One of the first things people learn when they’re pregnant is what they can’t eat. It can be a real bummer if you like sushi, coffee, or steak.
Thankfully, there’s more you can eat than what you can’t. You just have to learn how to navigate the waters (the low mercury waters, that is). You’ll want to pay close attention to what you eat and drink to stay healthy.
Certain foods should only be consumed rarely, while others should be avoided completely. Here are 11 foods and beverages to avoid or minimize while pregnant.
Quick tips for foods to avoid when pregnant
- Avoid high-mercury fish including shark, swordfish, tuna, and marlin.
- Raw fish and shellfish can be contaminated with bacteria and parasites. Some of these can cause adverse health effects and harm both you and your baby.
- Raw or undercooked meat may contain harmful bacteria. As a general rule, meat should be cooked all the way through.
- Raw eggs may be contaminated with Salmonella and may put you and your baby at risk. Be sure to thoroughly cook eggs before eating.
- Organ meat is a great source of iron, vitamin B12, vitamin A, and copper. To prevent consuming too much vitamin A limit your intake of organ meat to a few ounces once a week.
- Limit caffeine intake to under 200 mg per day, which is about 2 to 3 cups of coffee. High caffeine intake during pregnancy may limit a baby’s growth and cause low birth weight.
- Raw sprouts may be contaminated with bacteria. Only eat them thoroughly cooked.
- Fruits and vegetables may be contaminated with harmful bacteria, including Toxoplasma. It’s important to thoroughly wash all fruits and vegetables with plenty of clean water.
- Don’t consume unpasteurized milk, cheese, or fruit juice, as these foods increase the risk of bacterial infections.
- Avoid all alcohol. Drinking alcohol can increase the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, and fetal alcohol syndrome.
- Eating processed foods during pregnancy can increase your risk of excess weight gain, gestational diabetes, and complications. This can have long-term health implications for you and your child.
1. High mercury fish
Mercury is a highly toxic element. It has no known safe level of exposure and is most commonly found in polluted water.
In higher amounts, it can be toxic to your nervous system, immune system, and kidneys. It may also cause serious developmental problems in children, with adverse effects even in lower amounts.
Since it’s found in polluted seas, large marine fish can accumulate high amounts of mercury. Therefore, it’s best to avoid high mercury fish while pregnant and breastfeeding.
High-mercury fish you want to avoid include:
- king mackerel
- tuna (especially bigeye tuna)
- tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico
- orange roughy
However, it’s important to note that not all fish are high in mercury — just certain types.
Consuming low mercury fish during pregnancy is very healthy, and these fish can be eaten up to three times per week, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Low mercury fish are plentiful and include:
- trout (freshwater)
Fatty fish like salmon and anchovies are especially good options, as they are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for your baby.
2. Undercooked or raw fish
This one will be tough for you sushi fans, but it’s an important one. Raw fish, especially shellfish, can cause several infections. These can be viral, bacterial, or parasitic infections, such as norovirus, Vibrio, Salmonella, and Listeria.
Some of these infections may only affect you, causing dehydration and weakness. Other infections may be passed on to your baby with serious, or even fatal, consequences.
Suggested read: Can you eat tuna while pregnant?
Pregnant women are especially susceptible to listeria infections. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), pregnant women are up to 10 times more likely to get infected by Listeria than the general population. Pregnant Hispanic women are 24 times more at risk.
This bacteria can be found in soil and contaminated water or plants. Raw fish can become infected during processing, including smoking or drying.
Listeria bacteria can be passed to your baby through the placenta, even if you’re not showing any signs of illness. This can lead to premature delivery, miscarriage, stillbirth, and other serious health problems, according to the CDC.
It’s advised to avoid raw fish and shellfish, including many sushi dishes. But don’t worry, you’ll enjoy it that much more after the baby is born and it’s safer to eat again.
3. Undercooked, raw, and processed meat
Some of the same issues with raw fish affect undercooked meat, too. Eating undercooked or raw meat increases your risk of infection from several bacteria or parasites, including Toxoplasma, E. coli, Listeria, and Salmonella.
Bacteria may threaten the health of your little one, possibly leading to stillbirth or severe neurological illnesses, including intellectual disability, blindness, and epilepsy.
While most bacteria are found on the surface of whole pieces of meat, other bacteria may linger inside the muscle fibers.
Some whole cuts of meat — such as tenderloins, sirloins, or ribeye from beef, lamb, and veal — may be safe to consume when not cooked all the way through. However, this only applies when the piece of meat is whole or uncut, and completely cooked on the outside.
Cut meat, including meat patties, burgers, minced meat, pork, and poultry, should never be consumed raw or undercooked. So keep those burgers on the grill well done for now.
Suggested read: 5 foods to limit or avoid while breastfeeding
Hot dogs, lunch meat, and deli meat are also of concern, which is sometimes surprising to pregnant people. These types of meat may become infected with various bacteria during processing or storage.
Pregnant women should not consume processed meat products unless they’ve been reheated until steaming hot.
4. Raw eggs
Raw eggs can be contaminated with the Salmonella bacteria.
Symptoms of salmonella infections include fever, nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhea.
However, in rare cases, the infection may cause cramps in the uterus, leading to premature birth or stillbirth.
Foods that commonly contain raw eggs include:
- lightly scrambled eggs
- poached eggs
- hollandaise sauce
- homemade mayonnaise
- some homemade salad dressings
- homemade ice cream
- homemade cake icings
Most commercial products that contain raw eggs are made with pasteurized eggs and are safe to consume. However, you should always read the label to make sure.
