What foods are off limits while pregnant?

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Jon Johnson 
by William Morrison, MD
Fish | Alcohol | Raw shellfish | Certain meats | Raw or undercooked greens and sprouts | Raw
or undercooked eggs | Soft cheese | Caffeine Unpasteurized milk or fruit juices | Takeaway
Pregnancy causes a lot of
changes in the body, and pregnant women should consider adjusting their eating
habits to adapt to these changes. Diet is one of the most important factors
that can affect a pregnant woman’s overall health and the health of her child.
Important foods to avoid include raw shellfish and undercooked eggs.
Eating a healthful diet is
essential during pregnancy, but there are some foods that pregnant women should
avoid altogether. Many people understand the risks of eating high-mercury fish
or raw meats, but there are also other foods that many people would not expect
to cause potential issues during pregnancy.
Pregnancy affects the immune
system, which may make some women more susceptible to infection. Many foods
carry bacteria or other infectious germs that may cause problems during
pregnancy. Even in cases where the pregnant woman does not feel sick, some of
these germs may still affect the fetus.
Though many people see fish as
a good, clean source of protein and nutrients, such as fatty acids, the type of
fish a pregnant person eats is very important.
Some fish tend to be high in
mercury, which is very toxic and cause problems for both the pregnant parent
and the fetus.
According to the U.S.
Department of Health & Human Services (USDHHS), pregnant women should avoid
the following fish:

  • big eye tuna
  • marlin
  • swordfish
  • king mackerel
  • shark
  • orange roughy
  • Gulf
    of Mexico tilefish
They also recommend avoiding
all raw or undercooked fish, such as from sushi or sashimi. Uncooked fish may
contain parasites or harmful bacteria. Cook all fish to 145
However, many fish are still
safe to eat while pregnant. As the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
note, some fish contain lower levels of mercury, including:

  • anchovies
  • sardines
  • herring
  • catfish
  • flounder
  • salmon
  • canned light tuna
  • tilapia
These fish choices can help
provide helpful nutrients, and the FDA recommend eating two to three servings
of these fish each week.
Though some people may think
they can drink small amounts of alcohol during pregnancy, there is no safe
level for alcohol consumption during pregnancy.
The Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention (CDC) note that any alcohol in the woman’s blood passes to the
fetus through the umbilical cord. This may cause a range of physical or mental
developmental issues.
Most doctors will advise
pregnant women to avoid alcohol.
While pregnant, it is best to
avoid all raw seafood, especially raw shellfish. The USDHHS food safety website
notes that raw shellfish, such as oysters, crab, and clams, may be a potential
source of Vibrio bacteria, which can cause cholera and other infections. Cook
all shellfish to 145 °F.
These infections may cause
loss of water and electrolytes in the body, which can be severe and potentially
fatal. They may also cause a change in the immune system that puts the child’s
health at risk.
A study in the International
Journal of Infectious Diseases reports that there is a link between abnormal
changes in the immune system during pregnancy and other issues, such as poor
fetal growth, preterm birth, and preeclampsia.
Deli meats or other cured or
undercooked meats

Some types of meat could
harbor the potentially dangerous Listeria bacteria.
According to the CDC, Listeria
infections may be particularly dangerous for pregnant women and newborns.
Listeria can also lead to miscarriage.
To avoid contracting Listeria,
cook all meat to 165

before eating it. This includes all meats that a person would normally eat
cold, such as sliced meats from a deli.
This may be more difficult for
cured meats, such as Serrano ham, pepperoni, or pancetta, so it may be best to
avoid these meats.
or undercooked greens and sprouts
Greens and sprouts are
generally great foods to add to the diet as they contain large amounts of fiber
and nutrients. However, some greens or sprouts may contain bacteria, such as
Salmonella or E. coli, which can cause infection.
A study in the Clinical
Microbiology and Infection notes that bacterial infections of the blood, of
which E. coli infections are among the most common types, are potentially fatal
during pregnancy. It is essential to avoid E. coli while pregnant.
The CDC note that E. coli
infections are hard to pin down because they can derive from many different
An E. coli infection can cause
a variety of problems, including food poisoning, urinary tract infections, and
respiratory illness.
About 20 percent of E. coli
infections are due to contaminated foods, which may include greens and sprouts.
Avoid raw or undercooked
sprouts, such as:

  • mung beans
  • alfalfa
  • clover
  • radish
Always use fresh, new sprouts
and cook them thoroughly before eating them.
The USDHHS also warn against
eating salads made in a store deli. Be wary if the salad contains ingredients
that may carry bacteria, such as ham, chicken, or seafood.
or undercooked eggs
Eggs are a simple source of
protein and nutrients, but undercooked or raw eggs may contain Salmonella
bacteria. The CDC note that a Salmonella infection typically lasts about a
week, though it may be more serious in people with compromised immune systems
and very young children.
Pregnant women can prevent
infection by avoiding sources of raw or undercooked eggs, such as:

  • poached or fried eggs with a
    runny yolk
  • lightly scrambled eggs
  • salad dressings that contain
    egg, such as Caesar dressing
  • tiramisu
  • eggnog
  • artisan or homemade ice cream
  • cake batter
  • cookie dough
  • hollandaise sauce
  • casseroles and other products
    containing eggs
When buying eggs, choose
pasteurized eggs. The pasteurization process kills all bacteria in the egg,
reducing the risk of infection. Always check the labels of store-bought
products containing egg to check for pasteurization. Cook all eggs and products
that contain eggs to 160
Many kinds of cheese contain
helpful bacteria, but some contain harmful bacteria as well.
The USDHHS recommend that
pregnant women avoid soft cheeses made from unpasteurized milk, such as:

  • feta
  • Gorgonzola
  • Brie
  • Camembert
  • Roquefort
  • queso fresco
Soft cheese may contain
harmful bacteria, such as Listeria or E. coli. It is safer to eat hard
varieties, such as Swiss or Cheddar cheese. Pasteurized cheese is an even
better choice, so check the label to ensure the cheese is made from pasteurized
While some people can enjoy a
small amount of caffeine during pregnancy, doctors often recommend that
pregnant women avoid it completely because caffeine can pass to the fetus.
A fetus is unable to break
down caffeine, which can cause problems.
As a 2016 study in Public
Health Nutrition notes, pregnant women who consume higher levels of caffeine
may run the risk of pregnancy loss, though the research is still inconclusive.
milk or fruit juices
The USDHHS advise pregnant
women to avoid both unpasteurized milk and unpasteurized fruit juice.
Unpasteurized milk may contain
E. coli, Listeria, or Salmonella.
These bacteria can cause
severe infections in pregnant women, especially if their immune system is
already stressed. Always drink pasteurized milk and check the labels of any
milk-containing foods to confirm this.
Unpasteurized juice or cider
may be a source of E. coli. Avoid raw fruit juices or cider, including fresh
squeezed juices, such as orange or apple juice. Boil any unpasteurized juice or
cider for at least 1 minute to eliminate bacteria before letting it cool and drinking.
Though there are some
restrictions to the diet while pregnant, these restrictions help to ensure the
health of both woman and child.
As pregnancy causes many
changes in the body, doctors may recommend individual dietary options.
By working with a doctor or
nutritionist, most people can find a diet plan that helps them avoid
problematic foods during pregnancy.

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.