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As I was preparing to leave the hospital after the birth of my son, a nurse sat me down and solemnly told me that it was very important, while breastfeeding, to “avoid all spicy foods like Mexican or Indian.”
I imagined a sari-clad wife cradling a newborn and looking on sadly as her Mexican husband cleared their refrigerator of tikka masala, pork vindaloo, and chorizo sausage, restocking it with a twelve-month supply of Swanson’s Hungry Man Meatloaf Dinners.
That can’t be how it works. Once I stopped to examine the numerous warnings given to pregnant and nursing women for cultural bias and scientific rigor, I found out that even the experts don’t always agree, and that the further you travel from the U.S., the further you get from our own particular belief system. For instance, unlike we cautious Americans, in France, pregnant women enjoy wine, in Japan, they order sushi, and in Mexico and India, they do in fact keep right on eating spicy food.
It would be impossible for a pregnant woman to follow every last piece of advice anyway, because so many warnings contradict each other. Don’t drink during pregnancy, unless you’re having Braxton-Hicks contractions – then your midwife might tell you to have a glass of beer or wine to relax them. Eat plenty of vegetables during your pregnancy, but don’t touch that salad – it’s raw, and might have toxoplasmosis. And don’t smoke, unless you’re having severe morning sickness – then some medical marijuana might help. And because Omega-3’s are so important to your baby’s brain, have some salmon – no wait, don’t have any, because all the fish are swimming with mercury. Getting ready to tear out your hair yet? Go ahead, as long as you don’t dye it – hair dye is poisonous, you know. And the list goes on. Trying to sort out all of the advice – both “expert” and folk – is like riding the Tilt-a-Whirl. And pregnant women aren’t supposed to do that either.
I almost burst into sobs when I first learned that sushi – one of my favorite dining pleasures – was on the forbidden list. My doctor consoled me. “Many of my patients tell me they’re avoiding sushi when they’re pregnant, but I never hear anyone say they’re cutting out fast-food hamburgers, and with those you run a comparable risk of e. coli,” says obstetrician Daphna Trites. Yet because sushi is a much more recent addition to American culture than the hamburger, it’s subject to greater suspicion. Plus, sushi is raw.
“There’s no doubt that cooked foods have a lower incidence of food-borne illness than raw foods do; fire is a great invention,” says Dr. Michael Broder, author of The Panic-Free Pregnancy. But while a case of salmonella or e. coli certainly isn’t the way you want to spend your weekend, it won’t endanger your pregnancy. “Most food-borne illness is not likely to affect the baby, and very few infections can be transferred,” Dr. Broder says.
Some of the most dire warnings American women hear are about drinking, which jibes perfectly with our country’s problematic relationship with alcohol. Yet in most European countries, pregnant women aren’t given the hard-and-fast total abstention rules that we are in the U.S. – and they never had prohibition, either. Typically, pregnant women in France, Italy, Germany, and other European countries aren’t advised to eliminate alcohol entirely, but to simply limit consumption to no more than one drink per day.
“In this case, the Europeans are probably righter than we are,” Dr. Broder says. “The research simply hasn’t proven harm from less than two drinks per day.” Yet because there’s a lack of consensus on a “safe” level of alcohol consumption, the message pregnant American women most often hear is that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption.
“American women and doctors tend to say if there’s any risk at all, then why take a risk, but that’s based on a misunderstanding of what ‘risk’ is,” says Dr. Broder. “There’s nothing that is totally without risk. For example, even lying in bed isn’t without risk. Obstetricians recommend bedrest freely, but spend too much time lying in bed, and I guarantee you that you’ll wind up with back pain. So the idea of avoiding all risk is nonsensical.”
Of course, “better safe than sorry” is the safest and therefore the most anxiety-reducing strategy for many pregnant women. Yet other women feel that all of the panicky warnings and constraints – especially those that are still the subject of uncertainty and debate – can produce anxieties of their own.
On Slate.com, pregnant cook and food writer Sara Dickerman wrote, “Food, which has always been my great delight in life, has now begun to freak me out.” One poster on BabyCenter.com groused, “So, I can’t have sushi, hot dogs (which I had a lot of when I was craving them about a month ago), wine with Thanksgiving dinner, raw cookie dough, etc., etc., etc. Is it wrong for me to be resenting this kid and all of the things being pregnant is not letting me do?”
