What foods should I avoid while pregnant?

Some foods should be avoided when you are pregnant. This is because changes in your hormone levels can modify your immune system just enough to make it hard for your body to fight off illnesses that may come from eating contaminated food. One foodborne pathogen is Listeria which, if contracted while pregnant, may lead to premature birth or miscarriage. Research suggests that pregnant women may be up to 20 times more likely to suffer from Listeria.

You can avoid Listeria and other foodborne disease by avoiding:

  • Hot dogs and rare beef
  • Sushi and raw eggs
  • Soft cheeses such as feta, Brie and Camembert
  • Caesar salad dressing and mayonnaise
  • Fish caught from bodies of water with PCBs or methyl mercury advisories
  • Peanuts; if you or anyone in your family is allergic

Most artificial sweeteners can be safely eaten while you are pregnant. The FDA has approved sucralose, aspartame and acesulfame-K for pregnant women. However, the FDA has not approved saccharin, which reportedly does not taste as good as the others anyway. Saccharin might be harmful to fetuses because it can linger in fetal tissues, but more research is needed to determine if it causes any significant harm.

During pregnancy, women are more susceptible to food poisoning and the symptoms can be much more severe. To keep both mom and baby healthy, avoid these foods:

  • Rare, raw or undercooked meats and poultry
  • Raw fish and shellfish (sushi, sashimi, ceviche, oysters, mussels, scallops)
  • Fish containing high levels of mercury (swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel and shark)
  • Raw or undercooked eggs and foods that contain them (French toast, homemade Caesar salad dressing, Hollandaise sauce, raw cookie dough)
  • Raw sprouts (alfalfa, clover, radish)
  • Refrigerated smoked seafood, pate and meat spreads
  • Unpasteurized dairy products ("raw" milk and fresh, soft cheeses)
  • Unpasteurized fruit and vegetable juices

Expectant mothers can still enjoy shellfish like shrimp, canned fish (tuna), smaller ocean fish and farm-raised fish (salmon).

Jessica Crandall
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

Fish that contain high contents of mercury should be limited or avoided during pregnancy. Tile fish, orange roughy, marlin, sword fish, king mackerel, shark and fresh tuna are all sources of high mercury content, which can cause problems with brain development and nervous system. They should be limited to no more than 6 ounces per month. Mercury levels do not change when cooked because the toxicity levels remain the same.

All other fish are considered low mercury fish and should be limited to no more than 12 ounces a week. Fish are great sources of omega 3 fatty acid, iron and protein which is very important during pregnancy.

Here are some questions to ask when shopping for fish to cook:

  • What is the source/Where is it from? – Farm raised has less potential for contaminates, but they may be corn-fed, so the nutrients might not be as high.
  • What condition is the fish in? – You want to look for clear eyes, intact scales, a freshwater smell, firm touch that springs back when poked, cold (39 degrees Fahrenheit if fresh, and with no ice crystals).

Some fish contains high levels of mercury that can harm your baby's developing nervous system if eaten regularly. However, a report released by the Institute of Medicine showed that the heart benefits of seafood outweigh the risks. The report showed that omega-3 fatty acids found in fish promote healthy vision and brain development in infants whose mothers consume seafood while they are pregnant or nursing. These healthy fats also appear to lower the risk of delivering a preterm or low-birth-weight baby.

So does this mean you should eat fish or not? The answer is you should eat fish, but you should make sure it's the right kind. The fish highest in mercury, and therefore best to avoid, include shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish.

Continue Learning about Food Safety & Pregnancy

Is It Safe to Drink Green Tea During Pregnancy?
Is It Safe to Drink Green Tea During Pregnancy?
Can I Drink Alcohol During Pregnancy?
Can I Drink Alcohol During Pregnancy?

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.