Food safety during pregnancy

Many women, especially first-time mothers, may get conflicting advice about a number of pregnancy-related issues, including what is and isn’t safe to eat. If you’re pregnant, it’s important to have a healthy diet to ensure the health of your baby.

If you’re pregnant, major food contamination risks include:

  • Toxoplasma gondii, which is a parasite found in undercooked meat, unwashed vegetables, and dirty cat litter boxes
  • Listeria monocytogenes, which is a bacterium that can contaminate ready-to-eat foods and unpasteurized dairy and can grow in your refrigerator
  • mercury, which is a heavy metal found in certain types of fish

These toxins can cause serious illnesses, and they can affect your baby’s development. You should avoid or limit consuming certain foods and beverages while you’re pregnant. Discuss your diet with your doctor and let them know about any questions, concerns, or symptoms you have.

Toxoplasmosis and how to avoid it

The T. gondii parasite causes toxoplasmosis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 60 million people in the United States have toxoplasmosis. The parasite can be present in:

  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • undercooked meat
  • cat feces

Symptoms of toxoplasmosis

Most people don’t have symptoms, but those who do may have flulike symptoms, such as:

  • swollen lymph nodes
  • muscle aches
  • a fever
  • a headache

Severe toxoplasmosis can affect your brain and eyes and may lead to reduced or blurred vision.

Toxoplasmosis can lead to premature birth. It can also cause the following in your baby:

  • blindness
  • deafness
  • intellectual disabilities
  • developmental disabilities
  • low birth weight

If you contract toxoplasmosis early on in pregnancy, your developing baby has an increased risk of effects. Children who are born with toxoplasmosis may not show symptoms at first and can develop them later in life.

Tips for prevention

Follow these tips to minimize the risk of a getting toxoplasmosis:

  • Rinse all fruits and vegetables before eating, since the parasite is often present in soil.
  • Wash all cutting boards and knives with hot water and soap after using them.
  • Clean all meats.
  • Wash your hands after touching unwashed vegetables, cat litter, soil, sand, or raw meat.
  • Thoroughly cook all meats.
  • Separate meats from other foods when you store and prepare them.
  • If you have a cat, ask someone else to change the cat litter box during your pregnancy, and wear gloves when gardening or handling soil.

It’s rare to get toxoplasmosis from cats. Most people who do contract it get it from undercooked meat and unwashed vegetables. Medications are available to treat toxoplasmosis during pregnancy.

Listeriosis and how to avoid it

The L. monocytogenes bacterium causes listeriosis. It can be present in contaminated water and soil. The cooking process often kills bacteria. However, it may still be present in some packaged, ready-to-eat foods. It may be present in:

  • processed or prepared lunch meats
  • meat spreads, such as pâté
  • hot dogs
  • cold, smoked seafood
  • soft cheeses such as Brie, Camembert, and feta
  • unpasteurized dairy products
  • uncooked meats
  • vegetables grown in contaminated soil

Symptoms of listeriosis

The symptoms of listeriosis include:

  • a fever
  • fatigue
  • body aches

These bacteria can easily pass through the placenta. It can then cause:

  • a miscarriage
  • a stillbirth
  • a premature birth
  • fatal infection in your newborn

According to the American Pregnancy Association, 22 percent of Listeria infections in pregnant women result in stillbirth or death of the unborn child.

Tips for prevention

Follow these tips to reduce your risk of listeriosis:

  • If you’re pregnant or trying to get pregnant, you should avoid foods that may carry the bacteria.
  • If you’re going to eat hot dogs and lunch meats, you should eat them when they’re steaming hot
  • If you’re going to eat soft cheeses, make sure they’re made from pasteurized milk.
  • Wash all fruits and vegetables before eating them.
  • Cook all meat thoroughly.

Your doctor can treat listeriosis with antibiotics. Talk to your doctor if you have the symptoms of listeriosis.

How to avoid the effects of mercury

Most fish contain trace amounts of mercury. It tends to build up in larger and older fish. If you’re pregnant or nursing, you should avoid eating fish that are high in mercury because mercury can damage your baby’s developing nervous system.

Fish that tend to be high in mercury are:

  • swordfish
  • shark
  • king mackerel
  • tilefish

What fish can you eat?

Many commonly eaten fish are considered to be low in mercury and these fish can be a great addition to your diet while you’re pregnant. They contain omega-3 fatty acids, which contribute to heart health and are good for your baby’s brain development. If you don’t like fish, talk to your doctor about whether you should take omega-3 supplements.

You should eat up to 12 ounces of any of the following fish each week:

  • shrimp
  • crab
  • scallops
  • canned light tuna
  • salmon
  • catfish
  • cod
  • tilapia

You should always eat fish while it’s hot. Avoid eating any preserved, smoked, or raw fish.

Other food safety tips

Avoid alcohol

Avoid all alcohol during pregnancy and while breast-feeding. Alcohol has negative effects, and no amount of alcohol is safe to drink during pregnancy. Alcohol has been shown to significantly increase the risk for:

  • fetal alcohol syndrome
  • developmental disorders
  • miscarriages

If you drink alcohol while pregnant, it can be present in breast milk. You should avoid alcohol until you’re no longer breast-feeding.

Avoid raw and undercooked foods

Any raw or undercooked food can have bacteria in it. Because of this, you should make sure that all food you eat has been cooked thoroughly. In particular, certain foods are known to carry Salmonella, such as:

  • chicken
  • shellfish
  • eggs

Pregnant women should also wash their hands after handling eggs because Salmonella is commonly present on the shells. You should also rinse eggs thoroughly before cooking.

Limit your caffeine intake

It’s safe to have moderate amounts of caffeine while you’re pregnant. However, caffeine is a stimulant and can increase you and your developing baby’s heart rate and blood pressure. According to the America Pregnancy Association, pregnant women should consume no more than 200 milligrams of caffeine per day. Caffeine is present in:

  • coffee
  • certain teas
  • certain sodas
  • chocolate


Practicing safe food handling can reduce risks for you and your developing baby. In general, practicing safe food handling by doing the following:

  • Cook meats thoroughly.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables.
  • Wash your hands after handling the foods mentioned.

These methods can eliminate potentially harmful bacteria and help prevent infection. See your doctor immediately if you have any symptoms that may be due to toxins present in your food.