Women's Experience and Understanding of Food Cravings in Pregnancy: A Qualitative Study in Women Receiving Prenatal Care at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

J Acad Nutr Diet. 2020 May;120(5):815-824. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2019.09.020. Epub 2019 Dec 6.


Background: Although the occurrence of food cravings during pregnancy is well established, there is a paucity of qualitative data on pregnant women's perceptions of and responses to food cravings. This study sought to assess and describe pregnant women's experiences and behaviors pertaining to food cravings.

Methods: Eight focus groups were conducted with 68 pregnant women in their second trimester from March 2015 to October 2016. Using a semistructured approach, the facilitator asked women open-ended questions regarding their experience of eating behaviors and food cravings. The content from the focus groups was analyzed using a bottom-up approach based on grounded theory and constant comparison analysis.

Results: Participants described cravings as urgent, food-specific, and cognitively demanding occurrences that were differentiated from hunger. They described beliefs surrounding the physiological causes of cravings and rationales for satisfying their cravings. Strategies used to manage cravings included environmental modifications to limit proximity and availability of craved foods, cognitive and behavioral strategies like distraction, and acceptance through satisfying the craving. Participants described food cravings as a psychologically salient aspect of their pregnancy, reporting a variety of emotional precursors and reactions surrounding their cravings.

Conclusions: A better understanding of food cravings may assist with the development of interventions to improve eating behaviors and reduce eating-related distress during pregnancy. Acceptance regarding food cravings was indicated as a way to diffuse pregnancy-related stress. These findings contribute to our understanding of psychological influences on eating behaviors in pregnant women.

Keywords: Eating behavior; Food cravings; Pregnancy; Strategies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Craving / physiology*
  • Feeding Behavior / psychology*
  • Female
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice*
  • Humans
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnant Women / psychology*
  • Prenatal Care
  • Qualitative Research
  • Young Adult