Foods To Avoid During Pregnancy And Why
The long list of foods that pregnant women are advised to avoid can be a nerve-racking read for mums-to-be. While sushi and soft cheese are to be expected, many women are surprised to find out that seemingly innocuous menu items like salad and ham can also pose a risk to their unborn child.
The main concern with so many of these 'banned' foods is that they could be contaminated with the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes, which causes an infection called listeriosis. Although listeriosis is rare – only 88 cases were reported in Australia in 2009 – it can be very dangerous for pregnant women and their unborn babies. Some of the potential effects include miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth and a very ill baby at birth.
While it is a serious concern, the paranoia it causes amongst pregnant women has led some health professionals to brand it “Listeria hysteria”. “So many pregnant women worry so much more about Listeria than about their nutrition,” says Melanie McGrice, Advanced Accredited Practising Dietitian, spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia and author of The Pregnancy Weight Plan. “It’s important to be careful during pregnancy, but not to worry about it to the point where you miss out on key food groups. I often see women eating highly processed foods just so that they feel safe from Listeria, but they’re missing out on fish, lean red meat, salad and other nutritious foods.”
Fear Factor: pregnancy edition
Before you throw away the entire contents of your fridge, find out whether these commonly cited pregnancy no-nos are as dangerous as they’re made out to be.
Processed, raw or undercooked meat
Not only can undercooked meat contain Listeria, but so can deli meats like ham and salami. “Listeria isn’t killed in the fridge like many other bacteria,” explains Melanie. “But any of those types of meat are fine if they’re heated over 60 degrees Celsius. However, ham and salami don’t have a lot of nutrition in them, so I wouldn’t encourage women to eat them during pregnancy. Instead, they should choose foods that are high in iron like fish, lean red meat or lean chicken.”
Raw or undercooked fish and seafood
All fish and seafood should be well cooked, so you can kiss your beloved sushi goodbye. As for the notion that shellfish should be avoided during pregnancy, Melanie assures us it’s a myth. “As long as it’s cooked and you eat it hot, it’s fine,” she says.
She notes that expectant mums should avoid types of fish that are high in mercury, such as flake, swordfish and marlin. “So many pregnant women eat fish and chips, but it’s usually flake, which is shark and it’s high in mercury. I really encourage women to eat fish as opposed to flake.”
Soft cheeses and unpasteurised dairy products
“Soft cheeses have a higher risk of Listeria contamination than hard ones, but again it’s very rare,” says Melanie. “Unpasteurised dairy products are a much bigger issue, so pregnant women should make sure all their dairy products are pasteurised.”
Raw or undercooked eggs
Beware of foods such as chocolate mousse and fresh mayonnaise that are made with raw eggs, as they can contain both Listeria and Salmonella. “I don’t really mind if women miss out on chocolate mousse during pregnancy because it’s not really nutritious and it’s full of extra kilojoules,” says Melanie.
The threat of Listeria rears its ugly head again in the case of salads that have been sitting around a deli counter or salad bar for several hours, but Melanie says that’s no reason to avoid salad altogether. “Just make sure it’s well-washed,” she says.
Green sprouts (such as alfalfa and snow pea sprouts) and bean sprouts (such as mung bean and soybean sprouts) can be contaminated with E.coli, Listeria and Salmonella, especially when they’re raw or just lightly cooked. “It would be wise to avoid them when you’re pregnant,” says Melanie. “But at the same time, don’t feel terribly guilty if you’ve eaten a bit of bean sprouts.”
“In everyday life, you might be a little less careful and put something in the fridge for four or five days before eating it, but during pregnancy you should make sure leftovers are eaten within 24 hours so bacteria doesn’t start to grow,” says Melanie.
Put down the pills
Melanie also warns against taking certain supplements during pregnancy, including:
- Vitamin A: “It can be toxic to babies in large doses,” she says. Foods that are high in vitamin A, such as liver, should also be avoided.
- Vitamin E: “It’s often recommended for fertility, but you should stop taking the supplements once you get pregnant because too much vitamin E increases the risk of having a baby with a low birth weight or a heart defect,” says Melanie.
- Vitamin B6: “Some people recommend it to assist with morning sickness, but there’s very little research to show it can help and it’s not hard to meet your B6 requirements through a nutritious diet, so I wouldn’t recommend B6 supplements during pregnancy because large doses can lead to nerve damage,” Melanie explains. “If you’re taking a pregnancy multivitamin, make sure you have less than 100mg of B6 a day.