February 24, 2024

Sashimi, rare steak, raw cookie dough, fresh-squeezed orange juice … these are hard to say no to. But you’ll want to resist during pregnancy, when you’re at much greater risk for food poisoning. Pregnant women are 10 times more likely than other healthy people to get listeriosis, a relatively common type of foodborne illness.

Improperly prepared, cooked, and stored foods can harbor dangerous bacteria and parasites like Listeria, Toxoplasma gondii, Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus, Campylobacter, and E. coli. When you’re pregnant, these microbes can make you very sick – and cross your placenta and affect your baby even if you never feel symptoms of illness.

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Also, during pregnancy your tiny passenger is vulnerable to substances in other foods and beverages. Alcohol and mercury, for example, can cause long-term harm to babies who are exposed in the womb.

That said, you don’t need to second-guess every food choice you make. There’s a (relatively) short list of foods to avoid during pregnancy. And though they can be serious, problems due to foodborne illness in pregnancy are rare: listeriosis affects 1,600 people per year in the United States, and toxoplasmosis affects between 1 to 2 per 10,000 live births.

So go ahead and enjoy most of your favorite treats, whether it’s a well-done cheddar cheeseburger or a fresh-baked cookie. Just be aware of the following foods and beverages to skip or eat with caution while pregnant.

1. Raw or undercooked meat, seafood, and poultry

The main issue with eating raw and undercooked meat and seafood during pregnancy is the parasite Toxoplasma, which can infect your unborn baby and cause serious health problems. Raw foods may also contain other bacteria that can cause food poisoning, including E. coli, Salmonella, and Campylobacter. Some of the most common foods to avoid include seared or raw fish, raw oysters, and undercooked burgers.

To eliminate the risk, order your meat well done and your seafood fully cooked through. At home, use a food thermometer and cook foods to the following temperatures:

  • Beef, veal, pork, and lamb: 145 degrees F
  • Ground meats: 160 degrees F
  • Poultry: 165 degrees F
  • Fish: 145 degrees F, or until the flesh flakes easily with a fork
  • Shellfish: until shells open during cooking
  • Shrimp, lobster, crab: until flesh is opaque and pearly white

You can also freeze meats, poultry, and seafood at sub-zero temperatures for a few days before cooking to greatly reduce the risk of infection.

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2. Runny or undercooked eggs

Save that spoonful of brownie batter or eggs over-easy until after pregnancy: Foods that contain runny or undercooked eggs can be infected with Salmonella.

Cook eggs during pregnancy until the yolks are firm, and make sure dishes containing eggs – such as frittatas, stratas, quiche, and bread pudding – reach 160 degrees F.

Avoid sauces made with raw eggs (this is unusual, but you may encounter a homemade, raw-egg-containing Caesar salad dressing, béarnaise, hollandaise sauce, or mayonnaise at a restaurant or friend’s house). If you’re making food that calls for raw eggs and won’t be cooked, like a sauce or spread, use a pasteurized egg product. And if you’re making cookie dough or cake batter with raw eggs, resist the urge to sample any before it’s cooked.

3. Deli meats and prepared salads

Your favorite deli sandwich and potato salad will have to stay off the menu for now, unless you can heat it until steaming hot (this kills any harmful germs). Both refrigerated meats and deli salads can be contaminated with Listeria.

Avoid the following, unless they’re heated to 165 degrees F:

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  • deli meats of any kind, including ham, turkey, roast beef, hot dogs, bologna, prosciutto, and pâté
  • dry, uncooked sausages, such as salami and pepperoni
  • smoked or pickled fish, like lox or whitefish
  • meat spreads and deli salads, such as coleslaw, potato salad, ham salad, and seafood salad

And although canned, shelf-stable meats and seafood are safe to eat, these products contain high amounts of sodium – so eat them sparingly during pregnancy.

4. High-mercury fish

Eating fish during pregnancy is a smart move: Fish is an excellent source of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and many other vitamins and minerals that play a key role in supporting your baby’s brain development and overall health. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that expecting moms eat 8 to 12 ounces (two to three servings) of fish per week.

