Pregnancy is one of the most vital and sensitive periods in a woman's life.
Therefore, it’s very important for pregnant women to eat a healthy diet.
Expecting mothers have to pay close attention to what they eat and make sure to avoid harmful foods and beverages.
Certain foods should only be consumed rarely, while others should be avoided completely.
Here are 11 foods and beverages to avoid or minimize during pregnancy.
Mercury is a highly toxic element. It has no known safe level of exposure and is most commonly found in polluted water (1).
In higher amounts, it can be toxic to your nervous system, immune system and kidneys. It may also cause serious developmental problems in children (2).
Since it’s found in polluted seas, large marine fish can accumulate high amounts of mercury.
High-mercury fish include:
- King mackerel
- Tuna (especially albacore tuna)
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 2 times per week. Fatty fish is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for your baby.
Summary Pregnant women should not eat high-mercury fish more than 1–2 times each month. This includes shark, swordfish, tuna and mackerel.
Pregnant women are especially susceptible to Listeria infections. In fact, pregnant women are up to 20 times more likely to get infected by Listeria than the general population (8).
This bacteria can be found in soil and contaminated water or plants. Raw fish can become infected during processing, including smoking or drying.
Listeria can be passed to an unborn baby through the placenta, even if the mother is not showing any signs of illness. This can lead to premature delivery, miscarriage, stillbirth and other serious health problems (9).
Pregnant women are therefore advised to avoid raw fish and shellfish. This includes many sushi dishes.
Summary Raw fish and shellfish can be contaminated with bacteria and parasites. Some of these can cause adverse health effects and harm both the mother and unborn baby.
Bacteria may threaten the health of your unborn baby, possibly leading to stillbirth or severe neurological illnesses, including mental retardation, blindness and epilepsy (14).
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.
Hot dogs, lunch meat and deli meat are also of concern. 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.
Summary Raw or undercooked meat may contain harmful bacteria. As a general rule, meat should be cooked all the way through.
Raw eggs can be contaminated with Salmonella.
However, in rare cases, the infection may cause cramps in the uterus, leading to premature birth or stillbirth (17).
Foods that commonly contain raw eggs include:
- Lightly scrambled eggs
- Poached eggs
- Hollandaise sauce
- Homemade mayonnaise
- Salad dressings
- Homemade ice cream
- 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.
Pregnant women should always cook eggs thoroughly or use pasteurized eggs.
Summary Raw eggs may be contaminated with Salmonella, which can lead to sickness and an increased risk of premature birth or stillbirth. Pasteurized eggs can be used instead.
Organ meat is a great source of several nutrients.
These include iron, vitamin B12, vitamin A and copper — all of which are good for an expectant mother and her child.
However, eating too much animal-based vitamin A (preformed vitamin A) is not recommended during pregnancy.
Therefore, pregnant women should not eat organ meat more than once a week.
Summary Organ meat is a great source of iron, vitamin B12, vitamin A and copper. To prevent vitamin A and copper toxicity, pregnant women are advised to limit their intake of organ meat to no more than once a week.
Pregnant women are generally advised to limit their caffeine intake to less than 200 mg per day, or about 2–3 cups of coffee.
Caffeine is absorbed very quickly and passes easily into the placenta and fetus.
High caffeine intake during pregnancy has been shown to restrict fetal growth and increase the risk of low birth weight at delivery (26).
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, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease (27, 28).
Summary Pregnant women should limit their caffeine intake to 200 mg per day, which is about 2–3 cups of coffee. High caffeine intake during pregnancy can limit fetal growth and cause low birth weight.
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, pregnant women are advised to avoid raw sprouts altogether. However, sprouts are safe to consume after they have been cooked (30).
Summary Raw sprouts may be contaminated with bacteria inside the seeds. Pregnant women should only eat cooked sprouts.
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 (29).
Bacteria can harm both the mother and her unborn baby. One very 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 Toxoplasma 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 rinsing, peeling or cooking fruits and vegetables (29).
Summary Fruits and vegetables may be contaminated with harmful bacteria, including Toxoplasma. It’s important to thoroughly rinse all fruits and vegetables.
Raw milk and unpasteurized cheese 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.
Pasteurization is the most effective way to kill any harmful bacteria, without changing the nutritional value of the products (38).
To minimize the risk of infections, pregnant women are advised to consume only pasteurized milk, cheese and fruit juice.
Summary Pregnant women should not consume unpasteurized milk, cheese or fruit juice, as these foods increase the risk of bacterial infections.
Pregnant women are advised to completely avoid drinking alcohol, as it increases the risk of miscarriage and stillbirth. Even a small amount can negatively impact your baby's brain development (39, 40, 41, 42).
Since no level of alcohol has been proven to be safe during pregnancy, it’s recommended to avoid it altogether.
Summary Pregnant women should not drink alcohol. Drinking alcohol can increase the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth and fetal alcohol syndrome.
Pregnancy is a time of rapid growth.
An optimal pregnancy diet should mainly consist of whole foods, with plenty of nutrients to fulfill the needs of the mother and growing child.
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.
Summary 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 your child.
Proper food hygiene and preparation is always recommended, especially during pregnancy.
However, this is not always easy to do, since some foods may already be contaminated when you purchase them.
For this reason, it’s best to avoid the foods on this list as much as possible. Your health and that of your unborn child should come first.
If you want to learn more about what foods you should eat during pregnancy, check out this article: 13 Foods to Eat When You're Pregnant.