What You Can (and Can’t) Eat During Pregnancy

We’re debunking common misconceptions about a healthy pregnancy diet.

What You Can (and Can’t) Eat During Pregnancy

Two years ago, I was working overnights in the ER, drinking grande lattes and enjoying a multi-course sushi dinner for a friend’s bachelorette … two nights before I found out I was pregnant. I immediately researched types of food not to eat during pregnancy and panicked—everything I had eaten was on someone’s “forbidden list.” 

If you’re pregnant, you’ve found these lists and know that none of them agree on what foods to avoid when pregnant. Here are six foods that get a ton of attention—and just as many misconceptions.  

3 Foods to avoid when pregnant: 

  • High mercury fish: Mercury can harm the development of your baby’s brain, so you want to avoid swordfish, shark and orange roughy. Love canned tuna? It has moderate levels of mercury, so aim for two servings or less per week, only if you haven’t eaten any other seafood. At a restaurant and not sure what’s safe? One of my favorite resources is Sharecare expert Group the Environmental Working Group. Check out their Seafood Calculator; choose the pregnancy filter and “choose all fish” for the guide I keep bookmarked on my phone. 
  • Soft raw milk cheese,particularly queso fresco: Don’t hate me, but you can’t have queso fresco dip at your favorite Mexican restaurant while you’re pregnant. It’s one of the major sources of Listeria outbreaks, which, during pregnancy, are linked with stillbirth and miscarriage. Avoid any non-pasteurized or “raw-milk” cheeses for the same reason.  
  • Deli turkey (or any deli meats that have been sitting around for a while): Again, there’s a risk of Listeria here. Of all deli meats, turkey has had the greatest number of Listeria outbreaks. I avoid it while pregnant.  

3 Foods you can eat when pregnant: 

  • Caffeine: It turns out, my lattes weren’t so bad after all. Most physicians, and even the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, say that caffeine levels under 200mg (about 1-1/2 cups of 8-ounce drip coffee) are not associated with increased risk of miscarriage or growth restriction. We do know that you should avoid significantly higher amounts, such as four or more cups per day. Studies are contradictory for amounts between two and four cups. I’m drinking my two cups (or equivalent) each day—because I’m tired right now!—and every once in a while, I’ll drink a little bit more. 
  • Low mercury fish: Just because you have to avoid mercury doesn’t mean you have to avoid all fish! On the contrary, fish is a fantastic source of omega-3s, which are essential for brain growth. Aim for 3 servings a week of fish such as salmon, sardines, rainbow trout and Atlantic mackerel. Others, such as shrimp, tilapia and scallops are also low in mercury, but lack good sources of omegas. 
  • Hot dogs: I’m pregnant in the summer, which means we’re grilling. And I have a toddler who loves hot dogs, so I really had to find the truth here. Like deli meats, the concern with hot dogs is Listeria, but if you heat the food to steaming temperature, you kill the potential Listeria. So go ahead—just heat it up. 

Medically reviewed in December 2018. Updated in February 2021. 

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