Can You Eat Spicy Food While Pregnant? Find Out Here!

Many individuals find themselves craving spicy food during pregnancy. The reason behind these cravings is unknown, though they are most likely to be enhanced by changing hormonal levels. Let's explore what makes food spicy, whether it is safe to eat it while pregnant, and who should avoid it.

Understanding spicy foods

When we speak of spicy foods, we usually refer to those 'hot' foods that make our mouths burn and potentially increase our metabolism. Spices like chili peppers and cayenne pepper contain a phenolic compound called capsaicin, which is responsible for this burn we feel when eating spicy foods. Other components in hot spices are piperine (found in black pepper) and allyl isothiocyanates (found in mustard, wasabi, and radishes).

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Spicy foods come from ethnically diverse cultures, including China, India, Mexico, Thailand, and Jamaica. The consumption of spicy foods may be associated with several health outcomes. Spicy food benefits potentially include decreased mortality from heart disease and cancer, decreased body weight, and improved lipid blood parameters.

Chili peppers not only contain capsaicin but also an array of other potentially beneficial compounds. These include antioxidants, antimicrobials, potential anti-obesity compounds, and other chemicals that may have an effect on blood pressure and blood sugar management.

Food cravings are very common in the first trimester for many reasons. And spicy cravings often top the list, making the safety of spicy foods a top question on the minds of many newly pregnant moms.

Can you eat spicy food while pregnant?

There is no scientific evidence that spicy foods have an adverse impact on the unborn baby or fetal development, nor do they increase the risk of miscarriage, as some myths propose. The failure of the baby to develop properly, infections, and some chronic diseases in the mother are likely causes, not spicy food.

While spicy food is entirely safe for mom and baby, consumption may cause adverse gastrointestinal side effects. These include nausea, indigestion, gas, bloating, an increase in GERD symptoms, and diarrhea.

Who should avoid spicy foods during pregnancy?

Morning sickness with nausea and vomiting may be reasons to avoid spicy foods. In the second and third trimesters, the growing fetus puts additional pressure on the stomach, pushing stomach acid up through the esophagus, and spicy food has been associated with exacerbation of this acid reflux. So, healthcare professionals may advise pregnant individuals with gastroesophageal reflux to refrain from eating spicy foods.

Other conditions that may be worsened by consuming spicy foods include irritable bowel syndrome, dyspepsia, inflammatory bowel disease, or anal fissures. The capsaicin present in most hot foods may also cause anal burning if you have hemorrhoids.

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Nausea and vomiting during pregnancy

Nausea and vomiting in pregnancy are common symptoms affecting 70% of the global pregnant population. Most individuals rate their symptoms as moderate, with only 1% having severe bouts of illness leading to adverse pregnancy outcomes. These symptoms generally worsen during the first trimester and resolve around the 20th week of gestation. The nutritional impact of nausea and vomiting in pregnancy can be significant, leading to nutrient deficiencies and unanticipated weight loss undesirable for a healthy pregnancy.

Other causes of nausea and vomiting include an enhanced sense of taste and smell, leading to the development of food aversions. Exposure to the offending food then causes these symptoms. Limiting exposure to the sight and smells of nauseating foods will reduce symptoms. Spicy foods and nausea often coexist, so if your nausea is significant, you may wish to limit hot foods for a while.

Enhanced susceptibility to food poisoning is another common cause of nausea and vomiting symptoms, as pregnant people are often exposed to common foodborne pathogens. According to the CDC, pregnant women are 10 times more likely to get listeria, a type of foodborne illness that can have severe outcomes for mothers and babies.

Gastroesophageal reflux

Gastroesophageal reflux, commonly called 'heartburn,' means that stomach acid flows back up through the esophagus. It becomes a disease when it reoccurs often. GERD is gastroesophageal reflux disease and is the most common reason healthcare professionals advise pregnant individuals to avoid spicy food. Capsaicin in 'hot' foods causes food to stay in the stomach longer, giving it ample opportunity to reflux backward through the esophagus.

