Now that you’re eating for two, you’re probably focused on choosing wholesome foods that’ll help you feel your best and support your growing baby. But what not to eat and drink when you're pregnant is just as important.
While your peanut can benefit from all the healthy nutrients you’re nibbling on, a baby can also be affected by illness-causing bacteria that could be lurking in certain foods. So when you’re pregnant, it’s best to err on the side of caution and avoid any menu items that could potentially make either of you sick or affect your little one’s growth and development.
Thankfully, knowing what’s safe and what’s not is pretty straightforward. Here’s the lowdown on the foods and drinks to avoid during pregnancy, plus what to do if you accidentally eat or drink something on this list.
Why should you avoid certain foods during pregnancy?
Some foods have a higher risk of harboring illness-causing bacteria like Listeria, Salmonella, or E. coli. At the same time, your immune system has a harder time fighting off germs during pregnancy.
Put those two together, and you’re more likely to get sick or suffer complications like miscarriage or premature delivery if you accidentally eat something that’s contaminated. Just as concerning is the fact that foodborne illness-causing bacteria can cross the placenta. And since your baby’s immune system isn’t strong enough yet to fight off the germs, she’s at risk for developing a serious infection or even birth defects.
Not all no-no foods are off-limits because of bacteria, though. Alcohol and high-mercury fish, for instance, won’t make you sick, but can negatively impact your baby’s development. And others simply haven’t been studied enough to know whether they’re safe for your growing baby.
Foods to avoid during pregnancy
So what should you be steering clear of these days? Here are the foods and drinks worth taking off the menu until your baby is born.
For the next 40-odd weeks, plan to toast happy events with a mocktail or fruit-juice spritzer. Even if you’ve heard that an occasional alcoholic drink is okay, it’s best to be on the safe side when you’ve got a baby on board. Why? Alcohol enters your baby’s bloodstream in the same concentration as yours so whatever you’re drinking, your baby’s downing one, too.
Had a drink or two shortly before finding out that you were pregnant? Try not to worry. It happens to many moms, and (what a relief!) it’s not a cause for concern.
Unpasteurized dairy and juices
Fortunately, you don't have to worry about finding unpasteurized milk at the supermarket, thanks to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk are another story — they can harbor Listeria and other pathogens.
To stay safe, stick with hard cheeses like Swiss or cheddar, or check a cheese’s label to confirm it’s made with pasteurized milk. Have a hankering for feta, Brie, Camembert, goat cheese, blue-veined cheeses, and queso fresco? Confirm that they’re made with pasteurized products first, or heat them up until bubbly.
You should also steer clear of unpasteurized juices like apple cider or fresh-squeezed OJ. What about treated juice (fruit juices found in farmer's markets and health-food stores that are unpasteurized but have been treated to kill bacteria)? As long as it's been treated through UV radiation, it's probably okay.
Too much caffeine
Even if you couldn't get by without your daily triple-shot vanilla lattes before you became pregnant, now's definitely the time to switch out at least a few of those caffeinated shots for decaf ones.
While a couple of small cups of coffee a day are fine throughout your pregnancy, you should aim for no more than 200 daily milligrams (mg) of caffeine a day. Too much caffeine can also interfere with your body's ability to absorb iron (which can lead to anemia).
Besides taming the caffeine habit, you should also watch your soda and energy drink intake. (For example, a can of Mountain Dew has 54 mg of caffeine, while Red Bull contains 80 mg per can.) And remember to pay attention to other sneaky sources of caffeine such as chocolate, black or green tea, energy bars and coffee-flavored desserts (hello, tiramisu!), ice creams, and yogurts to ensure you don't slip over the 200 mg limit.
Raw or underdone seafood
Got a taste for some tuna sashimi? Obsessing over those oysters on the half shell? Before you visit your favorite raw bar or local sushi joint, keep in mind that uncooked or even seared seafood is off-limits during pregnancy — the risk of ingesting bacteria and parasites along with your meal is too high.
So you'll just have to say "no" to raw oysters, clams, ceviches, fish tartare, and carpaccios, along with the smoked stuff (like lox) that can also harbor illness-inducing parasites and bacteria. (But it’s OK to eat smoked seafood that’s part of a cooked dish, like a casserole.)
While this doesn't mean you should shun your favorite Japanese restaurant for the next nine months, it does mean that you'll need to be careful about what you order. Most places, for example, offer rolls made with cooked seafood or vegetables right at the sushi bar! Just make sure that any seafood you order is well cooked: Fish should flake and shellfish should be firm.
Rare or underdone meat
When it comes to your meat, now is not the time to be seeing pink…or red. (This is also true for poultry and pork, but most people tend to eat those foods well done.) So while you may have cooked (or ordered) that steak medium-rare before your baby came on board, you'll now need to refrain from blood-red meat.
