Women love to tell stories about their pregnancies, and food cravings (the more bizarre the better), can be the most fun anecdotes to share. For example, my mom loves to describe the intense weekly cravings for Wendy's hamburgers she experienced while pregnant with me. Although I grew up to become a vegetarian, I've always loved french fries, so I wasn't immune to fast food cravings during my two pregnancies. Apparently, it's pretty normal. But what does it mean if you crave McDonald's during pregnancy?
Google will show you plenty of food craving charts that explain when you crave X, what your body really needs is essential nutrient Y. The overall premise is that your brain mixes up the need for something like protein or magnesium with your desire for strong flavors like salt or sugar. However, scholarly articles attribute pregnant women's cravings for McDonald's and similar foods with the social permission that they are generally given to eat whatever they want.
In other words, for most of their lives, women receive cultural messages about how to eat the right foods, in the right quantities, so they can maintain the right appearance. Contrast that pressure with society's celebration of pregnant women's appetites, whether it's midnight ice cream runs or second and third helpings at dinner, and pregnancy may be the only time in an American woman's life when she is released from culture messages about dieting.
So go ahead and enjoy your pregnancy cravings for McDonald's or any other foods you desire. There's always room to follow your doctor's dietary recommendations and eat what you enjoy, even if it's not on the official pregnancy nutrition handout. It's also helpful to understand the psychology behind food cravings and to know you're not alone in wanting to eat McDonald's during your pregnancy.
While eating at the golden arches three times per day probably isn't the best, that doesn't mean an occasional Big Mac will harm you or your baby. Furthermore, in the western world, cravings for fast food and other processed foods are as much a product of culture as hunger. According to the Handbook of Diet and Nutrition in the Menstrual Cycle, Periconception and Fertility, craving chocolate during your period is a particularly North American phenomenon.
The book also attributes food cravings to "several cognitive factors, including ambivalent attitudes" and hypothesizes that a woman's associations between eating chocolate during the menstrual cycle (or McDonald's while pregnant) are linked to "a culturally-driven view of the perimenstrum as a cue signaling permission to engage in an otherwise prohibited indulgence." Applied to pregnancy, this means culture says pregnant women are prone to cravings for foods like ice cream and french fries, and gives "permission" to expectant moms to eat as much as they want. Moms see this in celebrity culture as well, when female stars like Chrissy Teigen, who would otherwise be sharing their diet and exercise tips in magazine articles, instead post pictures of their pregnancy cravings on social media.
Next to your psychological and emotional reasons for craving certain foods during pregnancy, is there any truth to the notion that your desire for McDonald's is a flag that you're experiencing some kind of nutrient deficiency? According to Fitness and Lifestyle Performance Coach Ben Greenfield's website, your McDonald's craving could be a sign that your body is low on essential fatty acids, calcium, iron, and/or chloride, and that you're experiencing stress hormone fluctuations. (Well, who isn't?)
However, a 2014 literature review on the topic of food cravings in pregnancy, published in Frontiers in Psychology, concluded there is no compelling evidence to support the hypothesis that pregnancy cravings are a direct result of nutritional deficits or the need for more calories. Instead, they also find that "in the U.S., culture-specific norms, beliefs, and customs may allow or even encourage prenatal cravings and intake of foods that may otherwise be considered 'taboo.'"
So what does it mean if you crave McDonald's during pregnancy? You may enjoy using your cravings to predict the sex of your baby or figure out what foods you should be eating instead. But in the end, your pregnancy cravings may have no great biological significance. They are very likely the result of all the cultural messages you've internalized — from movies and TV shows to celebrity stories — about eating during pregnancy.
In short? Just eat the french fries and enjoy.