Safe Eating

Pregnancy requires special food precautions. Here's what to do to keep yourself and your baby-to-be healthy.


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:

Dairy Products 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.

Fish 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.

Meat, Poultry and Eggs Cook red meat and poultry until they are done. Meat should reach about 160° F, while poultry should reach 170–180° F. Use a thermometer, because the color of the flesh isn’t necessarily an accurate indication of doneness.

Check the “sell by” date on packages of hot dogs, deli meats and meat spreads you purchase. It’s safe to buy these meats on the last date, but the product should be frozen or consumed within a few days. Listeria also has been detected in these types of foods.

Cook eggs until the whites and yolks are firm. Avoid foods that contain raw eggs such as Caesar salad, mousse, homemade ice cream and homemade mayonnaise. If your favorite recipe calls for eggs that remain uncooked, use a liquid egg substitute instead.

Fruits and Vegetables Wash produce well to remove dirt, microorganisms and any surface pesticides. “Either hold the fruit or vegetable under running water or dip it into and then out of a bowl of water,” Snider suggests. Do not use soap unless it is made specifically for cleaning food.

Peel fruits and vegetables to get rid of surface pesticides or dirt. Packaged salads should be kept refrigerated at 35–40° F to keep them fresh and to minimize bacterial growth. Going organic is not necessary. In fact, organic foods can present some health concerns. “Some organic growers fertilize with sheep manure, which can carry Listeria,” Snider says. Purchase only pasteurized juices. Some farm-stand apple ciders and organic unpasteurized bottled juices have been found to contain E. coli, an illness-causing bacteria that is destroyed by the high heat of pasteurization.

Herbal Teas Some herbal teas aren’t safe for pregnant women or their unborn babies; they may act as laxatives or cause uterine contractions. Chamomile, raspberry and ginger varieties are considered safe.

Caffeine and Alcohol Caffeine in moderation — less than 300 milligrams daily, or the equivalent of about two or three cups of coffee (or 12–18 ounces) — appears to have no effect on pregnancy or on the development of your unborn child. But beware if you continue to drink it; caffeine may contribute to heartburn and nausea during pregnancy.

Alcohol should be eliminated from your diet completely. Even drinking in moderation — one or two drinks a day — could increase your chances of miscarriage or delivering a low-birth-weight child. Because safe levels are not known at this time, experts recommend abstinence.

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