Staying away from harmful foods is integral to one's health, especially for pregnant women. What an expectant mother eats influences the development of the fetus. Moreover, being pregnant places mother and baby at greater risk of developing foodborne illnesses1. Hence, it is important to know the type of foods to avoid during pregnancy to ensure the well-being of both the mother and her baby. Here is a list of foods that mothers-to-be need to eliminate from their diet:
Seafood high in mercury
Seafood can be a great source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids for pregnant women2. But some fish and shellfish contain high levels of mercury that can be harmful to the baby's health. High-mercury fish can cause brain damage and complications in the baby's nervous system2. These include shark, king mackerel, swordfish, and tilefish, which should be avoided at all costs. The bigger and older the fish, the more mercury it's likely to contain2. Meanwhile, certain types of seafood with low levels of mercury can be consumed moderately. For example, at eight to 12 ounces (two to three servings) per week. These include anchovies, catfish, salmon, shrimp, tilapia, light canned tuna, and sardines2.
Besides high-mercury seafood, pregnant women should also avoid raw or uncooked seafood and shellfish. This is because they might contain harmful bacteria or viruses3. Examples of food to avoid during pregnancy are sushi, sashimi, raw oysters, scallops, and clams. Fish should be cooked thoroughly where the fish should separate into flakes and look opaque after cooking. Shrimp, lobster and scallops should be cooked until they are milky white, while clams, mussels and oysters until their shells open3.
Undercooked meat, poultry and eggs
Raw or undercooked meat, poultry and eggs are also considered food to avoid during pregnancy to avoid bacterial food poisoning. Undercooked meat might be contaminated with harmful bacteria such as coliform bacteria, salmonella, and toxoplasmosis, to name a few4. Uncooked eggs like in Caesar salad dressing, mayonnaise, and batters can also contain harmful pathogens. It is best to fully cook all meats and poultry to a safe internal temperature verified by a food thermometer before eating5.
Consuming soft cheeses made from unpasteurized milk can also spell disaster in pregnancy. Unpasteurized dairy and juice may contain harmful pathogens such as listeria and E. coli, which may lead to foodborne illnesses6. Always check the product labels to ensure that they are free from harmful ingredients prior to purchase. Alternatives to soft cheeses are cheddar, swiss, and other hard cheese, which are safe to eat.
Unwashed fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables must be properly washed to eliminate disease-causing bacteria which live in the soil where the crops are grown. Pregnant women must stay clear also of particular sprouts, such as alfalfa, clover, radish, and mung bean, for they may contain dangerous bacteria7.
Some studies have shown that caffeine in moderation during pregnancy is permissible8. However, there are also studies linking it with a number of pregnancy complications such as low birth weight and miscarriage. This is because caffeine passes through the placenta and into the fetus, which may cause some harmful effects on the fetus. Below 200 milligrams (mg) in 2 cups of coffee a day of caffeine is considered by experts as the safe amount to consume for expectant moms8. Although water and pasteurized juices or milk are considered still the best to take in place of caffeinated beverages.
Herbal teas in general contain little to no caffeine, but they still should be taken with caution during pregnancy. This is because few studies have been made that establish the safety of herbal teas among expectant mothers9. Herbs may also contain substances that can cause miscarriage, premature birth, uterine contractions, or injury to the fetus9. As a rule of thumb, it is best not to take any herbal products without talking first to a healthcare professional and be absolutely certain about drinks and food to avoid during pregnancy.
All forms and amounts of alcohol are best to be avoided at all stages of pregnancy. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy has been shown to have harmful effects on the development of the fetus. Alcohol ingested by the mother passes to the baby's bloodstream through the umbilical cord, and stays there twice as long10. The harmful effects of alcohol on the fetus include facial defects, heart problems, low birth weight and miscarriage or stillbirth11.
Being aware of certain types of food to avoid during pregnancy is important to the health of both mother and baby. This helps mothers and all her loved ones to make wholesome and safe food choices to ensure that the baby is born in the pink of health. If ever in doubt, please consult your healthcare provider.
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Dr. Raymond Choy Wai Mun
MBChB (UK), Aviation Medicine (Singapore)
- While Your Pregnant Tips from Food Safety for Moms to Be. (n.d.) Retrieved 15 October 2020. https://www.fda.gov/food/people-risk-foodborne-illness/while-youre-pregnant-tips-food-safety-moms-be
- People at risk: Pregnant Women. (n.d.) Retrieved 15 October 2020. https://www.foodsafety.gov/people-at-risk/pregnant-women
- Pregnancy Nutrition: Foods to Avoid During Pregnancy. (n.d.) Retrieved 15 October 2020. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/pregnancy-week-by-week/in-depth/pregnancy-nutrition/art-20043844
- Foods to Avoid While Pregnant. (n.d.) Retrieved 15 October 2020. https://americanpregnancy.org/healthy-pregnancy/pregnancy-health-wellness/foods-to-avoid-during-pregnancy-981
- Nutrition During Pregnancy. (n.d.) Retrieved 15 October 2020. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/nutrition-during-pregnancy?amp=true
- Foods to Avoid During Pregnancy. (n.d.) Retrieved 15 October 2020. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/foods-to-avoid-pregnant/
- Raw Seed Sprouts are a Risk to Eat (n.d.) Retrieved 15 October 2020. https://www.mpi.govt.nz/food-safety/food-safety-for-consumers/is-it-safe-to-eat/raw-seed-sprouts-are-a-risk-to-eat/
- The Nutrition Source: Other Healthy Beverage Options. (n.d.) Retrieved 15 October 2020.https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-drinks/other-healthy-beverage-options/
- Herbs and Pregnancy. (n.d.) Retrieved 15 October 2020. https://americanpregnancy.org/healthy-pregnancy/is-it-safe/herbs-and-pregnancy-1003
- Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD). (n.d.) Retrieved 15 October 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/facts.html
- Alcohol Use and Pregnancy. (n.d.) Retrieved 15 October 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/alcohol-use.html