Pregnant women should take dietary precautions to safeguard the health of their unborn child. There are several foods to avoid in pregnancy and others to eat plenty of. This advice can be confusing for mums-to-be; it may not be clear as to why some foods are suddenly off limits and others are beneficial. The main reason behind most of these dietary guidelines is to minimise the risk of food poisoning in pregnancy and to increase folic acid levels.
During pregnancy, parts of a woman’s immune system are suppressed. This suppression makes both you and your baby more vulnerable to viruses, bacteria and parasites, which can cause foodborne illnesses. Even if you don’t feel sick, some bacteria—such as listeria and toxoplasma gondii—may still cause health and development problems for your baby. For this reason, official advice stipulates to avoid foods that carry a risk of harbouring these, and other, unwanted bacteria.
The NHS advises pregnant women to take folic acid supplements to prevent birth defects. But this vital nutrient can also be obtained through a healthy diet. During pregnancy, eat plenty of leafy greens—such as spinach and kale—to increase your folic acid intake.
As a general rule, it is vital to wash all fruits, vegetables and salads to remove all traces of visible dirt and soil.
You can eat most types of fish when you are pregnant as fish is both good for your health and your baby’s development. There is no need to limit the amount of white fish or shellfish you eat while pregnant or breastfeeding—just don’t eat raw shellfish.
However, if pregnant or trying to conceive, you should avoid shark, marlin and swordfish. You should also limit tuna intake to no more than two tuna steaks, or four medium-sized tins of tuna, a week. This advice is due to the high mercury levels found in these types of fish.
You should also limit your oily fish intake to no more than twice a week, as it may contain pollutants like dioxins. Oily fish includes salmon, herring, trout and mackerel. In addition to this, experts recommend to not take any fish oil supplements or supplements containing vitamin A, as these may harm your baby.
All hard cheeses—such as cheddar, parmesan and stilton—are safe to eat in pregnancy. But pregnant women should avoid mould-ripened soft cheese, such as brie and camembert. You should also avoid soft, blue-veined cheese such as Roquefort and gorgonzola because they could cause a listeria infection. Even a mild form of the illness can lead to a miscarriage or stillbirth. For more information on the symptoms of listeria, visit the NHS website.
Milk & yoghurt
Stick to pasteurised or UTH milk (otherwise known as long-life milk). If only unpasteurised milk is available, boil it first. Avoid drinking goat’s or sheep’s milk, or eating foods made from them, such as soft goat’s cheese.
All types of yoghurt, including bio, live and low-fat, are safe to eat. Just ensure any homemade yoghurt is made with pasteurised milk.
Lion Code eggs—those with a lion logo stamped on their shell—carry a very low salmonella risk and are safe for pregnant women to eat partially cooked. If they are not Lion Code, ensure the eggs are cooked through to avoid disease.
Always fully cook non-hen eggs, such as duck, goose and quail eggs.
Raw or undercooked meat
Do not eat raw or undercooked meat—including meat joints and rare steaks—because of the potential risk of toxoplasmosis (a parasitic disease that can be harmful to the foetus). Cook all meat thoroughly, especially poultry, pork, sausages and mince.
Wash all utensils completely and wash and dry your hands after handling raw meat to stop the spread of germs.
According to experts, it is not safe to eat pâté—including vegetable pâté—during pregnancy as it may contain listeria. In addition to this, make sure to avoid any liver products, as they contain high levels of retinol.
The current advice is that peanuts are safe to eat while pregnant, contrary to previous government guidelines.
High levels of caffeine consumption during pregnancy can result in babies having a low birth weight, which can cause health complications later in life. You don’t need to cut out caffeine completely, but you shouldn’t have more than 200 milligrams a day (about two cups of instant coffee).
To cut down on caffeine, try decaffeinated tea and coffee, fruit juice or mineral water instead of regular tea, energy drinks, coffee and cola.
Herbal & green tea
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) advises drinking herbal and green teas in moderation during pregnancy—no more than around four cups every day. Always seek advice from your doctor if you are unsure about which herbal products are safe to consume. Experts advise avoiding the herbal remedy liquorice root, as it may cause developmental issues.