During pregnancy, a few things will stress you out, but eating should not be one of them. Unfortunately, much of the advice you receive from friends and family focuses on what is and is not safe to eat during pregnancy. This well meaning advice is often based on popular old wives’ tales and is enough to confuse anyone. This article is designed to dispel the rumours and provide some clarity on the issue, highlighting the foods to avoid in pregnancy, and those that are safe to enjoy in pregnancy.
Foods to avoid in pregnancy
Blue-veined cheese and soft cheeses
During your pregnancy, it is important to avoid eating soft blue-veined cheese and soft cheeses with a white rind. This is because they may contain harmful bacteria, such as Listeria, which can cause listeriosis. Listeriosis is a very rare condition, but even a mild form of the disease is dangerous to pregnant women, as it can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, or even severe illness in your newborn baby, read more here. However they are safe to eat when cooked.
(Read more about Listeriosis here.)
As with blue-veined cheese and soft cheeses, all types of pate – even vegetable pate – are a potential source of Listeria, which can cause listeriosis and should, therefore, be avoided at all costs in pregnancy.
Cold cured meats, such as salami
As these meats are ‘cured’ rather than ‘cooked’, women could develop toxoplasmosis if they are eaten during pregnancy. Although very rare, toxoplasmosis can cause pregnant women to have a miscarriage or stillbirth, or even cause serious complications with the baby’s development (congenital toxoplasmosis). Freezing the cured meat for a minimum of four days before you eat it can reduce the risk of toxoplasmosis. Cooked packaged meats such as ham or corned beef are safe to eat.
(Read more about Toxoplasmosis here)
Raw or undercooked meat
Undercooked meat is also a potential source of the parasite Toxoplasma Gondi, which can cause toxoplasmosis. All meat should be cooked thoroughly so there is no trace of blood when it is cut.
Liver is a very rich source of vitamin A (retinol), which can have adverse effects on your baby’s growth if consumed in large amounts.
Pregnant women are advised to avoid the following types of fish during pregnancy, as they all contain high levels of mercury, which can negatively affect your baby’s nervous system development:
- Raw shellfish
Raw or undercooked fish
Contrary to public opinion, it is actually safe to eat sushi dishes, as long you know that the fish has been frozen first. Freezing the fish ensures that any unwanted bacteria has been killed and will not harm you or your baby. It is important to always ask your waiter or check the label if you are purchasing it from a supermarket. If you are unsure, however, it is always best to leave it.
Soya contains a group of plant chemicals called phytoestrogens, which, according to some theories, may affect the fertility and sexual health of your baby if consumed in large amounts during pregnancy.
Unpasteurised milk (cow, goat or sheep’s milk)
Milk that you can buy in the UK supermarkets will be pasteurised, so you do not need to worry. However, it is not safe for pregnant women to drink unpasteurised milk, unless it is boiled first.
Large amounts of vitamin A (retinol) in pregnancy can harm your baby. Therefore, high-dose multivitamin supplements, fish liver oil, or any supplements containing vitamin A should be avoided in pregnancy.
Foods to restrict in pregnancy
There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that relatively small amounts of alcohol can increase your risk of miscarriage during pregnancy. Indeed, The Department of Health recommends that you do not drink any alcohol for the first trimester of your pregnancy.
You are advised to avoid alcohol for the whole of your pregnancy. However, if you do choose to drink, there is no evidence to suggest that 1-2 units per week will do your baby any harm.
What does 1 unit of alcohol look like?
- 76 ml of standard 13% wine (a small glass is 125 ml)
- 250 ml of standard 4.5% beer (half a pint is 284 ml and a pint is 568 ml)
- 250 ml of standard 4% alcopop (a standard sized bottle is 275 ml)
- 25 ml of standard 40% spirits (this is a single shot of spirits)
- 218 ml of standard 4.5% cider (half a pint is 284 ml and a pint is 568 ml)
(Source: Drink Aware)
It is considered safe to consume a maximum of 200 mg of caffeine daily. However, high levels of caffeine in your diet during pregnancy can put you at a greater risk of miscarriage. In addition to this, it can also lead to your newborn baby being underweight, which can increase the risk of health problems as they grow up.
