Doesn’t it seem like everyone has something to say about what you should or shouldn’t eat as soon as they find out you are pregnant? One common question newly pregnant women have is about foods that they want to include in their diet but are unsure of because they have been told different things about those foods. Whether it’s for food safety reasons, cultural or just an old wives tale, there are certain guidelines that should be followed to make sure your diet is healthy and your not putting your baby at risk. We know our family members are just trying to help, but it is a good idea to find out the facts.
Let’s take a look at some of the common foods women are told to avoid when they are pregnant and see what guidelines you really should be following when it comes to these “risky” foods:
1) Spicy foods- There are probably many old wives tales out there about spicy foods and pregnancy. The good news is that if you like spicy foods, go ahead and enjoy them, as long as they are cooked well and you have practiced good food safety to avoid any other potential food risks. Of course just because you like spicy doesn’t always mean you can tolerate it, but it won’t harm your baby. If these foods cause you discomfort, you may want to avoid them for that reason.
2) Soft Cheeses- The risk here is a foodborne illness caused by the bacteria Listeria. While a healthy individual may be fine after an infection, a pregnant woman has added risks. Listeria can pass through the placenta and has been linked to miscarriages. But, this isn’t quite as black and white as it sounds. Soft cheeses, like brie, feta and camembert are on the list, but it is not impossible to find soft cheeses out there that are now pasteurized. That is the main thing. Look at the labels if you are unsure. If the product is pasteurized, then you have eliminated the risk. When in doubt, if the label doesn’t say, just pass on it. Better safe than sorry!
3) Deli Meat- Just like soft cheeses, these foods carry the risk for Listeria. This includes all deli meats, even turkey slices. However, there is a way around this “do not eat rule” if you find yourself really wanting deli meat. The meat needs to be heated up in order to eliminate the risk and kill any potential bacteria that are present. Hot sandwiches, casseroles and omelets using deli meats, as long as they are cooked hot enough, are acceptable ways to include deli meats into your diet.
4) Raw fish, eggs and milk– Again, food safety and foodborne illness is the major concern with these raw foods. For raw eggs, the biggest risk is salmonella. For raw milk (unpasteurized) the concern is listeria, the same as with those soft cheeses. Raw fish and shellfish carry the risk for different bacteria as well. While many adults will suffer from a food related illness each year without too much harm or serious consequence, in pregnancy the consequences have the potential to be much more severe. This is why women are advised against these foods. But, these foods are all ok when care is taken to minimize that risk. Pasteurized milk, cooked fish and eggs are all great foods to help you have a safe and healthy pregnancy.
5) Fish- The concern here is mercury, but some fish is healthy and should be included in a healthy diet. Moderation really plays a role here and avoiding fish known to be high in mercury content will protect your baby from injury to the brain, including the risk for developmental delays. The fish that are highest in mercury are swordfish, tilefish, shark, mackerel and certain species of tuna (like ahi). If you are looking for fish lower in mercury, try halibut, mahi mahi, snapper, monkfish or cod. Even less is found in catfish, flounder, salmon, perch and tilapia. These make great sources of lean protein and some are even a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. For more details on fish and mercury content, including the limits on consumption recommendations, visit: http://www.americanpregnancy.org/pregnancyhealth/fishmercury.htm
Just remember, these steps will help reduce the risk for harm to you or your baby, but they may not entirely remove all of the risk. Even in the most careful of situations it is still possible to encounter foodborne illness. Take precautions and practice proper food safety to make sure you are minimizing this risk and also including all of the foods you need to have a healthy diet.
By Melinda Boyd, MPH, MHR, RD