When you’re expecting, what you eat and drink influences your child’s health, possibly forever. Everyday foods and beverages take on new meaning, as some may present a danger to your developing baby.
Whole and lightly processed foods, such as whole grains, lean meats, fruits and vegetables, legumes, and low-fat dairy should form the basis of your pregnancy diet. Here are items that you may want to avoid while you’re pregnant.
Raw or Undercooked Food of Animal Origin
Undercooked animal foods — such as rare meat, raw oysters, clams, sushi, unpasteurized eggs, raw cookie or cake dough, and homemade eggnog), may contain an array of bacteria, viruses, and parasites. To reduce your risk of foodborne illness, test the doneness of meat, poultry, and fish with a food thermometer, cook eggs until they are no longer runny, and follow baking instructions — don’t eat raw dough.
Hot Dogs, Luncheon Meats, and Unpasteurized Dairy Foods
These foods are prone to Listeria monocytogenes, a bacteria that causes listeriosis, which may result in miscarriage, stillbirth, or other serious health problems.
Besides hot dogs and luncheon meats — which include deli ham or turkey, bologna, and salami — other processed meats and seafood that may contain listeria include refrigerated pates or meat spreads, and refrigerated smoked seafood (such as salmon, trout, whitefish, cod, tuna, or mackerel). These items may be labeled as “nova-style,” “lox,” “kippered,” “smoked,” or “jerky.”
Refrigerated smoked seafood is safe when it’s part of a cooked dish, like casseroles. Luncheon meats and frankfurters are OK to eat if you reheat them until they are steaming hot, says Michael Lu, MD, UCLA professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and public health and author of Get Ready to Get Pregnant: Your Complete Pre-Pregnancy Guide to Making a Smart and Healthy Baby.
“Pregnant women should avoid getting the fluid from hot dog packages on other foods, utensils, and food preparation surfaces, and wash their hands after handling hot dogs, and deli luncheon meats,” to further decrease potential contact with listeria, Lu says.
Unpasteurized dairy foods are also prone to listeria.
Avoid raw milk and dairy products made from unpasteurized milk, such as Brie, feta, Camembert, Roquefort, blue-veined, queso blanco, queso fresco, and queso Panela.
Certain Seafood and Fish
Large fish — such as swordfish, shark, tilefish, and king mackerel — harbor higher concentrations of mercury, compared to other fish. Mercury is a byproduct of coal-burning plants that interferes with the normal development of a growing child’s brain and nervous system.
According to the FDA, pregnant and nursing women may eat up to 12 ounces weekly of seafood low in mercury, including salmon (farmed and wild), shrimp, canned light tuna, pollock, sardines, tilapia, and catfish. Because albacore (white) tuna has more mercury than canned light tuna, the FDA recommends that pregnant women limit albacore tuna to no more than 6 ounces a week, and include it in the 12-ounce limit.
Fish caught for sport in rivers, lakes, ponds, and streams may also contain industrial pollutants that play havoc with a developing nervous system. Recreational anglers should check the safety of waterways with their local health departments.
Raw Vegetable Sprouts
The FDA advises everyone, regardless of pregnancy, not to eat raw sprouts — including alfalfa, clover, radish, and mung bean sprouts.
The reason: Bacteria can get into sprout seeds and are “nearly impossible” to wash out, states the FDA’s web site. The FDA recommends that pregnant women request that raw sprouts not be added to your food.
It’s OK to eat thoroughly cooked sprouts, according to the FDA.
Drinks to Limit or Avoid
Alcohol (beer, wine, or spirits) robs developing cells of oxygen and nutrients, preventing normal fetal development. The effects of alcohol exposure in the womb on intellectual abilities and physical growth are permanent.
According to the CDC and the March of Dimes, there is no level of alcohol consumption that’s known to be safe at any time during pregnancy.
Unpasteurized juices, such as cider purchased from roadside stands, at farms, or in stores. These products are prone to germs, including E. coli. Check the label to be sure juice is pasteurized.
