gobble them up, and Rapunzel’s mother would not be the first to report cravings for a vegetable.

As pregnant women often crave other, less healthy, substances like cake or sweets, scientists are reluctant to suggest that cravings are always, or even often, beneficial to maternal health. However, one could argue that the body does send such signals, but the message gets lost amidst other thoughts and becomes confused. One way or another, the fact that Rapunzel’s mother felt compelled to refuse all food, but radishes, does not indicate she was being given orders by bodily wisdom, or that an internal message had been corrupted somehow.

…My Body Needs To Be Protected By Radish Power!

In Oriental medicine, radishes are thought to be essential for health, leading to a prevalence of radishes, especially Daikon, in Asian cuisine. They do promote general wellbeing, as they contain detoxifying agents and are a known antioxidant. Radish is a diuretic, and so can be helpful in preventing urinary infections, which can plague pregnant women. In warm climates, they might also have a cooling and hydrating effect on overheated pregnant ladies. These are all good pharmacological reasons to crave radishes.

It is worth noting too, that studies have shown a link between food aversion and protection from toxins during the first trimester of pregnancy. This might indicate that Betty was hyper-sensitive to the available food except radishes, rather than only able to eat radishes. The timing in the story is unclear, but she appears more likely to be in the second or third trimester. In the picture book, she has a big baby bump. This would indicate that the time of greater sensitivity should have passed, as aversions tend to dissipate after the twelfth week of pregnancy.

Again, to only eat radish would not be wise, and so the wisdom-of-the-body theory seems an unfit explanation here in and of itself.

…My Mood Demands I Eat Radishes!

Another pharmacological reason for eating particular foods is that they are believed to alleviate negative feelings. A common example would be eating chocolate to abate  PMS. Perhaps Betty feels that radishes would help her to cope with some sort of psychological problem. In eating them, she is seeking relief from stress or depression.

Pregnant women often experience anxiety about such issues as diet, health, childbirth, the approaching transition to motherhood, or their changing relationship with their partner. Maybe Betty is going through some difficult thinking and seeks the comfort of radishes.

…..My Culture Demands I Eat Radishes!

There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that culture plays a part in how pregnancy cravings are experienced. Becoming pregnant represents a change in the way that society perceives you, like getting married, or turning eighteen years old, you take on a different status. We often mark transitions by eating special food, and some cultures have very definite ideas about what pregnant women should crave. In third world countries, scarce foods such as meat or festival foods are often desired, whereas in the wealthy first world, sweet treats like ice cream are most common.

Perhaps there was a tradition in Betty’s village or nation that women should eat radishes when carrying a child to ensure their wellbeing. It is certainly possible!

…..Forbidden Radishes Taste Sweeter

Another possibility is that radish eating could be taboo in Betty’s culture. You have to wonder otherwise, why she doesn’t just go to the market and pick some up, or even steal them from someone who will not demand your baby as payment. The radishes are behind a wall, maybe under an enchantment. Perhaps this made them especially attractive to Betty.

Falling pregnant is sometimes used as a justification to consume food which would usually not be acceptable to that individual. For instance, women in cultures which have both unrealistic ideals of female beauty and a wide availability of rich, calorie dense food products are more likely to have mixed feelings towards sweets and fast food. Women in such environments are at greater risk of gaining excessive pregnancy weight than those in other locations. Women who have a history of dieting, or high control eating, are more likely to experience cravings as a call to eat ‘forbidden’ food.

Radishes hardly fit the bill for calorie dense food, but they could be considered taboo for other reasons. Perhaps in Betty and Frank’s village, radishes are associated with witchcraft, and therefore it is socially unacceptable for Betty to eat them. Maybe the locals all know that the price for eating forbidden radish would be high, and therefore would judge her for giving into the craving.

…..There Is No Choice But To Eat Those Radishes

So, it seems pretty incredible that Betty and Frank risk their firstborn child for the sake of a few radishes. Wherever the craving came from , you have to wonder why Betty felt she had no choice but to satisfy her urge for radish. She believed she had one possible course of action, and that her life depended on it. This narrowing down of possibility indicates that she was probably not doing her best thinking.

When in a negative state of mind, it is human nature to fixate on a particular need or want. Were she to relax and wait for a while, rather than to demand her husband gets her the radishes, Betty might realise that eating them is not such a big deal after all. Other, better opportunities for sustenance would present themselves. She is the innocent victim of her own thoughts, because she doesn’t realise she can just ignore them.

The Lesson Beyond The Fairytale

Cravings are a weird and wonderful curiosity of the pregnancy journey. Perhaps they originated as a signal from the body that it was important to eat a certain substance. A communication between body and mind, that hailed the changes in physical requirements experienced when growing a baby. This is the voice of  wisdom, which says things like:

  • one fat slab of cake in one sitting is enough;
  • fresh green vegetables are, like, really yummy;
  • you cannot get Heinz Salad Cream imported to Portugal, even though you really, really want it, and that is not a huge problem.

Social or personal pressure to consume or avoid certain substances can chatter in our heads and cloud our judgement. In cultures where food is promised to deliver more than nourishment, and where ambivalence to particular foods is common, unhealthy thought patterns regarding food can blind us to our wisdom.

So, if you experience a craving and are not sure whether to indulge it, perhaps the best question to ask is ‘will eating this contribute to my true wellbeing, or will it simply alleviate a negative feeling I am having at the moment?’ In the case of the latter, it may be best to relax, wait, and see if the craving disappears. There is a difference between enjoying a really great plate of chips or radishes or whatever, and trying to fight a problem through urgent consumption of food. The bad feeling and sense of urgency are the clues that there is a battle going on. If these are not present, why not go ahead and munch away. The best reason to eat is to nourish our body, mind, and spirit, consuming in a mindful way, to satisfy our genuine appetite.

Bon Appetit!

What experiences of pregnancy craving have you had?

The most noticeable ones I had were for carrot salad with mustard and raisins, green vegetables, and cake. Not together. I had the strongest desire to eat lots of sweet and sour condiments like ketchup and ate pickled chillies out of the jar a lot. I also had a strong meat aversion in my third pregnancy. Once, I had the urge to eat a bunch of flowers, but fortunately it passed!

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2 thoughts on “What Pregnancy Cravings Mean (For The Love of Radishes)

  1. This is going off on a tangent, but if you’re interested in the Rapunzel story, I recommend Kate Forsyth’s novel ‘Bitter Greens’. She’s gone back to the earliest written version of the story and retold it, intertwined with the stories of the woman who wrote it and the witch herself! It’s really good! I love finding out about the origins of fairy tales (and the originals are usually so much darker than the modern versions!)…

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    1. That sounds brilliant. Right up my street. I read some interesting excerpts from a book saying that fertility used to be a really common motif in fairytales, but the Grimm Brothers decided that pregnancy was taboo, and retold them without it. Apparently, the witches were often pregnant in previous versions. I will check out the novel. Thanks for the recommendation xxx

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