To be on the safe side, make sure to always cook eggs thoroughly or use pasteurized eggs. Save those super runny yolks and homemade mayo until after baby makes their debut.
5. Organ meat
Organ meat is a great source of a variety of nutrients.
These include iron, vitamin B12, vitamin A, zinc, selenium, and copper — all of which are good for you and your baby. However, eating too much animal-based vitamin A (preformed vitamin A) is not recommended during pregnancy.
Consuming too much preformed vitamin A, especially in the first trimester of pregnancy, can lead to congenital malformations and miscarriage.
Although this is mostly associated with vitamin A supplements, it’s best to keep your consumption of organ meats like liver to just a few ounces once per week.
You may be one of the millions of folks who love their daily cups of coffee, tea, soft drinks, or cocoa. You’re not alone when it comes to our love of caffeine.
Pregnant people are generally advised to limit their caffeine intake to less than 200 milligrams (mg) per day, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
Caffeine is absorbed very quickly and passes easily into the placenta. Because babies and their placentas don’t have the main enzyme needed to metabolize caffeine, high levels can build up.
High caffeine intake during pregnancy has been shown to restrict fetal growth and increase the risk of low birth weight at delivery.
Suggested read: Supplements during pregnancy: What’s safe and what’s not
Low birth weight — defined as less than 5 lbs., 8 oz. (or 2.5 kg) — is associated with an increased risk of infant death and a higher risk of chronic diseases in adulthood.
So keep an eye on your daily cup of joe or soda to make sure the baby doesn’t have exposure to too much caffeine.
7. Raw sprouts
Your healthy salad choice may not be free from rogue ingredients, either. Raw sprouts, including alfalfa, clover, radish, and mung bean sprouts, may be contaminated with Salmonella.
The humid environment required by seeds to start sprouting is ideal for these kinds of bacteria, and they’re almost impossible to wash off.
For this reason, you’re advised to avoid raw sprouts altogether. However, sprouts are safe to consume after they have been cooked, according to the FDA.
8. Unwashed produce
The surface of unwashed or unpeeled fruits and vegetables may be contaminated with several bacteria and parasites.
These include Toxoplasma, E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria, which can be acquired from the soil or through handling.
Contamination can occur at any time during production, harvest, processing, storage, transportation, or retail. One dangerous parasite that may linger on fruits and vegetables is called Toxoplasma.
The majority of people who get toxoplasmosis have no symptoms, while others may feel like they have the flu for a month or more.
Most infants who are infected with the Toxoplasma bacteria while still in the womb have no symptoms at birth. However, symptoms such as blindness or intellectual disabilities may develop later in life.
What’s more, a small percentage of infected newborns have serious eye or brain damage at birth.
While you’re pregnant, it’s very important to minimize the risk of infection by thoroughly washing with water, peeling, or cooking fruits and vegetables. Keep it up as a good habit after the baby arrives, too.
9. Unpasteurized milk, cheese, and fruit juice
Raw milk, unpasteurized cheese, and soft-ripened cheeses can contain an array of harmful bacteria, including Listeria, Salmonella, E. coli, and Campylobacter.
The same goes for unpasteurized juice, which is also prone to bacterial contamination. These infections can all have life-threatening consequences for an unborn baby.
The bacteria can be naturally occurring or caused by contamination during collection or storage. Pasteurization is the most effective way to kill any harmful bacteria, without changing the nutritional value of the products.
To minimize the risk of infections, eat only pasteurized milk, cheese, and fruit juice.
It’s advised to completely avoid drinking alcohol when pregnant, as it increases the risk of miscarriage and stillbirth. Even a small amount can negatively impact your baby’s brain development.
Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can also cause fetal alcohol syndrome, which involves facial deformities, heart defects, and intellectual disability.
Since no level of alcohol has been proven to be safe during pregnancy, it’s recommended to avoid it altogether.
11. Processed junk foods
There’s no better time than pregnancy to start eating nutrient-dense foods to help both you and your growing little one. You’ll need increased amounts of many essential nutrients, including protein, folate, choline, and iron.
It’s also a myth that you’re “eating for two.” You can eat as you normally do during the first semester, then increase by about 350 calories per day in your second trimester, and about 450 calories per day in your third trimester.
An optimal pregnancy eating plan should mainly consist of whole foods, with plenty of nutrients to fulfill your and your baby’s needs. Processed junk food is generally low in nutrients and high in calories, sugar, and added fats.
While some weight gain is necessary during pregnancy, excess weight gain has been linked to many complications and diseases. These include an increased risk of gestational diabetes, as well as pregnancy or birth complications.
Suggested read: What is cross-contamination? And how to avoid it
Stick to meals and snacks that focus on protein, vegetables and fruits, healthy fats, and fiber-rich carbohydrates like whole grains, beans, and starchy vegetables. Don’t worry, there are lots of ways to sneak veggies into your meals without sacrificing taste.
When you’re pregnant, it’s essential to avoid foods and beverages that may put you and your baby at risk.
Although most foods and beverages are perfectly safe to enjoy, some, like raw fish, unpasteurized dairy, alcohol, and high mercury fish, should be avoided.
Plus, some foods and beverages like coffee and foods high in added sugar, should be limited to promote a healthy pregnancy.