12 foods to avoid during pregnancy

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During pregnancy, it's common for the immune system to weaken, causing you to become more susceptible to infection. To help your body fight off those nasty colds, it's important to regulate what foods you consume during pregnancy. You’re also at higher risk of contracting food-borne illnesses when pregnant, so it's even more important to ensure your food is stored and prepared according to the proper safety standards. If you develop a food-borne illness, your infection might be mild, but complications to your unborn baby can be life-threatening. 

A good diet and active lifestyle will increase the likelihood of developing a healthy baby, minimise complications, and make recovery after the pregnancy quicker and easier. This means eating foods that contain folic acid, iron, and iodine, limiting your consumption of high-sugar and high-fat foods, drinking lots of water, limiting caffeine intake, and not drinking alcohol.

While there are plenty of foods you should eat more of, there are also foods you should try and avoid.

1. Raw meat

Consuming meat that is not fully cooked can increase your risk of contracting salmonella, toxoplasmosis, and listeriosis. This goes for all meat, not just chicken. Undercooked beef, pork, mince, and burgers can all increase your risk of developing a food-borne illness. 

Listeriosis is an infection with the bacteria listeria, while toxoplasmosis is an infection with the bacteria Toxoplasma gondii, commonly found in raw meat and cat feces. Even though toxoplasmosis and listeriosis are mostly harmless and symptomless in non-pregnant people, they can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, and damage to the organs of a developing baby.

Any poultry should be cooked to at least 74 °C, while beef, pork, veal, and lamb can be eaten at 63 °C as long as you leave it to rest for a few minutes after cooking. Store any leftovers in the fridge and reheat them to at least 60 °C, ensuring they don’t sit in the fridge for longer than a day. 

All meat should be cooked thoroughly until there is no residual blood or pinkness – which, unfortunately, is bad news if you like your steak rare.

2. Raw eggs

Eggs are packed full of protein, vitamins, minerals, iodine, and choline, which are all conducive to the development of a healthy baby. 

Most research indicates that it’s safe to eat runny or raw eggs when pregnant as long as the eggs are pasteurised, which are heat-treated to destroy the harmful bacteria that can cause salmonella and listeria. Even though they are completely safe to eat, the New South Wales government advises that pregnant women should stick to eating eggs that have been cooked to about 71 °C – either boiled, poached, or fried, for maximum safety. If you do decide to consume raw eggs, be aware of foods that may contain unpasteurised raw eggs (particularly store-bought aioli, mayonnaise, and chocolate mousse).

3. Alcohol

It's important to abstain from consuming alcohol as soon as you begin trying for a baby. Alcohol can cause major problems for a developing baby, especially during the first three months in the womb. It can cause your baby to develop abnormal facial features, stunted growth, nervous system issues like low birth weight, and fetal alcohol syndrome.

Even at low levels, alcohol can still affect your baby, so opt for a zero-alcohol beverage like a soft drink instead.

4. Pâté and meat spreads

Products like pâté or liver sausage can be harmful to your baby, as they contain high levels of retinol, a form of vitamin A. While vitamin A is important for your health and your baby’s growth, too much of it (especially in the form of retinol) increases the risk of miscarriage. 

If you’re taking any vitamin or mineral supplements during your pregnancy, check the package to confirm it doesn't contain the retinol form of vitamin A, and refrain from purchasing any supplements that contain liver sources (like cod oil).

Instead, look for a supplement that contains the beta-carotene form of vitamin A, for which there is no limit or harm to your baby. Some common sources of beta-carotene include orange and green vegetables and fruits like spinach, broccoli, sweet potatoes, and rockmelon. That way, you can still reap the health benefits of vitamin A without worrying about it affecting your baby. 

Meat-based pâtés, even vegetarian options, may also potentially contain the bacteria listeria, due to how they’re stored (especially if they’re stored in a deli or refrigerated section). Opt for pre-packaged cans or pouches of fish or vegetable pâté that are prepared differently from the pâté available from your local deli. They’re cooked at a higher temperature and sometimes irradiated, to keep them sterile and give them a higher shelf life. This kills any bad bacteria, making it safe to eat. This process doesn't destroy retinol though, so be sure to avoid meat and liver-based pâtés even if they’re pre-packaged.

5. Some fish

Information about consuming seafood during pregnancy can seem conflicting, especially when you’re unsure exactly what is and isn’t off the menu. 

The main concern with eating seafood when pregnant is that some fish have a higher level of mercury than others. Too much mercury can damage your baby’s developing nervous system and brain and can stunt their growth. 

The good news though, is that even though mercury occurs naturally in the environment, most fish in Australian waters have low mercury levels. This means that you have plenty of safe options, like salmon, squid, octopus, crab, lobster, snapper, tilapia, prawns, sardines, anchovies, cod, herring, catfish, and any canned salmon or tuna. Because their mercury level is higher than others, avoid large, predatory fish like barramundi, swordfish, marlin, shark, and tilefish. 

