Off the Menu: Foods to Avoid When You're Pregnant

By Elizabeth M. Ward, M.S., R.D.

Long before researching baby formulas, when you’re expecting, you should avoid certain foods and beverages to prevent foodborne illness and to foster your baby’s growth and development. Here’s how to stay as safe as possible.

Seafood

  • Steer clear of certain large fish, such as swordfish, shark, tilefish, and king mackerel harbor higher concentrations of methylymercury, which interferes with the normal brain and nervous system development.
  • According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), pregnant women may safely eat up to 12 ounces weekly of seafood low in mercury, including salmon (farmed and wild), shrimp, and canned light tuna. Limit canned albacore (“white”) tuna fish to 6 ounces a week, as part of the 12-ounce limit.
  • Before you feast on fish caught in rivers, lakes, ponds, and streams, check the safety of waterways with their local health departments.
  • Never eat raw fish or shellfish. Undercooked animal foods may contain an array of bacteria, viruses, and parasites. (See Meat and Eggs.)

Meat and Eggs

  • Undercooked and raw meat and eggs (including eggs in cookie and cake batter, uncooked meringue, and homemade eggnog) are not recommended when you’re pregnant because they may harbor germs that can make you sick.
  • Always test the doneness of meat, poultry, and fish with a food thermometer, and cook eggs until they are no longer runny.
  • Hot dogs and luncheon meats, such as deli ham, turkey, bologna, and salami are more prone to Listeria monocytogenes, a bacteria that may result in miscarriage, stillbirth, or other serious health problems. Luncheon meats and frankfurters are OK to eat if you reheat them until they are steaming hot.
  • Refrigerated smoked seafood is safe when it's part of a cooked dish, like casseroles, but you should avoid it otherwise.

Dairy Foods

  • Unpasteurized dairy products, including raw milk and certain cheeses, are also prone to listeria. Avoid dairy products made with unpasteurized milk, such as Brie, feta, Camembert, Roquefort, blue-veined, "queso blanco," "queso fresco," and Panela.

Fruits and Vegetables

  • Unpasteurized juices, including cider, may contain E. coli. Check the label to be sure juice is pasteurized.
  • The FDA says eating raw vegetable sprouts, including alfalfa, clover, radish, and mung bean is risky for everyone as they are often a source of foodborne illness.

Beverages

  • Tap water may contain lead, which is linked to low birth weight, preterm delivery, and developmental delays in children. If you’re in doubt about your tap water, have it tested. For more information on testing your water, call the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791.
  • Plastic bottles, including those made of numbers three, six, and seven plastic, leach potentially toxic chemicals, such as Bisphenol-A (BPA), into bottled. BPA, one of the chemicals in the plastic used to make water bottles, could disturb normal fetal development.
  • The research is conflicting, but caffeine from coffee, tea, soft drinks, and energy beverages may increase the risk of miscarriage, reduced birth weight, and stillbirth. Limit caffeine consumption to 200 milligrams a day, about the amount found in 12 ounces of coffee.
  • While it’s probably safe to drink the herbal teas found on supermarket shelves, pregnant women should avoid other herbal teas.
  • There is no known safe level for alcohol consumption at any time during pregnancy so it’s best to avoid it. Alcoholic beverages prevent the proper delivery of oxygen and nutrients to your developing baby. The effects of alcohol exposure in the womb on intellectual abilities and physical growth are permanent.


About the Author

Elizabeth M. Ward, M.S., R.D., is a registered dietitian, a writer, and mother of three. She has worked at the Joslin Diabetes Center and the American Heart Association, and for seven years counseled children and adults about healthy eating and disease prevention at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates in Boston.

Read Bio »