Superpowers and Sickness: How Being Pregnant Changed How I Think About Food

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Minkyung)

Standing in the tasting lab of the Colombian Coffee Federation in Bogotá, learning about coffee aromas, I listed off flavors I couldn’t previously identify. It was like the scene in Napoleon Dynamite where he declares that the milk came from a cow which got into an onion patch. My brain flooded with scents: jasmine, burnt rice, sweet pea. I was eight weeks pregnant, and had just discovered an upside to a condition that had, so far, only caused nausea: super-nose.

My hosts in the lab watched, impressed, as I instantly and flawlessly matched coffees to a chart of the flavors in various regions. I beamed: I had no idea where or why I could suddenly do this (theory is that the additional estrogen heightens the sense of smell), but I was already charting my future with super-nose. A sommelier, perhaps? Weeks later, I discovered the downside to super-nose when I could play “guess the age” of the fish on display in a Singaporean seafood market from 50 feet away.

Nobody asks pregnant ladies what they smell, though. People just want to know about weird cravings; and I felt I was disappointing people to admit that, really, I just wanted ice cream — no pickles necessary, no late-night peanut butter sandwiches. But there were plenty of other changes instigated by the process of growing a human inside me — some good, some bad, some just plain strange. If you’d asked me about the upsides of pregnancy as I dry-heaved daily on the walk to the bus stop, I might have looked at you funny, but now (I’m about to have my second child) I’ve realized how much I enjoy the changes pregnancy makes in the way I think about food.

I was eight weeks pregnant, and had just discovered an upside to a condition that had, so far, only caused nausea: super-nose.

None of those changes is that mythical “eating for two.” It turns out that being pregnant means you must share your (now precious) stomach space with a growing baby. Instead of eating bigger portions, meals become snacks (do you have that beautiful rib-eye in a two-ounce portion? No?) and snacking becomes constant. I had to stop thinking of the world as an endless buffet and start considering it a very expensive jewelry store.

(Image credit: Minkyung)

Big bowls of pasta tried to lure me in, but to eat them would be like a loan for a diamond ring. I’d pay dearly for it down the line — either in my inability to eat more than a few bites, or in stomach pain and heartburn. The idea of ordering more than one course at a meal went out the window, and instead I chose the costume jewelry option: I became a snack food devotee. Instead of thinking in meals, I thought in bites. (How can I make the single best-tasting bite, rather than put together a whole meal?) I focused on flavors — roasting nuts with this herb and that spice and testing various styles of crackers with different cheeses to find the best combination. I stopped indulging my love of cooking with big pots of Bolognese and instead used it to figure out the best tiny snacks to go in my purse. Because a side effect of not being able to eat big meals is that you are constantly hungry.

At any given moment of pregnancy, I’m likely armed with at least two kinds of nuts, some candy, and an assortment of crudité that could cater a small party. Purse food is the prenatal American Express: Don’t leave home without it.

Purse food is the prenatal American Express: Don’t leave home without it.

And being pregnant changed the way I thought about what I ate as well as how much. The most heavenly cocktail party on earth would be catered with the foods forbidden to pregnant women: briny raw oysters by the dozen, elaborate sushi spreads, the finest charcuterie taken with dry martinis, rare hamburgers, raw-milk cheeses, and refreshing IPAs. Having to pay attention to what was in my food changed how I thought about ordering. Sometimes it was easier to skip the cheese plate than try to find out if a cheese was raw, or to slowly sip a single glass of wine than suffer the snores of a rude bartender. Food now had consequences beyond price tags. It made considering a menu a weighing of risk and reward; eating became more than I want this and can afford it/have access, and involved a factor of How risky is eating/drinking this — and will I take that risk?

With my first pregnancy, that answer was mostly no. But with my second I acted like a toddler told to stay out of the candy drawer. Thankfully pregnancy restrictions aren’t fatal allergies, as my lack of willpower would be a death sentence. Instead, I just got funny looks shot at me while eight-months pregnant and holding a glass of wine during the toast at my brother’s wedding. (I developed a withering death stare in return that harnesses the combined powers of Wonder Woman and Oprah.)

(Image credit: Minkyung)

But for all the crap dealt to pregnant ladies (see also: the time an Uber driver told me that in his country, pregnant ladies don’t get to cross the street alone) I secretly enjoyed encountering — and conquering — the changes to what and how I eat. Perhaps that’s a natural defense mechanism to wipe out any memories of the month I spent side-eyeing any food that wasn’t plain white rice, but it’s also an introduction to entering a new reality and a whole new set of food rules — the ones inconsistently decreed by the tiny dictators we call our children.