Foods To Avoid While Pregnant: What’s Really Off-Limits?

Of all the foods to avoid while pregnant, sushi was especially devastating for me, particularly since I’m a New Yorker. But here’s the thing: During my first pregnancy, I was surprised by how many foods were off-limits. Some were obvious to me (hello, raw seafood), others less so (no herbal tea?!). So, if you’re expecting a baby, it really is important to educate yourself about what foods may be unsafe to eat. Take a look at this list of foods to avoid during pregnancy, and make sure that your diet is on the right track!

1. Mercury (in seafood and processed foods)

“People know about mercury in fish and seafood, but they do not seem to know about mercury in high fructose corn syrup, now also known as corn sugar, which is ubiquitously present in many processed food items,” says Eden Fromberg, DO, of Holistic Gynecology New York, in New York City. To be safe, always read labels and avoid fish with high mercury levels, including shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish. Mercury can inhibit your baby’s brain growth and is toxic to the nervous system.


2. Antibiotic-contaminated meat

Certain antibiotics may alter the genetic material of the placenta and the vagina, setting up a possible lifelong risk for many diseases and conditions, including allergy and autoimmune disorders, says Dr. Fromberg. (Of course, if you’re sick and need an antibiotic your ob-gyn will know what’s safe to prescribe.) So, it’s best to buy hormone-free meat and poultry instead.

3. Raw or undercooked seafood

Fresh sushi may be fine, but there is no guarantee that it won’t contain bacteria that could be eliminated by cooking. “I tell my patients that in an urban coastal environment, at restaurants that they are familiar with, it’s probably fine to eat sushi but it’s better to avoid it, if possible,” says Dr. Fromberg.

Related: Red Raspberry Leaf Tea: Benefits During Pregnancy, Labor & Postpartum

4. Undercooked eggs, meat, and poultry

According to Meghan McMillin, MS, RD, LDN in Chicago, Illinois, pregnant women should limit any foods that could potentially be contaminated with food-borne pathogens such as listeria, which has been linked to miscarriage. This includes undercooked meats and eggs (whites, not yolks), unpasteurized cheeses, deli meat, and raw fish.

5. Unpasteurized foods

Though you may have been told anything unpasteurized will cause food-borne illnesses, there are exceptions to that rule. “Raw milk and dairy products are highly nutritious foods that will only carry contamination under certain circumstances, such as livestock disease, mass production, and poor food handling practices,” says Dr. Fromberg. So, if you know the source, it’s probably OK. Same goes for raw foods and juices. But, to be extra cautious, you may want to avoid unpasteurized foods, at least until your pregnancy is over.

6. Sugar (insane amounts of it)  

Eating sugar (including excess natural sugars like fruit juices, honey, and agave), can add pounds with no associated nutritional benefit, says Dr. Fromberg. During pregnancy, your body becomes more insulin resistant whether or not it turns into full-blown gestational diabetes. A sugar-free diet isn’t necessary, but do your best to limit the sweet stuff; for example, one cookie is fine…just not three.

7. Saccharin also known as Sweet ‘N Low

Dr. Fromberg says that saccharin is a toxic and carcinogenic artificial substance that should absolutely be avoided during pregnancy. Research suggests that saccharin crosses the placenta and may remain in your baby’s tissues.

8. Trans fats

You know, the kind of fat in junk food. “The quality of cell membranes and communication within and between cells depends on fatty acids,” says Dr. Fromberg, “Low-quality fatty acids will build low-quality cell tissue.” Instead, eat full spectrum fatty acids from natural foods such as coconut oil, olive oil, grass fed butter, avocados, low mercury fish, and nuts when possible.

9. Liver

According to Dr. Fromberg, if liver is organic it is an extremely healthy food to eat during pregnancy. However, liver is essentially a sponge, and if you can’t source it organically you’ll be consuming all the toxins the liver has soaked up. Better safe than sorry, right?

10. Caffeine (in excessive amounts)

Because of conflicting reports of the safety of caffeine during pregnancy, the March of Dimes recommends no more than one 12-ounce cup of coffee a day when you’re pregnant. Remember, foods like chocolate have caffeine, too, and that counts toward your daily allotment.

11. Herbal tea

Like I said, of all the foods to avoid during pregnancy, this one caught me off-guard. But here’s the thing: Depending on where you are in your pregnancy, some herbs may cause contractions, heart palpitations, and even miscarriage. So, talk to your doctor before taking herbs in any form–yes, even that steaming cup of tea that you sometimes enjoy at bedtime.

12. Alcohol

You should totally avoid drinking alcohol during your pregnancy, according to the latest recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Small amounts of alcohol have been demonstrated to have effects on fetal brain development, and larger quantities are associated with mental retardation and fetal alcohol syndrome,” says Dr. Fromberg. Other risks include miscarriage and stillbirth.

13. Unwashed fruits and veggies

They may contain harmful bacteria, so be sure to wash those farmer’s market finds before you dig in.

I know, it sounds like there is a lot to remember, but it is important. When it doubt, reach out to your health care provider, or stick with what you know is safe.

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