If you’re like many women — especially if this is your first pregnancy — you’ve become quite careful about what you eat. Artificial sweeteners are out, coffee is cut to just one cup a day, and only organic produce will do. Yet you may be surprised to learn that there are even better ways to ensure that you and your unborn baby avoid food-related illnesses and problems.
During pregnancy, your immune system is somewhat suppressed, which means that a cold might last a little longer than usual, and you may be more susceptible to illnesses caused by microbes (bacteria, viruses and parasites). If you eat food that has been contaminated through improper handling or cooking, your system may have a harder time fighting back. At the least, you could experience nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. And your unborn baby may suffer unseen consequences, since he or she lacks a mature immune system and could develop a microbe-related illness before birth. Some microbes can even induce a miscarriage.
Foods also may harbor chemicals or compounds that can harm your unborn child. Although government studies repeatedly have shown that fruits and vegetables grown in the United States test well within the safety levels of pesticides, scientific research can’t guarantee absolute safety. “[Pesticides] are tested extensively for safety before being approved for use,” says Sue Snider, Ph.D., of the Cooperative Extension at the University of Delaware (a food-safety educational division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture). Until recently, pesticides have not been tested for safety in children or breastfeeding mothers. During this time in which health is so important, it pays to understand all the ways to avoid food-related illnesses and other complications. Here are some tips to follow:
It’s wise to avoid unpasteurized milk from your local dairy or health-food store, imported soft cheese like brie and Camembert, soft Mexican cheeses like queso fresco and queso blanco, and foods made from raw (unpasteurized) milk. These can harbor bacteria called Listeria monocytogenes, which can cause miscarriages or illness in newborns. Most cheese in the United States is made from pasteurized milk.
Eat only cooked seafood. Avoid uncooked foods like sushi and sashimi, which might contain parasites, bacteria and viruses. Also avoid marinated fish dishes such as ceviche; squeezing lemon juice over the fish doesn’t kill microbes.
Mercury is a natural substance, but methyl mercury is a byproduct of pollution. It can be found in large fish such as shark, swordfish and tuna. In high doses, methyl mercury may cause brain damage in fetuses. The Food and Drug Administration recommends that pregnant women limit their intake of these kinds of fish to once a month. Canned tuna is safer because it generally is made from smaller tuna with lower concentrations of methyl mercury, but limit consumption to two 6-ounce cans per week. Check with your state or local wildlife or health department to find out which species or waters in your area contain unsafe levels of heavy metals or pesticides that might harm you or your baby.