Reducing Foodborne Risks During Pregnancy
What you eat during your pregnancy has a direct effect on the growth and development of your baby. It is important to eat a well-balanced diet that includes lean meats or meat alternatives, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and plenty of fruits and vegetables. In addition to increasing your consumption of healthy foods, there are certain foods you need to limit or avoid. Some foods contain substances that can affect your baby’s development, while others put you at risk of developing an infection that can be passed to your baby.
Fish and Shellfish
Mercury is naturally found in the environment and is also released by industrial pollution. When mercury settles into water, it is converted into methylmercury, a more dangerous form. Methylmercury can accumulate in the fatty tissue of fish. Most fish contain trace amounts of methylmercury, which is unlikely to cause harm. But, large, predatory fish can contain high levels of methylmercury.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provide these recommendations for women who may become pregnant, are pregnant, or are nursing:
Pregnant women should also avoid raw and undercooked fish, especially shellfish (eg, oysters, clams) because they can contain disease-causing organisms. Cook fish until it is opaque and flakes easily with a fork.
Ready-to-Eat Meats and Soft Cheeses
Unpasteurized soft cheeses and ready-to-eat meats should be avoided during pregnancy because they may contain bacteria that causes listeriosis, a form of food poisoning that is especially harmful to unborn babies. Listeriosis is associated with miscarriage, premature delivery or stillbirth, and serious illnesses in newborn babies.
To avoid listeriosis, the FDA advises pregnant women to do the following:
Undercooked Meat and Eggs
Undercooked meat, including poultry and eggs, should be avoided during pregnancy. These foods can increase your risk of a number of foodborne illnesses, including listeriosis, E. coli, Campylobacter infections, salmonellosis, and toxoplasmosis.
To ensure your meat is well-cooked, use a meat thermometer. Follow these temperature guidelines when cooking food:
Pregnant women should also avoid eating raw vegetable sprouts (eg, alfalfa, clover, radish) and unpasteurized fruit or vegetable juices. These can carry disease-causing bacteria.
In addition, pregnant women should limit their consumption of liver, since it contains high levels of vitamin A, which could potentially cause harm to a developing baby.
Food Preparation Tips
When preparing and handling foods, the March of Dimes recommends you take the following precautions to avoid foodborne illnesses:
American Dietetic Association
March of Dimes
United States Food and Drug Administration
The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada
Women's Health Matters
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Foodborn risks in pregnancy. March of Dimes website. Available at: http://www.marchofdimes.com/nutrition_risks.html . Updated May 2008. Accessed June 15, 2011.
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How to safely handle refrigerated and ready-to-eat foods and avoid listeriosis. Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/adlister.html . Accessed September 12, 2005.
Listeria and pregnancy. American Pregnancy Association website. Available at: http://www.america... .
Morales S, Kendall PA, Medeiros LC, et al. Healthcare providers’ attitudes toward current food safety recommendations for pregnant women. Appl Nurs Res . 2004;17:178-186.
What you need to know about mercury in fish and shellfish. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov... . Published March 2004. Accessed June 14, 2011.
Last reviewed June 2011 by Brian Randall, MD