Lead is linked to low birth weight, preterm delivery, and developmental delays in children. If you have an older home with pipes made of lead, it can leach into your tap water, and home filtration systems may not prevent it from reaching you.
If you’re in doubt about your tap water, have it tested.
Bottled water isn’t necessarily purer; it’s often repurposed municipal water.
Caffeine from coffee, tea, soft drinks, energy beverages, and other sources may increase the risk of miscarriage, reduced birth weight, and stillbirth, but the research is conflicting. The March of Dimes recommends limiting caffeine consumption to 200 milligrams a day. That’s about the amount found in 12 ounces of coffee.
Bisphenol A (BPA)
BPA is an industrial chemical used to make many hard plastics and the liners of many canned foods. It’s an endocrine disruptor that could disturb normal fetal development, Lu says.
The FDA is studying BPA and has not recommended that pregnant women avoid BPA. But in January 2010, the FDA stated that “recent studies provide reason for some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland of fetuses, infants, and children.” Most of those tests have been done on animals, and the FDA says there are “substantial uncertainties” about BPA’s effects on human health. The plastics industry has maintained that low levels of BPA exposure are safe.
If you choose to avoid BPA while pregnant, a wide range of BPA-free plastics and glass containers are available.
Herbal Teas and Supplements
Herbal teas are caffeine-free, but their safety is unclear when you’re expecting. There are no reliable human studies on the safety of herbal preparations, including supplements such as Echinacea and St. John’s wort, during pregnancy.The FDA does not routinely monitor the quality of dietary supplements.
“While it’s probably safe to drink the herbal teas found on supermarket shelves, pregnant women should avoid large quantities of herbal tea, and completely avoid herbal supplements,” Lu says.
Duffy MacKay, ND, is the vice president of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a trade group for the supplements industry. In an email to WebMD, MacKay states that “there are herbs and other supplements that can be used safely to support a healthy pregnancy” but tell your doctor or midwife about any supplement use during pregnancy.
MacKay says there is “scientific consensus” that these common herbs and supplements should be avoided during pregnancy:
- Herbs that contain stimulants or caffeine-containing supplements, especially those that are intended to promote weight loss, guarana, kola nut, betel (Piper betle), Citrum aurantium, yohimbe, theobromine (cocoa extract), Garcinai cambogia.
- Other botanicals to avoid while pregnant include golden seal, Cascara sagrada, black walnut, wormwood, tansy, pennyroyal, senna, saw palmetto, pao d’arco, MacKay says.
MacKay also advises women who are pregnant, or who could become pregnant, not to take 10,000 or more IU per day of vitamin A because of the risk of birth defects. And MacKay says that “many newer and specialty nutrients have not been proven safe for use during pregnancy and should be avoided.”
The bottom line: Talk to your obstetrician about any herbal supplements or vitamins before taking them during pregnancy.
Foods That May Cause Food Allergy
If you, your child’s father, or one of your other children has allergies, your baby is more likely to have food allergies.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says that avoiding certain food allergens, such as peanuts and peanut products, during pregnancy and when nursing a child may reduce allergy in susceptible children.
But there’s little, if any, benefit to avoiding allergens during pregnancy and breastfeeding for everyone else.
Before changing your diet, talk to your doctor about your family history of allergies and asthma, and speak with a registered dietitian who is knowledgeable about food allergies.
You’re eating for two now, but you don’t need twice the calories. Gaining too much weight threatens your health, and may increase the risk of childhood overweight in your future child.
In the second trimester, add 340 calories a day to your pre-pregnancy calorie needs, and 450 a day more in the third trimester. But if you’re very overweight at conception, or if your physical activity level drops, you may need fewer calories during pregnancy. Still, pregnancy is not a time to try to lose weight. Ask your doctor or dietitian what calorie level is right for you.
There is room for treats like ice cream, chips, and cookies during pregnancy, but it’s important to choose foods that do double duty by providing the additional calories you need, as well as the extra nutrients that maximize your baby’s development.