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Foods to Avoid During Pregnancy

Updated on November 3, 2010

If you're pregnant, you know that eating right is one of the most important things you can do to attain and maintain good health for yourself and your baby. A lot of emphasis is placed on getting enough of the right nutrients, so you're taking your daily multivitamins, drinking plenty of water (and going to the washroom much more often than normal), and eating healthy. You already know to avoid alcohol and tobacco, but other foods may be also off-limits during pregnancy. This article provides an overview of these foods, and the reasons why you should avoid them.

Foodfolio, Veer photography.
Foodfolio, Veer photography.

Deli Meats and Hot Dogs

Deli meats, luncheon meats (cold cuts), and hot dogs are strictly verboten, because they contain the common bacterium listeria monocytogenes. Unlike many other bacteria, listeria can survive and propogate in refrigerated foods. Most people ingest listeria without suffering serious problems, but those with compromised or weak immune systems--such as the very young or the very elderly, and pregnant women--can become gravely ill from it. In the worst cases, listeria can cause miscarriage and death.

If you're pregnant and have had a hot dog or two already, don't panic: reported cases of pregnant women who contracted listeriosis are extremely rare. Note that cooking the meat enough may kill the bacterium; however, to be on the safe side, it's best to omit it completely from your diet while pregnant.

In addition to listeria, deli meats also contain nitrites, which are suspected to contribute to carcinogens (elements that can cause cancer). In other words, it's always a good idea to eat luncheon meats in moderation, or rarely.

Other Foods That May Contain Listeria

Do not eat pâté, smoked salmon, and other meat spreads that must be refrigerated; however, canned meat spreads should be safe as long as you do not eat them again after refrigerating them.

Brie, feta, ricotta, camembert--all these are known as soft cheeses, and pregnant women should not eat them. Like hot dogs and deli meats, soft cheeses can harbour the listeria bacterium. Harder cheeses such as mozzarella and cheddar are safe.

Pre-made salad mixes are said to carry listeria as well. Make all your salads using fresh ingredients.

See "Listeria and Pregnancy" for more information on foods that contain listeria.

Veer photography.
Veer photography.

Fish and Seafood

Most people know to not eat too much fish with high mercury levels; this is crucial for pregnant women. Consuming some types of fish can potentially cause serious problems with fetal development.

Experts have been divided on the relative benefits and dangers of eating fish during pregnancy over the past few years. Most agree that high-mercury fish and seafood should be avoided, but they have also said that pregnant women should have one or two servings of low-mercury fish a week. This is important because fish is high in omega-3 fatty acids. If you can't have or don't like fish, remember that many foods found in the supermarket are enriched with omega-3, such as peanut butter, milk, and eggs. Always read the labels.

If you are pregnant and you must have fish, you can safely consume at most only one or two servings of light canned tuna, or other low-mercury fish, a week. See "Mercury Levels in Fish".


You might have also heard that sushi and sashimi should be avoided during pregnancy. There are some types of rolls that do not contain fish at all, such as cucumber, avocado, or California rolls--these should be safe. Any type of sushi or sashimi that has been prepared with raw fish that was not frozen beforehand, however, may have parasites. If you are eating out, verify whether the sushi is made on the premises, and if it is, ask if the fish was frozen before preparation.

Veer photography.
Veer photography.

Refined Sugars and Carbohydrates

You should not avoid carbs altogether, but if diabetes is in your family history, it might be a good idea to reduce the amount of refined sugars you consume. Risk factors for gestational diabetes (GD) also include obesity and age (i.e., if you are over 35).

Talk to your doctor if you have concerns. In any case, blood tests should tell your doctor if your blood glucose levels are too high; but if you want to be proactive, eat only whole grains and cut down on white sugar and white flour. Or, eat brown rice instead of white. Depending on your normal diet, you can eliminate a lot of sugar if you stop ingesting soft drinks, candies and chocolates, and other sweets.

To reiterate my first point, do not omit the 'good' carbs from your diet. Whether or not you are pregnant, you need carbohydrates to be healthy. The no-carb diets that proliferated in the past several years have misinformed too many people about the so-called ills of carbs.

For more information on GD, see "Gestational Diabetes".

James Connelly, Veer photography.
James Connelly, Veer photography.

Coffee and Tea

Experts recommend that pregnant women should not consume too much caffeinated coffee; at the same time, they do not entirely agree on the effects of caffeine on the developing fetus. For this reason, it is prudent to have no more than 300 mg of caffeine a day. "Drinking coffee in pregnancy" has more information on this. Another good resource, if you want to monitor your caffeine intake, is The Caffeine Database. It compares caffeine levels in many commercially available drinks.

Pregnant women can drink leaf tea, but not herbal teas or tisane teas, such as fruit infusions. Again, this is more of a 'better safe than sorry' concern, because very little is known about the effects of herbal teas on the developing fetus. Keep in mind that black teas and green teas are leaf teas (as long as they are not blended with other ingredients), because they are made from the leaves of the tea plant. Any other teas, made from fruit, flowers, and other plant parts, are considered herbal. See "Drinking Herbal Tea During Pregnancy".

Note that some commercial teas might contain more ingredients than their names might imply. A box of pure green tea, for example, should list just one ingredient: green tea.

Veer photography.
Veer photography.

Know What You're Eating

Whether you're at home, at the grocery store, dining out, or even at a friend's house, it's important to know what you're eating and drinking. It doesn't hurt to ask, if you're not sure, whether the salad on your plate is fresh or came from a bag. (True story: at a relative's house, I suspected that the perfectly cut romaine leaves of my Caesar salad came from a salad mix, so I tactfully tried to find out if that was the case. It was.)

When buying groceries, be sure to check the labels: you can find out if that tea you want is really just leaf tea, and if the carton of milk you want is omega-3 enriched. At home, clean fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly, and be careful when cooking meat and fish. These are good practices not just for pregnancy, but for overall health.

And remember, some of the items mentioned here aren't good for anyone, if eaten more than moderately. If you are already consume too much sugar, deli meats, or caffeine, making healthier choices now may last longer than the pregnancy. Maintaining good dietary habits is beneficial in the long run for both you and your child.


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