foods not to eat in pregnancy

12 Foods to Avoid During Pregnancy

Dr. Jolene BrightenPublished: Last Reviewed: Food, Pregnancy Leave a Comment

Until you’ve actually been pregnant, you may not be aware that there are specific foods to avoid during pregnancy or at least minimize. It can feel a bit overwhelming, especially as the first trimester nausea hits and you’re left with the question, “just what the heck can I eat?” I want to assure you that there are far more foods you can eat then you’ll find in the avoid list.

Finding what foods to avoid shouldn’t be an overwhelming task. This list is a great starting point when trying to decide which foods to bid a temporary farewell.

12 Foods to Avoid During Pregnancy (Or at least use caution with)

Medical experts agree that the following foods should be either avoided entirely, limited, or use caution when consuming. 

  1. Fish high in mercury
  2. Unpasteurized juice and fresh-pressed juice
  3. Unpasteurized, soft cheese 
  4. Unwashed produce 
  5. Sprouts 
  6. Alcohol
  7. Sushi or raw shellfish 
  8. Undercooked meat
  9. Raw eggs
  10. Processed meat
  11. Raw milk 
  12. Caffeine 

1. Fish High in Mercury

While seafood is a great source of Omega-3 fatty acids, many types of fish are high in mercury. Mercury is toxic to everyone, but a developing fetus is especially vulnerable to mercury exposure. While there is no safe level of mercury to consume, high amounts can lead to organ damage and is significantly toxic to the nervous system. Even small amounts can be harmful to your baby.   

During pregnancy, it is recommended that women avoid food sources that are known to contain higher amounts of mercury like tuna and swordfish. In general, large apex predators (animals at the top of the food chain) in the ocean are higher in mercury than smaller fish like anchovies. Cod, salmon, and haddock are other fish considered to be lower in mercury. 

Fish High in Mercury:

  • Tilefish in Mexico
  • Tuna
  • Swordfish
  • Shark
  • Marlin
  • Orange roughy

You can use the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch Database to help you make the best choice when it comes to seafood.

2. Unpasteurized Juice and Fresh-pressed Juice

Pasteurization removes harmful bacteria from juices, such as E. coli. Women in their second or third trimester who contract a severe E. coli infection are at risk for premature rupture of the amniotic sac, low birth weight, or stillbirth. 

Additionally, it’s safer to avoid fresh-pressed juice from restaurants or juice bars because of the machinery. Squeezing your own juice at home is a safer option. At juice bars, etc., there is no way for you to know whether their equipment is thoroughly cleaned, and how often. Bacteria can thrive on equipment not completely sanitized, and it could then enter your cup of juice. 

3. Unpasteurized Cheeses

Unpasteurized cheeses (usually soft cheeses) may harbor Listeria, which can cause serious food poisoning (vomiting and diarrhea). Pregnant women are ten times more susceptible to listeriosis, which can lead to miscarriage and stillbirth.  

During pregnancy, safe cheeses include pasteurized cheeses like hard cheeses such as cheddar, parmesan, romano, and gouda. Avoid brie, paneer, queso blanco, queso fresco, feta, and other soft cheeses, unless the package label explicitly says that the cheese has been pasteurized. 

4. Unwashed Produce 

If you’ve been following me for a while, you know I am all about eating fresh fruits and vegetables. These nutrient-dense foods are an essential part of any diet. However, they may also carry potentially harmful bacteria (remember the recent E.coli outbreak that was linked to romaine lettuce?).

These bacteria can all cause food poisoning of varying severity, but pregnant women are particularly vulnerable. But, leafy greens are just too nutrient dense to skip altogether. This is why it’s advised to thoroughly wash, peel, and cook your produce to remove microorganisms that can be potentially harmful.

Contracting Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite, is one of the more potentially dangerous consequences of not thoroughly washing fruit and raw veggies. This parasite can cause toxoplasmosis, which can harm you and your unborn baby. 

While some symptoms of toxoplasmosis are noticeable (such as fever and swollen glands), many people are asymptomatic.  

Listeria, Salmonella, and Cyclospora have also been found on raw, leafy greens, whether they have been washed or not, so in some cases it is best to cook your greens. 

5. Raw Sprouts 

Pre-pregnancy these super foods may have made a regular debut on your salads, but sadly, due to the way they are grown, eating raw sprouts is not advised while pregnant. The humid environment needed to grow sprouts sets up a perfect scenario for Salmonella to grow. This is a bacteria that is well known in causing food borne illness.

The good news is you can enjoy cooked sprouts in your favorite dishes. Just skip the raw ones. 

6. Alcohol

I generally recommend that women consume alcohol only in moderation because of how alcohol can affect hormones, periods, and PMS.  

During pregnancy, women are advised not to drink any alcohol for the duration of gestation. 

Fetuses are not able to process alcohol in the same way adults are. In fact, the liver is one of the last organs to develop. Consuming alcohol in the first trimester increases your risk of miscarriage, early birth, and low birth weight.  

Drinking in the second and third trimesters could affect your child’s behavior and learning ability. 

Additionally, it’s best to avoid alcohol when breastfeedingl However, the CDC states that having one standard drink per day, and waiting a minimum of two to three hours before nursing, has not been shown to be detrimental to infants. Excessive consumption of alcohol while breastfeeding can cause problems with infant growth and development, as well as disruptions in sleep patterns. 

7. Sushi 

Raw and undercooked seafood can carry bacteria that can lead to food poisoning, parasites, and viruses. During pregnancy, it is safest to consume completely cooked, low-mercury seafood. 