What does 200 mg look like?
- Mug of instant coffee: 100 mg (2 mugs)
- Mug of filter coffee: 140 mg (1 mug)
- Can of cola: 40 mg (5 cans)
- Can of energy drink: 80 mg (2 cans)
- Mug of tea: 75 mg (2 mugs)
- 50 g bar of dark chocolate (most UK brands): 25 mg or less (4 chocolate bars)
- 50 g bar of milk chocolate (most UK brands): 10 mg or less (20 chocolate bars – not that we advise you to eat this many as that much sugar brings its own problems!)
Remember, caffeine can also be found in cold and flu remedies. Check with your GP which over-the-counter medicines are safe to take.
Alongside the adverse effects caused by caffeine, the tannins found in most caffeinated drinks inhibit the absorption of important minerals such as calcium, zinc and iron. It is, therefore, a good idea to replace all or most of your caffeinated drinks with caffeine free alternatives, for example decaf tea or coffee, red-bush (rooibos) tea, herbal teas (see more about herbal teas below), or fresh vegetable juices.
Fish to restrict
During pregnancy, it is important to limit the amount of tuna you eat, since it contains more mercury than other fish. If you do not restrict your intake, this could affect the development of your baby’s nervous system. In addition to this, oily fish may contain more pollutants, such as dioxins and polychlorinated diphenyl (PCB).
- No more than two fresh tuna steaks per week (140 g cooked or 170 g raw)
- Maximum of four tins of tuna per week (140 g per tin)
- No more than two portions of oily fish per week (salmon, trout, mackerel, herring, sardines, pilchards and fresh tuna – tinned tuna doesn’t count as an oily fish)
- No more than two portions a week of dogfish, crab, halibut, sea bass, sea bream, turbot
Herbal and green teas
The Food Standards Agency recommends that women should not drink no more than four cups of herbal or green tea a day during pregnancy.
Recent evidence has revealed that rice and rice products have been shown to contain high levels of inorganic arsenic, which is able to pass through the placenta and could cause neurological and kidney damage in babies. There is currently no UK guideline on how much rice is safe to eat, but it is a good idea to replace some of your rice intake with other grains, such as quinoa, millet, barley, rye, or oats.
Read your food labels!
Each of these artificial food additives are associated with DNA damage and linked to birth abnormalities when consumed in high amounts:
- Sodium benzoate (E211)
- Sulphur dioxide (E220)
- Quinoline yellow and sunset yellow (E104)
- Saccharine (E954)
It is also important to look out for Aspartame (E951), which is a very common artificial sweetener, particularly in diet drinks. Aspartame is associated with birth defects and and could damage an unborn baby’s brain if consumed in large amounts.
Foods to enjoy in pregnancy
Hard cheese, and soft cheese made from pasteurised milk
All hard cheeses can be eaten during pregnancy. This includes those made with unpasteurised milk, including blue cheeses, such as Stilton. Soft cheeses, made with pasteurised milk, are also safe to eat during pregnancy. They include:
- Cottage cheese
- Cream cheese
- Goat’s cheese
- Processed cheeses, such as cheese spread
The following fish cooked thoroughly are safe for pregnant women to eat.
- Smoked salmon
- Hake Plaice
Peanuts and food containing peanuts are safe to eat when you are pregnant and breastfeeding. New evidence suggests that eating nuts during pregnancy can reduce the chance of nut allergies in your child. Do not, of course, eat nuts if you are allergic to them!
Home made yogurt is safe if its made with pasteurised milk.
The guidelines on raw, undercooked and soft-boiled eggs have recently changed. Tighter hygiene standards within UK hen farms mean that British ‘Red Lion’ has approved eggs are now free from salmonella – a potentially deadly bacteria which has been previously associated with eating raw eggs. As a result, pregnant women are now safe to eat eggs with runny yolks, and any food that is uncooked or only lightly cooked and contain raw eggs.
However, non-hen eggs, such as duck and quail eggs, and hen eggs from outside the UK should always be cooked thoroughly.