From caffeine to canned tuna, the list of foods moms-to-be should avoid is overwhelming. Self-proclaimed cheese lover Elizabeth Hurley, mother of a 1-year-old in Boston, was frustrated by the conflicting information she found: “I read no soft cheeses at all, then no unpasteurized cheeses, and most specifically, no unpasteurized soft cheeses made outside of the United States. So could I eat a pasteurized soft cheese made in the U.S.? Were babies in other cheese-producing countries coming out as mutants?”
Confusing information is common thanks to old internet articles surfacing alongside the new research—and trying to make sense of all that’s out there can send even the most even-keeled expectant woman over the edge. To spare your sanity, here’s an up-to-date guide to help you—and your baby—stay healthy.
The danger in eating a package of Oscar Mayer’s finest lies in listeria—a toxic bacteria that can fester in cold turkey, bologna, etc. If it infects the placenta, the fetus is at risk for stillbirth or a miscarriage —and babies who do survive are at risk for premature birth. This doesn’t mean you have to forgo roast beef, but before you take a bite, either grill your sandwich or microwave the meat for 30 seconds until it’s steaming hot to kill listeria and make it safe for consumption.
As a general rule, cooked is in, raw is out—with the exception of both oysters and lobsters, which can have high levels of mercury and should generally be avoided throughout one’s pregnancy. The American Pregnancy Association advises women to steer clear of uncooked shellfish to prevent one of many food-borne illnesses and bacteria that can hurt both mom and baby. But hard-core pescetarians should take note: cooked shrimp, scallops, crabs, clams, and yes, even mussels are OK. Just be wary of red tide warnings in your area as algae-related infections aren’t killed through boiling.
Generally a good source of fiber and omega 3s, as well as protein, iron, calcium, folate, and zinc, soy at first appears a pregnant woman’s superfood. But some members of the medical field claim that phytic acid blocks the fetus’ absorption of the same iron and zinc it provides—both of which are important to your baby’s growth. According to Julie Redfern, RD, manager of nutrition consult services at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, however, it’s not that simple. “Soymilk and tofu, as well as all whole soy milk products in general, are fine, but concentrated soy in large amounts, such as soy protein powder, should be avoided. Women should instead use whey protein powder in their shakes and smoothies.”
The risk here comes from mercury, which can affect a baby’s hearing and vision and cause brain damage. Though it’s a particularly tricky food with confusing limits, one serving of solid white per week is fine, according to the FDA. To further minimize risk, Redfern advises pregnant women to have one 6-ounce can of chunk light tuna, which has the least amount of mercury, per week. Although tuna takes a lot of the mercury rap, be mindful of other fish that are high in the metal—like swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish—which the EPA recommends pregnant women not eat at all.
Does the success of your day depend on a morning java jolt? If your answer is yes, don’t fret. The March of Dimes says one 12-ounce cup of coffee per day is fine; Redfern directs women to drink no more than one 10-ounce cup per day. “After that, all tea or coffee should be decaf—and remember,” she warns, “black tea still has one-third the caffeine of coffee.” Green tea also includes caffeine although the amount will vary by maker.
Peanuts are a good source of protein and folate, which when eaten early on during a pregnancy helps prevent birth defects of the spine and brain. If you’re part of the 1 percent of the population that is allergic to peanuts, don’t eat ’em. But if you’re avoiding the nutty spread because you’re worried your child will be allergic, change your thinking. In 2008, the American Academy of Pediatrics withdrew its recommendation that women with a history of peanut allergies in their family avoid peanuts due to a lack of evidence to support their original claim. In fact, data gathered during a survey of 62,000 women in Denmark by the Harvard School of Public Health showed that eating tree nuts while pregnant may lower a child’s risk of asthma by a whopping 25 percent.
Oh, omelets, what a nutritional punch you pack! Eggs are a good source of choline, which helps a baby’s brain develop and protects against neural tube defects. One egg contains about 113 milligrams, and pregnant women should aim for about 450 milligrams per day. Explains Redfern, “A lot of woman are turned off by meat early on in their pregnancy, making eggs a great alternative protein. Women with high cholesterol should limit themselves to three whole eggs a week and after that, egg whites.” Like seafood, it’s safest to avoid undercooked or raw dishes, which can contain salmonella. Remember, raw eggs may be included in other items like homemade ice cream, mayonnaise, hollandaise sauce, and some Caesar dressings.
The holy grail for dairy lovers, the key words to keep in mind when salivating over a slice of cheddar are “soft,” and “unpasteurized.” Both are a no-no. (With the latter, the same goes for milk by the way). Like deli meats, soft, unpasteurized cheeses can carry listeria so to be safe stay away from Camembert, brie, feta, gorgonzola, Roquefort, and any Mexican cheeses that include queso fresco or queso blanco—unless they clearly state they were made with pasteurized milk or unless you’re planning to boil them (e.g., feta cheese on pizza). That said, Redfern reminds women, “Cheese is a good source of protein and calcium, and it’s a healthy addition to your diet.”