What makes a belly

I like to tell my daughter she’s made of teddy grahams and milk. Cottage cheese with pickles and Wheat Thins. Peanut butter and banana sandwiches. 

My son is all brownies and Mexican food. 

Those were my go-to pregnancy cravings. Powerful, consuming, satisfying, must-have. 

“What’s your baby made of?” 

It’s one of my favorite questions to ask. 

It inspires a variety of eager answers as women wistfully recall how nothing ever tasted as delicious as fresh summer strawberries drenched in table salt; Nilla wafers; pastrami. 

The flip side of the craving is — of course — the aversion. Some of those make sense. 

Alcohol smells bad because it’s not good for Baby. Same could be said of mercury-heavy fish, secondhand smoke, paint fumes. Some of these smells can become intolerable during pregnancy.

But what do you say of the mom (ahem, ME while pregnant with my son) who can’t choke down a single green veggie during the first trimester? I tried everything — melting cheese on green beans, hiding broccoli in a favorite pasta dish. Usually a salad enthusiast, I couldn’t stand anything green. 

But why?

Although somewhat scientifically mysterious, cravings and aversions are most likely caused by hormonal fluctuations. Women experience all kinds of hormonal influences throughout their fertile years: A mate smells appealing during ovulation. Chocolate, which has been shown to have a similar effect as morphine on the brain, is craved during PMS, when a woman is experiencing anxiety and cramps. 

The hormones associated with pregnancy and birth are even more dynamic than those of the monthly cycle — making foods, perfumes and environmental toxins smell even stronger. 

The hormone answer makes sense; but some look deeper.

When I asked my midwife about eating cold cuts during pregnancy (and the possible threat of listeria), she told me she was less concerned about the unlikely chance of listeria and more interested in why I was craving cold, salty meat. To her, this was a possible indicator of protein deficiency and/or low blood pressure. 

On that note, why wouldn’t you follow your bliss toward oranges, spinach or butternut squash? On some level, it must mean a need for vitamin C, iron, vitamin A. 

But then, cookies and cream ice cream with a side of Doritos is a more typical craving than quinoa and kale. 

Beware of pica

Pregnancy cravings and aversions are usually harmless, as long as the expectant mother is trying to eat a well-balanced diet of healthy grains, good protein and a variety of fruits and veggies. 

Occasionally, a condition known as pica is developed during pregnancy. Pica is an eating disorder in which substances that aren’t food are craved, and sometimes indulged in. 

Some common non-foods craved include dirt and soil, plaster, ice chips and soap. Speculative theories as to what causes this in pregnancy include those good old hormonal changes, psychological issues and anemia or iron deficiency. 

If you crave something that’s not food, you should definitely talk to your doctor. You should also find a real-food replacement — earthy mushrooms and root vegetables if you’re craving soil, for example. 

Some believe that increasing intake of essential fatty acids helps stabilize cravings and aversions. Flax oil, avocados and eggs are sources of such acids. 

Go bland and cold

As for severe morning sickness, try saltines first thing in the morning; and when NOTHING sounds good, opt for cold and bland foods. Aroma is a nausea trigger. 

Cold sorbet, chilled fruits and yogurts (which are natural gut balancers anyway) are good choices. Nausea cures include lemons, ginger ale, ginger tea and complex carbs such as whole grains. 

In the meantime, try to enjoy your new palate! One of the “joys” of pregnancy is experiencing your body, your life, your environment — including tastes and smells — in an entirely new way. And be sure to tell your baby, someday, what he’s made of! Besides, you know, love. 

Jen Wittes is a certified postpartum doula and writer who now works in marketing and communications. She lives in St. Paul with her two kids, two cats and husband. Send questions or comments to jwittes@mnparent.com.