Overall, seafood like fish and shellfish can be a great source of protein, iron, omega-3, and zinc, which are all important for your baby’s growth and development (especially their eyes and brain!). 

Steer clear of raw fish like sashimi, oysters, scallops, and ceviche as they can contain parasites like anisakis worms that can make you extremely sick if you get infected. This can lead to an infection called anisakidosis, which can cause severe stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea. 

Ensure any seafood that is not shelf stable is cooked to an internal temperature of 63 °C or higher. Cook your fish until it’s flaky, mussels or pipis until their shells open (throw away any that don’t), and cook prawns and lobster until the flesh is a milky white colour. 

Unheated, cold-smoked varieties of fish like smoked salmon and trout should be heated to 73 °C to kill any listeria and bad bacteria that can cause harm to you and your baby.

6. Store-bought sushi

Sushi is a delicious, balanced meal – if you’re going to have any while you’re pregnant, unfortunately, it needs to be made at home. Many restaurants or shops display their sushi at or near room temperature, which allows listeria to thrive. If the staff do not follow Australian and New Zealand Food Safety Standards for handling food, it's easy for pregnant people to get sick. Sushi with cooked ingredients should be prepared in a different area and with different utensils than their raw counterparts to avoid cross-contamination. If you have no way to verify this, then we’d advise against eating at that sushi place you love so much.

7. Soft or semi-soft pasteurised cheeses

Unfortunately, mould-ripened soft cheese like brie or camembert and blue cheese like gorgonzola are off the menu unless they’re cooked to at least 75 °C. It makes no difference if the cheese is made from pasteurised or unpasteurised milk, as the moist conditions they are ripened in can still cause listeria to multiply. 

Ricotta, halloumi, paneer, cottage cheese, parmesan, mozzarella, Edam, and cream cheese are all safe options to eat uncooked if they’re made from pasteurised milk. Like eggs, pasteurised milk has been heat-treated to destroy bad bacteria like listeria. Hard cheeses are also more acidic than soft cheeses, so they’re less susceptible to bacterial growth.

8. Pre-cut fruit and vegetables

Listeria contamination is the main source of concern for many items on our list, and pre-packaged vegetables, fruit, and salads are no different. The concern for listeriosis comes from the cross-contamination that happens when the food is prepared. All it takes is for someone to cut some raw chicken on a board, not clean it properly, and cut your fruit, causing you and your baby to become sick. While it's not as convenient, the easiest way to avoid this is to cut your fruit and veg at home. 

9. Soft serve ice cream

Soft-serve ice cream is one of life’s purest joys. It's creamy, and sweet, and fixes most of our problems on a hot day after the beach. Unfortunately, that creamy liquid gold is off-limits for pregnant women. Soft-serves are high in moisture and stored between 0 and 5 °C – this is the ideal environment for listeria, allowing it to thrive and multiply.

However, most cases of listeria from soft serves are not because of the temperature or the ice cream’s moisture content, it’s the machines. Regular maintenance and proper cleaning of ice cream machines can prevent bad bacteria like listeria from forming, but most people can’t march on into Mcdonalds and ask when the machine was last cleaned, so they have to settle for gelato or sorbet. Any other store-bought ice cream is fine too, as it's completely frozen to kill any bad bacteria. 

10. Processed meats

Like many other foods on our list, processed meats like hotdogs, ham, salami, spam, and prosciutto present a listeria risk. Bear in mind that there’s no risk if it's cooked to 75 °C and eaten soon after. Even though the risk is small, listeriosis is a serious infection that can lead to premature labour, stillbirth, and miscarriage. 

11. Unpasteurised milk products

As we mentioned, only pasteurised or ultra-heat treated (UHT or long-life) milk is safe for pregnant women. This goes for all dairy products, like cheese and ice cream. 

12. High levels of caffeine

You don’t have to cut out caffeine completely, but keep track of how much you consume each day and try to keep it under about 200mg per day. You’d be better off having a coffee or two at home with 1 teaspoon of instant coffee at about 80mg of caffeine versus a shot of expresso at 145mg. For a low caffeine, but still hot beverage, try a cup of tea for 50mg. You also have a 375ml can of Coke at about 36mg, and a 250ml can of energy drink at 80mg, for higher caffeine options that aren’t coffee. 

Having too much coffee when you’re pregnant can increase your risk of miscarriage, stunt your baby’s growth, and lead to adverse health problems.

Final word

It can seem like the list of foods you’re not supposed to eat during pregnancy gets longer and longer as time goes on. But the main thing to remember is that there’s good reason you should steer clear of these foods and avoiding them is the best course of action for your health and the health of your baby. 

Hannah Geremia
Written by
Hannah Geremia
Hannah has had over six years of experience in researching, writing, and editing quality content. She loves gaming, dancing, and animals, and can usually be found under a weighted blanket with a cup of coffee and a book.

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