Similar to raw seafood, raw shellfish — like oysters — should not be consumed during pregnancy. Once thoroughly and completely cooked, shellfish is safe to enjoy. 

8. Undercooked Meat

I know, I know, that medium-rare steak is calling out to you. But it’s best to stick with well-done meats until you have your baby. We all know that chicken should be thoroughly cooked to avoid exposure to Salmonella. But most of us eat our beef, lamb, and other meat slightly to very undercooked. Undercooked meat, like unwashed fruit and vegetables, can harbor harmful bacteria and parasites. 

While it is commonly thought that infectious organisms are only on the outside of meat, there are many that can be found within the muscle fibers. Using a temperature thermometer is a good way to ensure your meat has been cooked well enough. 

As tempting as it may be to let this one slide, please understand that these infectious agents can result in stillbirth, neurological issues like epilepsy, blindness, and developmental issues for baby. 

9. Raw Eggs

Avoid raw and runny eggs during pregnancy for the same reason you always avoid undercooked chicken: Salmonella. Certain sauces and dressings like homemade aioli and some Caesar dressings contain raw eggs. Raw cookie dough also contains raw eggs. 

It is best to take your eggs hard boiled, scrambled,, and ensure that recipes containing eggs are cooked through. 

10. Processed Meat 

Deli meats make great protein snacks, but during pregnancy they can also be a source of organisms that can harm you and baby. Processed meats can become contaminated during their creation and packaging. Because of this, it is recommend to heat your hot dogs thoroughly and cook your deli or lunch meat before consuming. 

11. Raw milk

Raw milk has become more popular in recent years because some consumers believe that pasteurization kills the milk’s beneficial components. There is not yet enough evidence to show whether raw milk contains beneficial bacteria (versus pasteurized milk), or whether it helps the gut. 

We do know for certain that raw milks can contain various harmful bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria. During pregnancy, it is just safer to not take the risk. If you do drink cow’s milk or milk from other animals, opt for the pasteurized kind. 

12. Caffeine 

Oh coffee. Seems to be there is always a debate about what is best for coffee and caffeine intake, especially in women’s health. Simply, no, it is not universally bad, but for you, it may not be the best option. For many years, the official recommendation was that women should eliminate caffeine completely during pregnancy. Recently, however, that has changed. 

The reason for this change is that it doesn’t appear to be a major contributor to miscarriage or preterm birth as once thought. However, it is important to note that there is not enough data available to say whether high caffeine consumption is associated with an increased risk of miscarriage, which is why it ‘s best to keep the caffeine in moderation.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) now advised to reduce caffeine intake to 200 mg per day. This equates to roughly two 8oz cups of coffee (not the grande at Starbucks). Keep in mind, though, that many types of tea and energy drinks also contain caffeine. This should be taken into account when calculating how much caffeine you’ve consumed in a day. 

It’s also important for you to know that caffeine can cross the placenta and that based on your individual risk factors, your doctor may still advise that you skip that daily cup of coffee.

Remember, caffeine is also found in tea, soda, energy drinks and other beverages.

Avoiding Foods in Pregnancy and Still Enjoying Eating

When you’re pregnant, avoiding these foods is important for your health and the health of your baby.

Remember, most foods and beverages are safe to enjoy during pregnancy. As you read through this list I hope you also took note of the modifications you can make, like cooking and choosing pasteurized products, to help you enjoy a wide variety of food.

References

March 10, 2. (2018, January 09). Mercury Guide. Retrieved December 19, 2021, from https://www.nrdc.org/stories/mercury-guide

Escherichia coli (E. coli). (2020, November 10). Retrieved December 19, 2021, from https://mothertobaby.org/fact-sheets/e-coli-pregnancy/

Listeria and Pregnancy. (n.d.). Retrieved December 19, 2021, from https://www.acog.org/womens-health/faqs/listeria-and-pregnancy

Lettuce, Other Leafy Greens, and Food Safety. (2020, October 06). Retrieved December 19, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/communication/leafy-greens.html

Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (n.d.). Toxoplasma from Food Safety for Moms to Be. Retrieved December 19, 2021, from https://www.fda.gov/food/people-risk-foodborne-illness/toxoplasma-food-safety-moms-be

Drinking Alcohol While Pregnant (n.d.). Retrieved December 19, 2021, from https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/alcohol-medicines-drugs-pregnant/

Alcohol. (2019, December 28). Retrieved December 19, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/breastfeeding-special-circumstances/vaccinations-medications-drugs/alcohol.html

Peacock, A., Hutchinson, D., Wilson, J., McCormack, C., Bruno, R., Olsson, C., Mattick, R. (2018, March 7). Adherence to the Caffeine Intake Guideline during Pregnancy and Birth Outcomes: A Prospective Cohort Study. Retrieved December 19, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5872737/

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About The Author

Dr. Jolene Brighten

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Dr. Jolene Brighten, NMD, is one of the leading experts in women’s medicine and is a pioneer in her exploration of the far-reaching impact of hormonal birth control and the little known side effects that impact health in a large way. In her best selling book, Beyond the Pill, she shares her clinical protocols aimed at supporting women struggling with symptoms of hormone imbalance, including Post-Birth Control Pill Syndrome and birth control related side effects. A trained nutritional biochemist and Naturopathic Physician, Dr. Brighten is the founder and Clinic Director at Rubus Health, an integrative women’s medicine clinic. She is a member of the MindBodyGreen Collective and has been featured in prominent media outlets such as Forbes, Cosmopolitan, ABC news, and the New York Post. Read more about me here.