However, certain fish contain high levels of mercury, which can impair a baby’s developing brain and nervous system. Fish to avoid during pregnancy include:

  • King mackerel
  • Marlin
  • Orange roughy
  • Shark
  • Swordfish
  • Tilefish (Gulf of Mexico)
  • Bigeye tuna

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The FDA offers a helpful chart on fish choices for pregnant womenOpens a new window. Ideally, aim for two to three servings of fish in the “best” category per week, or one serving of fish in the “good” category. Some of the best low-mercury fish include salmon, shrimp, pollock, tilapia, and trout.

5. Unpasteurized (raw) milk and soft cheese

Pasteurization kills harmful bacteria frequently found in raw milk, including Campylobacter, E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria. To keep you and your baby safe, always choose pasteurized milk during pregnancy.

Like raw milk, unpasteurized soft cheese carries the risk of Listeria contamination. Fortunately, almost all cheese sold in the United States – including soft cheese – is made with pasteurized milk and is therefore considered safe to eat during pregnancy.

That said, some artisanal, farmer’s market, or imported cheeses may not be pasteurized. Any time you buy a soft cheese, check the label to be sure it says “made with pasteurized milk.” That applies to feta, Brie, Camembert, fresh mozzarella, blue cheese (like gorgonzola), Limburger, queso blanco, and queso fresco.

In restaurants, always ask if any soft, uncooked cheese they use is pasteurized. If they don’t know, skip it.

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6. Food that’s been sitting out too long

Bacteria can grow quickly in picnic or buffet food that’s too warm (or isn’t warm enough). But you can still enjoy a picnic or cookout during pregnancy, as long as you’re aware of food safety.

To ensure the food you eat is safe for you and your baby, keep cold food on ice (40 degrees F or below) and hot buffet food heated to 140 degrees F (roughly the temperature of a hot cup of coffee). Throw away any food that’s been sitting out for longer than two hours, or one hour if the food is in temperatures above 90 degrees F. And reheat previously cooked leftovers until steaming (165 degrees F).

7. Raw sprouts

Raw sprouts seem like a health “do,” but during pregnancy they’re definitely a “don’t.” Sprouts are grown in warm and wet conditions that are also ideal for the growth of certain bacteria, including Listeria, Salmonella, and E. coli. Plus, sprouts generally aren’t cooked before eating. Avoid raw alfalfa, clover, radish, and mung bean sprouts, which are most frequently found in sandwiches and salads.

8. Unwashed produce

Bacteria is also a concern in unwashed fruits and vegetables. Make sure to rinse produce thoroughly under running water before using it. Keep cut fruits and veggies refrigerated or on ice. And avoid eating bruised fruit or vegetables, as bruising can lead a moldy space where bacteria can thrive.

9. Alcoholic beverages

Alcoholic beverages are a hard no during pregnancy, since alcohol passes through the placenta and reaches your baby. Exposure to alcohol during pregnancy can cause fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) in babies, which may result in lifelong physical, behavioral, and intellectual disabilities.

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You may have heard that it’s okay to have an occasional drink during pregnancy, but the truth is that there’s no known safe amount of alcohol when you’re pregnant. All of the major health organizations in the U.S. strongly recommend avoiding alcohol completely during pregnancy.

10. Fresh-squeezed juice

Unpasteurized juice from a juice bar, restaurant, or grocery store isn’t recommended during pregnancy. Fresh-squeezed juice can contain E. Coli and other bacteria, and has been linked to food poisoning outbreaks.

If you’re really craving fresh-squeezed juice, it’s safer to make it at home, where you can make sure to wash produce well before juicing it. When you buy unpasteurized juice from a retailer, you can’t know how safely it’s been handled.

11. Too much caffeine

Caffeine passes through your placenta to your baby, and there’s some evidence that too much caffeine could increase the risk of complications such as preterm birth and low birth weight.

Also, pregnancy can make you more sensitive to the effects of caffeine – such as jitteriness, trouble sleeping, dehydration, indigestion, and nausea.

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Experts suggest limiting yourself to no more than 200 mg of caffeine per day, or roughly 12 ounces of coffee. There’s also caffeine in tea, soft drinks, energy drinks, and chocolate – so be aware of how much you’re having throughout the day when you’re pregnant. Our caffeine chart can help you stay under the limit.

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