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What Not to Eat During Pregnancy

The food cravings of pregnant women are the stuff of stand-up comedy. Everyone knows someone who craved a bizarre concoction during pregnancy: peanut butter and pickles for breakfast, lasagna with chocolate sauce for dinner, or tiramisu in the middle of the night.

Most cravings, while revolting to other people, are perfectly normal—and even healthy. In many ways, cravings are simply the body’s way of indicating that it needs more protein (if you crave hamburgers) or calcium (when you just have to eat a pint of ice cream in one sitting!).

While cravings usually don’t pose a health risk during pregnancy, food choices often can. Doctors agree that some foods contain chemicals or bacteria that are dangerous to both you and your baby. They can interfere with fetal development or even cause serious infection.

Here is a list of foods to avoid during your pregnancy—no matter how much you may crave them!

Shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish, and albacore tuna

Fish are low in fat and high in protein and essential Omega-3 fatty acids, which makes most fish an excellent nutritional choice during pregnancy. But the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns pregnant women to avoid fish that have high methylmercury levels. Methylmercury is a chemical byproduct of industry that finds its way into lakes and oceans—and into some of the fish we eat. Shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish, and even albacore tuna are some of the fish on the EPA watch list because they contain the highest methylmercury levels of any fish. (You can check with your local fish market for an up-to-date watch list, or visit the Federal Food and Drug Administration webpage for updates and changes.) Even women who are trying to conceive should avoid these fish, because mercury can lurk in the bloodstream for a year or more after it’s ingested.

Shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish all have lower mercury levels and are considered safer to eat, but the EPA recommends that pregnant women limit their consumption of these fish to 12 ounces (two average meals) or less per week (canned albacore, or “white” tuna, which has more mercury than light tuna, should be limited to six ounces per week).

Raw or undercooked fish or meats

Sorry, no sushi! Raw meat, chicken, and fish can be contaminated by salmonella and other disease-carrying bacteria. To a healthy adult, these bacteria can cause mild but uncomfortable symptoms such as vomiting, fever, and diarrhea. But for a pregnant woman, they can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, or premature delivery.

To avoid bacteria contamination, store all meats and fish in the refrigerator at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Cook meats until an internal thermometer reads 160 degrees Fahrenheit (145 degrees Fahrenheit for steaks, veal, roasts, and lamb). When ordering out at a restaurant, ask for your hamburger or steak well-done. (Don’t be afraid to send it back if it’s still pink inside.)

The March of Dimes recommends cooking fish until it flakes easily with a fork and skipping the raw bar (oysters, clams, and mussels) entirely until after your baby is born. When cooking eggs, break the yolks and heat them until they are firm. Also watch out for foods that contain raw eggs, such as Caesar dressing or Hollandaise sauce.

Just as important is remembering to wash your hands thoroughly after handling raw or undercooked meats. You should also scrub down all utensils and cutting boards thoroughly to avoid cross-contamination.

Deli meats

Hold off on the bologna and salami sandwiches while you’re pregnant. Babble expert Dr. Gerard M. DiLeo points out that deli meats can carry Listeria-causing bacteria, which can cause a potentially deadly infection that can cross to the placenta and sicken your baby. If you’re craving a deli sandwich, heat the meat until it is steaming before you eat it.

Soft cheeses and unpasteurized milk and juices

Today, most milk products are pasteurized—heated up to a temperature that kills bacteria—before they are shipped to your local supermarket. But some milk and juice products, as well as some soft cheeses such as brie, feta, gorgonzola, Camembert, and Roquefort, are unpasteurized. The bacteria in these foods and drinks can also cause Listeria. Read labels carefully and ask about the pasteurization status of the foods you order in restaurants. And don’t drink apple cider fresh from the presses, as it has not been pasteurized.

Unwashed fruits and vegetables, salad bars, and raw vegetable sprouts

Washing fruits and vegetables before eating them is always a good idea, but it’s especially important during pregnancy.

The March of Dimes suggests you steer clear of salad bars (and packaged spinach, lettuce, and so on), which can carry Listeria-causing bacteria. Pregnant women should forgo raw vegetable sprouts (such as alfalfa, clover, and radish) for the same reason.

Raw produce, like meat, can be host to dangerous bacteria. If you’re not planning to cook a piece of fruit or a vegetable, a good rinse with warm water and/or soap will kill off most bacteria.

Caffeine

According to a Danish study appearing in the November 2005 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology, “Pregnant women who drink eight or more cups of coffee a day may be at a higher risk of spontaneous abortion, stillbirth, or fetal deaths.” Granted, medical opinion is still mixed on the subject of caffeine, with some experts (including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists) reporting that there is no harm in drinking a very small amount (less than two cups) of coffee or other caffeinated beverages per day during pregnancy. As is the case with many things in life, moderation is key. To be on the safe side, you’re better off sticking to decaf.

Alcohol

Alcohol is one beverage to avoid altogether while you’re pregnant. Remember that every time you drink a beer or a glass of wine, your baby does, too—it passes right into the placenta. Significant prenatal exposure to alcohol can lead to a condition known as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which can impair your baby’s growth and development and can cause permanent brain damage.

Herbal teas and remedies

Herbs are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and are not usually rigorously tested like prescription and over-the-counter medications. Certain herbs (such as mugwort, pennyroyal, and goldenseal) have been associated with the onset of uterine contractions. Even drinking herbal teas is a bad idea, because doctors don’t know what effects they might have on an unborn child. For these reasons, stick to regular decaffeinated tea until after you deliver and consult your doctor before taking any herbal remedy.

Everything else in moderation

During your pregnancy, you’re eating for two—but that doesn’t mean you need double the amount of calories and fat in your diet. According to the University of Chicago Primary Care Group, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for a pregnant woman calls for just 300 extra calories per day (the equivalent of a glass of orange juice and a bagel or a grilled chicken sandwich). Excess weight gain can not only make you feel more tired and achy during your pregnancy, but studies have found that women who put on more than the recommended weight are at higher risk of being obese later in life—especially if they fail to take off the weight after childbirth.

You don’t have to deprive yourself of the foods you love during pregnancy. You can eat what you enjoy, provided that you take a few simple precautions for your health and for the health of your baby.

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