Undercooked meat (and poultry) can harbor such bacteria as E. coli, Trichinella, and Salmonella (all of which can cause a bad case of food poisoning) or cause toxoplasmosis.
And if you find that the restaurant burger you ordered came out a little too pink? Don't be afraid to send it back. Now is not the time to be bashful. (By keeping your baby's safety in mind, you'll find it easier to release your inner restaurant diva!)
Hot dogs and deli meat
That double turkey, salami, and onion with extra mustard might be tempting your pregnancy-crazed appetite, but it may not be the healthiest option out there right now.
As a mom-to-be, you'll want to steer clear of those foods that have been preserved with nitrates and nitrites, chemicals used in food preservation that (in high amounts) aren't good for a developing fetus.
Along with that double-decker sandwich, you might want to forgo hot dogs and pâté. Besides being loaded with preservatives (and fat), these foods also run the small risk of carrying Listeria.
If giving up deli is too big a sacrifice, switch to nitrate-free lunch meats and heat them up until steaming to get rid of any bacteria before you eat them (turkey melt, anyone?).
Raw or undercooked eggs
While it may seem like commonsense to refrain from raw or runny eggs, you'll find them in more places than the yummy bits of batter that stick to the spatula. So unless something's been made with pasteurized eggs, avoid consuming foods where rawness runs rampant: soft scrambled eggs, homemade ice cream or mousse, raw batter or cookie dough, homemade mayonnaise, tiramisu, and homemade eggnog.
Skip the Caesar dressings and hollandaise sauce (unless you're absolutely certain they were made without eggs — bottled, shelf-stable Caesars are usually OK), and make sure those breakfast omelets and scrambles are cooked through and through. As with raw meats and poultry, you don't want to take the chance of being exposed to Salmonella.
To be absolutely safe, make sure the eggs you buy have been kept refrigerated and the sell-by date hasn't expired.
You know fish is loaded with all those brain-boosting (good for baby) and mood-boosting (good for you) omega-3s. But when it comes to eating fish while pregnant, it's easy to get confused about which types are bad (i.e. high in mercury) and which types are safe to eat.
In short: Avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, orange roughy, and bigeye tuna — they're the highest in mercury. You should also limit your intake of albacore tuna, grouper, snapper, wild striped bass, and halibut to no more than one 6-ounce (oz.) serving a week.
What's the safest seafood for expectant eaters? That would be wild salmon (fresh, frozen, or canned), pollack, skipjack (canned light) tuna, cod, freshwater trout, sole, tilapia, shrimp, sardines, anchovies, and scallops. Aim for two to three servings twice (or 8 to 12 oz.) per week, but be sure the seafood is well-cooked.
Thinking of putting some alfalfa or bean sprouts into your sandwich or salad to give it that extra crunch? Better think again. Raw sprouts have been linked to E. coli and Salmonella outbreaks, so they definitely belong to the "better-safe-than-sorry" category of foods to avoid during pregnancy.
That said, you're not condemned to forgo that crunchy texture until you give birth. Try substituting baby spinach or baby arugula in your sandwich or salads, or adding some thin-cut, French-style green beans. That will definitely kick the color and flavor of your sandwich up a couple notches — plus give you a serving of those healthy green veggies.
Unwashed fruits and vegetables
It’s always worth giving produce a quick rinse before eating, but it’s especially important to clean raw fruits and veggies these days. Harmful bacteria like Listeria, Salmonella, or E. coli can lurk on the outsides of produce — and the microbes can easily spread to the inside flesh when a fruit or vegetable is cut, juiced, or peeled.
No need to break out a special produce-cleaning spray, however. A thorough rinse under running water before eating or prepping will get the job done, and if you spot any lingering dirt, scrape it away with a produce brush. Finally, cut away any bits of produce that seem bruised or damaged, since these areas are more likely to harbor bacteria.
Premade deli salads
They can potentially harbor Listeria, so avoid the egg, pasta, chicken, and tuna salads behind the deli case or at the corner sandwich shop for now. But it’s fine to make your own versions at home if you get a hankering. Just make sure ingredients like egg and chicken are thoroughly cooked, and stick with low-mercury tuna options like skipjack.
What if you accidentally eat one of these foods while pregnant?
Accidentally ate something you shouldn’t have? It happens sometimes. Call your doctor right away if you start to notice possible signs of food poisoning. These include stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea, or flu-like symptoms such as fever, body aches, or headache. Contaminated food usually makes you sick within one to three days after eating it.
And if you’re feeling fine? You don’t have to call the doctor, but there’s also no harm in reaching out anyway. Some extra reassurance is never a bad thing!