And the New York Times, in an article titled “Nine Months of Living Anxiously,” noted that “Thanks to an ever-growing body of scientific research and an old wives’ circuit thriving on the Internet, dozens of foods and activities and procedures, whether their danger is overblown or not, are now believed by some pregnant women to be threatening to fetal health. The result is a kind of Pregnancy Paranoia.”
Although sometimes there is a scientific basis underpinning many of the warnings and wives’ tales (a recent study confirmed a link between high caffeine consumption and miscarriage risk), nowhere do our puritanical, xenophobic and fear-culture roots come out in a greater show of force than when we’re wagging a finger at the mothers of tomorrow. The ideal mother is cautious, self-sacrificing, and renounces such impure indulgences as hair color, booze, and suspiciously exotic foods. For her own good, and for the good of her child, a decent American woman will stay away from the horrors of stinky French cheeses, smelly Oriental fish and sinful Italian Chianti.
Baloney, I say. Pregnant women have enough to cope with when considering all of the changes a new baby will bring into their lives – so why add a load of biased or poorly understood misinformation to her burden? It’s reasonable to take a few precautions, not reasonable to believe everything you hear. Take the advice with a grain of salt – and maybe even a glass of Chianti.
View the Pregnancy Folklore From Around the World chart
Pregnancy Spookers: The Big Six
Step away from the soft cheese!
What? Exposure to listeria bacteria during pregnancy can lead to health problems in the newborn.
Oh, relax! The term “soft cheeses” doesn’t include things like cream cheese or cottage cheese, and Cheez-Whiz is a-o.k. too (at least listeria-wise). It’s the imported, mold-ripened, raw-milk cheeses, aged less than 60 days, that you have to watch out for, which is why they’ve been banned by the FDA. If a raw-milk cheese has been aged more than 60 days, it carries a very low listeria risk, and if it’s been pasteurized, you’re in good shape. The CDC still warns that safe-siders avoid Brie, blue-veined cheeses and queso fresco. But even these are okay if they’re served hot. Mmm, grilled brie, anyone?
F-F-F-F-Fish? Are you crazy? It’s chock full of mercury!
What? Mercury can lead to developmental delays in the fetus, and high mercury levels have been detected in some, but not all, types of fish.
Oh, relax! Avoid daily consumption of high-mercury fish like shark, tilefish, and mackerel and you avoid the risk. According to a joint release by the FDA and the EPA, fish like light canned tuna, salmon, pollock and catfish are fine, plus they’re a great source of lean protein.
Get away from that litter box! You’ll get toxoplasmosis!
What? Toxoplasmosis is a serious disease which can cause blindness and brain damage in the unborn infant, as well as stillbirth or preterm labor.
Oh, relax! If you want a handy ticket out of nine months of litter box duty, stop reading right here. But if the job is yours alone, don’t panic; a study in the July 2000 issue of the British Medical Journal found “No association between toxoplasmosis and having a cat, litter box cleaning or having a cat that hunts.” The real risk factors are eating undercooked lamb, beef or game, contact with soil, and travel outside Europe and North America. So pet your cat, cook your lamb, wear gloves in the garden, and wash your hands after you clean the litter box (like all decent people do anyway).
Don’t dye your hair, you vain babyhater!
What? Hair dyes contain suspected carcinogens.
Oh, relax! After 1980, manufacturers have reformulated their products to eliminate the most suspect ingredients, and there’s doubt as to whether any of them were actually being absorbed through the scalp to begin with. There has been never been any conclusive scientific link established between hair dye and birth defects.
What? If you eat peanuts, your baby will have an allergy to them.
Oh, relax!If you don’t have a family history of these allergies, chances are your child won’t develop one either. Besides, nuts are a good source of protein and unsaturated fats.
You’re not actually going to drink that, are you?!
What? Alcohol exposure leads to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and mental retardation.
Oh, relax! All of the children described in the original paper on FAS were born to severe, chronic alcoholics. While some researchers argue that any alcohol is bad, others (including Britain’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists) say that an infrequent glass of wine with dinner is nothing to worry about. Believe it or not, there’s even some severe, chronic alkies whose pregnancies come out fine (although being a severe, chronic alkie is never advisable). Do the research and come to your own personal decision