Innate food aversions and culturally transmitted food taboos in pregnant women in rural southwest India: separate systems to protect the fetus?

Evol Hum Behav. 2017 Nov;38(6):714-728. doi: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2017.08.001. Epub 2017 Aug 24.


Pregnancy increases women's nutritional requirements, yet causes aversions to nutritious foods. Most societies further restrict pregnant women's diet with food taboos. Pregnancy food aversions are theorized to protect mothers and fetuses from teratogens and pathogens or increase dietary diversity in response to resource scarcity. Tests of these hypotheses have had mixed results, perhaps because many studies are in Westernized populations with reliable access to food and low exposure to pathogens. If pregnancy food aversions are adaptations, however, then they likely evolved in environments with uncertain access to food and high exposure to pathogens. Pregnancy food taboos, on the other hand, have been theorized to limit resource consumption, mark social identity, or also protect mothers and fetuses from dangerous foods. There have been few tests of evolutionary theories of culturally transmitted food taboos. We investigated these and other theories of psychophysiological food aversions and culturally transmitted food taboos among two non-Western populations of pregnant women in Mysore, India, that vary in food insecurity and exposure to infectious disease. The first was a mixed caste rural farming population (N = 72), and the second was the Jenu Kurubas, a resettled population of former hunter-gatherers (N = 30). Women rated their aversions to photos of 31 foods and completed structured interviews that assessed aversions and socially learned avoidances of foods, pathogen exposure, food insecurity, sources of culturally acquired dietary advice, and basic sociodemographic information. Aversions to spicy foods were associated with early trimester and nausea and vomiting, supporting a protective role against plant teratogens. Variation in exposure to pathogens did not explain variation in meat aversions or avoidances, however, raising some doubts about the importance of pathogen avoidance. Aversions to staple foods were common, but were not associated with resource stress, providing mixed support for the role of dietary diversification. Avoided foods outnumbered aversive foods, were believed to be abortifacients or otherwise harmful to the fetus, influenced diet throughout pregnancy, and were largely distinct from aversive foods. These results suggest that aversions target foods with cues of toxicity early in pregnancy, and taboos target suspected abortifacients throughout pregnancy.