If the esophagus is already inflamed, capsaicin only adds to the irritation by causing stomach acid to reflux back upwards.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease occurs in two-thirds of pregnant women. Symptoms usually present in the first trimester and progress throughout pregnancy. The goal of treatment is to prevent regurgitation without affecting the pregnancy or its outcome. GERD is known to affect the quality of life, resulting in lower mental and physiological health and affecting daily activities of living like sleeping, eating, and drinking.

Both hormonal and physiological factors account for the increase in GERD during pregnancy. Increases in estrogen and progesterone lower the pressure in the lower esophageal sphincter, allowing for regurgitation (the coming back of fluids from the stomach). This reaches its peak at about 36 weeks gestation. Physiological factors include the enlarging uterus and ineffective esophageal motility. Lifestyle modifications and medications can reduce gastrointestinal discomfort.

Other digestive issues

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Pregnant people may face other digestive issues from hormonal changes, the growing uterus compressing the intestines and torso organs, and changes to taste and smell. One of the most common digestive complaints is constipation. Pregnancy constipation is a common complaint because hormones slow down the digestive process, and the baby may press on the intestines, slowing down peristalsis.

An excellent way to manage constipation is to increase dietary fiber and hydration. Pregnant individuals need 8–12 cups of water per day and 28 grams of fiber. Hydration can come from high-water fruits, flavored water, juice, and plain water. Fiber is abundant in fresh fruits, vegetables, starchy beans, and whole grains.

Other concerns of pregnancy and digestive issues may include bloating, gas, indigestion, and hemorrhoids. Overeating fiber can increase gas and bloating. So, begin your fiber journey by adding fiber to your diet on a gradual basis.

Benefits of a balanced diet during pregnancy

A healthy pregnancy diet will provide enough calories and nutrients to support fetal growth and development, leading to better birth outcomes. Caloric needs are based on the pre-pregnancy BMI guidelines for optimal weight gain. The number of servings from each of the five food groups can be found according to caloric need in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020–2025.

Choosing from a colorful array of food choices will ensure diversity in your diet, guaranteeing that essential nutrient needs are met. When planning your plate, consider it a painting with various colors and shapes to entice the palate and please the senses. A balanced diet can include an array of spicy food and ensures adequate but not excessive weight gain, potentially reduced risk of gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, and improved infant outcomes. You may also experience improved immunities, a lowered risk of anemia, and potentially more restful and restorative sleep.

Which foods should you avoid during pregnancy?

The placental immune response alters the vulnerability of the pregnant mom to certain viruses and pathogens. These altered immunities make her more susceptible to foodborne illness that others may not generally acquire with a normally functioning immune system. Thus, certain foods are more risky for a pregnant individuals to eat and should be avoided. Even if these foods do not make the person ill, the bacteria may be transferred to the fetus, causing fetal harm.

Safe pregnancy foods include most fruits, vegetables, properly cooked protein sources, healthy fats, and whole grains. Safe foods adhere to food safety guidelines.

Foods that pregnant individuals should avoid include the following:

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  • Raw or undercooked meat, hot dogs or deli meat that hasn't been heated, and any type of meat spread or pate
  • Pre-made deli salads
  • Uncooked or raw sprouts, unwashed produce, or cut melon left out more than two hours
  • Unpasteurized or raw dairy, juice, or cider
  • Soft cheeses made from raw or unpasteurized milk
  • Raw eggs
  • All alcohol forms should be avoided due to the risk of fetal alcohol syndrome
  • While some health professionals limit caffeine to 200 mg per day, recent research calls for a reevaluation of this limit, stating that any caffeine at all may pose a risk to fetal health and should be avoided

Scientific studies support the inclusion of spicy foods in a balanced diet for pregnancy, one that contains a colorful array of choices from all the food groups in the correct portions and serving sizes. Pregnant individuals only need to avoid spicy foods if they are suffering from GERD or digestive symptoms, as advised by their healthcare professional. Risky foods to be avoided during pregnancy include those foods that are food-safety hazards and may cause harm to the mother or baby. Eating a balanced diet ensures you gain the proper amount of weight and the growth and development of your baby is optimized.

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