Pregnancy is a gift. To have the ability to grow a child within your own body, or that of your partner, is incredible, humbling, emotional, and exhausting... all at the same time. These emotions often coincide with many concerns and questions about what is safe or not safe to eat during pregnancy. Can I eat cheese? Is sushi out? This article discusses what you can and can’t eat for pregnancy.
A pregnant woman’s body goes through extensive changes as it is working constantly to protect and grow her developing child. Her blood volume increases by nearly 50%, and her resting heart rate, metabolic rate, oxygen consumption, and hormone levels also rise. All her organ systems are affected, and she may experience a variety of symptoms such as nausea, leg cramps, sore muscles, fatigue, food aversions, and more.
One area of anxiety during this period of rapid change is the mother’s diet. What should a pregnant mother avoid? What should she include to better support her baby’s health? Here is a food list you can trust, based on the most recent research and information available.
Foods To Exclude
- Raw or undercooked eggs – Raw eggs are the primary source of Salmonella bacterial poisoning. Though rare, intrauterine sepsis could occur. Eggs that carry a higher risk of salmonella are those from backyard hens, farmer’s markets, or otherwise unpasteurized. Commercially-prepared food products made with raw eggs such as mayonnaise, salad dressings, ice cream and cookie dough are most often made with pasteurized eggs, which are safer choices than home-prepared raw items made from unpasteurized eggs.
- High-mercury fish – Mercury is a heavy metal that accumulates in human tissue and has no safe exposure level. It is toxic to the nervous, immune, reproductive, and cardiovascular systems, as well as the kidneys. Babies in utero and during the postnatal period are especially vulnerable to mercury’s toxic effects. Lower cognitive test scores and IQ levels have been observed in children with mercury exposure. The highest sources of mercury in the diet which should be avoided are large predatory fish: shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish, tuna, marlin, and orange roughy. Excellent low-mercury seafood choices rich in important omega-3 fatty acids for the baby’s brain development include sardines, herring, salmon, anchovies, and oysters.
- Alcohol – According to the CDC, there is no known safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy. Alcohol, in any form, crosses the baby through the umbilical cord. Alcohol intake during pregnancy may lead to a long list of irreversible health conditions such as facial deformities, cognitive abilities, vision or hearing problems, and more.
- Excessive added sugar intake – High maternal sugar intake is associated with increased gestational diabetes risk and more weight gain, and is associated with food allergy development and altered brain development in the child. In addition, added sugars often replace nutrient-dense foods that provide the extra nutrition needed during pregnancy. Aim for no more than 24g of added sugar per day or about 6 teaspoons. Whole fruit is an excellent substitute for added sugars. Here are some other ideas for sugar cravings. Research is limited on the impact of artificial sweeteners on babies in utero, but animal studies reveal increased sweet preferences and metabolic dysfunction later in life. Some sweeteners such as sucralose and acesulfame-K transfer to breast milk. Some experts advise against the consumption of artificial sweeteners, while others do not.
- Caffeine – Research shows that most pregnant women may safely consume 200mg of caffeine daily, which is equivalent to about 16 ounces of coffee, or 2 cups. Make sure to keep tabs on your intake though. Excessive maternal caffeine intake raises the risk of low birth weight which may increase the child’s chronic disease risk as they age. Curious about caffeine alternatives? Check out this article for ideas.
- Deli Meats & Smoked Salmon – It's common advice for pregnant women to avoid unheated cold cuts due to the rare potential for the food-borne bacterial infection, listeriosis. Pregnant women are at an increased risk for serious risks of food-borne illnesses, such as listeriosis, because of their decreased immune system’s ability to fight food-borne pathogens. Listeriosis can lead to miscarriage or stillbirth. Heat your cold cuts and smoked meats thoroughly to reduce your risk.
- Sushi & Raw Seafood – Raw fish and seafood have the potential to contain parasites and bacteria. A safer way to consume raw fish is commercially-frozen fish that has been frozen to –4 up to 0 degrees Fahrenheit. While the UK does not currently advise against pregnant women consuming raw fish, the US, Canada, France, and other countries do.
- Certain dairy products – Unpasteurized soft cheese and milk should be avoided due to bacterial infection risks. Unpasteurized hard cheeses such as cheddar and parmesan are the exceptions. Soft cheeses made from pasteurized milk are safe, whereas those made from unpasteurized milk such as goat cheese, Brie, and gorgonzola should be cooked before consumption.
Research reveals that a baby’s palate begins to develop even before it’s born, as the mother’s diet flavors amniotic fluid. You can help maximize your baby’s gut health and willingness to accept diverse flavors and healthy foods, as well as decrease your risk of gestational diabetes, by following a Mediterranean-style diet. This style of eating incorporates a variety of fiber-rich foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains, as well as omega-3-rich seafood, lean meats, olive oil, herbs, and spices. In addition, it’s recommended pregnant women include top allergen foods in their diets such as dairy, eggs, soy, wheat, and nuts to reduce the risk of food allergies in their children. Exercise is also helpful for both the mother's and baby’s health.
There is an overwhelming amount of pregnancy information available online to sift through, learn from and apply, but this article condenses down the most important foods to avoid, the ones you can safely include and how to support you and your baby’s health.