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What Not to Eat During Pregnancy

Updated: Mar 24, 2022

Congratulations on your pregnancy!

“Now what can I eat?” you ask.

There are a lot of things you have to be careful about, especially since the food you eat directly affects the outcome of your pregnancy. My advice is to think to yourself, “Would I feed a baby that?” If the answer is “no,” then don’t eat it while you are pregnant.

Let’s review the “Don’t” List:

Stop Smoking / Using Illicit Drugs This seems like a no-brainer, but you’ll be surprised how many babies have mothers who are smokers and drug users. If you can’t quit these activities, knowing you are pregnant, it’s time to seek professional help. You are exposing your unborn baby to toxic chemicals and restricting their intake of valuable nutrients needed for fetal development.

Say “No” to Alcohol Alcohol is rapidly absorbed in the bloodstream and can cross the placenta to affect the baby. Baby’s liver is not capable of breaking down alcohol, increasing the risk for a miscarriage, preterm labor, and fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), an alcohol spectrum disorder that can lead to growth problems, developmental delays, learning disabilities, and deformed facial features.  The research on occasional, light alcohol intake (one to two drinks per week) during pregnancy remains very limited. Though no serious side effects have been reported, it’s always good to play it safe. Alcohol  used for culinary purposes (cooking wine or sherry, shaoxing wine, or rice wine) is relatively safe at this time.

Avoid Raw / Undercooked Fish and Raw Shellfish It’s advised to avoid all raw seafood products, if possible, due to potential viruses, parasites, and bacteria that can lead to food poisoning. This includes sushi, raw oysters, and all other undercooked seafood or shellfish. There’s some controversy about eating sushi during pregnancy as most Japanese women still eat it during their pregnancy and no adverse side effects have been reported. However, eating any raw food products always poses a risk, and therefore you should be extra cautious during pregnancy.

Avoid High Mercury Fish Mercury can cause birth defects and the larger the fish (especially the predatory type), the higher mercury levels it contains. If you regularly consume fish with high mercury level, excess mercury will accumulate in your blood stream and cross over to your baby, causing damage to their brain and nervous system. Fish high in mercury include swordfish, tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, king mackerel, and shark. It’s still safe to eat other types of fish such as salmon, sardines, trout, cod, pollack, Atlantic or Pacific mackerel and catfish. Tuna should only be eaten in moderation, about three ounces per week.

Stay Away from Cold Cuts Deli meats have long been known to be contaminated with a bacteria called Listeria. Listeria has been linked to miscarriage and can cause serious blood poisoning and infection. Since Listeria can cross the placenta, it will threaten the safety of your baby. The bacteria can be killed through heat, so if you still want to eat deli meat during pregnancy, be sure to heat the meat until it’s steaming.

Say “Bye-Bye” to Soft Cheeses Soft cheeses (especially imported ones) may also contain Listeria because of unpasteurized milk. Unless it’s clearly stated the cheese is made from pasteurized milk, it’s best to avoid it altogether. This includes: Brie, feta, Gorgonzola, Camembert, Chaource, Limburger, and Paglietta.

Be Mindful About Kelp Usage Kelp is a type of seaweed that’s used in many Asian cultures for soups and stews. It is high in iron and very high in iodine. Routine consumption of kelp during pregnancy can lead to congenital hypothyroidism (a type of thyroid disease) that can contribute to cognitive delays and growth retardation. One to two tablespoons of kelp can contain as much as 1,500-2,000 micrograms (mcg) of iodine. The upper tolerable  limit set by the National Institute of Health is 1,100 mcg for adults. Nori, the most common seaweed wrap used in sushi, or seaweed sheet snacks are safer alternatives (e.g. the sheet snacks only contain about 280-300 mcg of iodine per pack).

Beware of Herbs and Dietary Supplements Herbs are widely used to make tonics and teas and found in supplement form. The safety of herbal use during pregnancy still largely unknown. American Pregnancy Association has published a list of unsafe and likely unsafe herbs for pregnancy. They include: Rosemary (in medicinal doses), saw palmetto, goldenseal, blue cohosh, black cohosh, dong quai, ephedra, and yohimbe.

Don’t go Overboard with Caffeine Caffeine has been associated with miscarriage, especially during the first trimester. So coffee and black tea drinkers take note and limit your daily intake to about 200 mg (about one cup). Also, beware of energy drinks and sodas that contain caffeine.

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