Cravings occur frequently during pregnancy, but certain cravings, like chomping on ice, may indicate something potentially more serious than a craving for pickles and ice cream. An urge to eat non-nutritive substances, a condition called pica, can occur in pregnant women with low iron levels. On the other hand, ice cravings, known medically as pagophagia, don't necessarily mean you have a nutrient deficiency, which a blood test can diagnose. While eating ice doesn't cause any harm during pregnancy, it may be hard on your teeth.
Pica in Pregnancy
The desire to eat ice is just one type of craving seen during pregnancy. Women may also crave starch, dirt, clay or paper. Women who eat ice during pregnancy may do so because it soothes the sore and irritated tongue often seen in iron deficient patients, a 2007 "Los Angeles Times" article suggests. An ice craving that appears in pregnancy may disappear once you deliver.
Pagophagia in pregnancy may affect your intake of essential nutrients, even though ice itself has no calories. A study conducted by researchers from the Universidad de Buenos Aires in Argentina and reported in the November-December issue of "Nutricion Hospitalaria" found that pregnant women with pagophagia had lower intake of several nutrients. While women who craved ice took in the same number of calories, total proteins, iron and calcium as those who didn't, they had lower intakes of heme iron--the best absorbed iron-- as well as carbohyrates, animal proteins and zinc.
Diagnosing Iron Deficiency
Pregnant women need 27 mg of iron per day to satisfy their iron requirements as well as their growing babies' needs. Most doctors check for iron deficiency at the first prenatal visit and then again between 24 and 28 weeks of pregnancy, whether you have pagophagia or not. Iron requirements rise during pregnancy because blood volume increases. Signs of iron deficiency include fatigue, shortness of breath, weakness, dizziness, feeling cold, rapid heartbeat or irritability. Blood tests can diagnose iron deficiency.
Pica can be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder rather than an sign of nutritional deficiency. An ice-eating compulsion is less harmful than eating dirt or starch, substances that can interfere with nutrition and introduce parasites into the gastrointestinal tract. If iron deficiency causes ice eating, the compulsion will decrease once the iron deficiency improves. If you're not anemic, just don't chew pieces large enough to choke on--and take it easy on your teeth.