Which Foods Should You Avoid While Pregnant?


Are you getting fed up with being told while you’re pregnant, “You can’t eat this,” or “You shouldn’t drink that?” Are you bothered, baffled, and bewildered as to what you should or shouldn’t be consuming?

It’s time to separate fact from fiction with our guide to what foods you should avoid while pregnant.

There are, undoubtedly, many myths and old wives’ tales surrounding pregnancy, and what you can eat is not exempt. Your cravings have kicked in with a vengeance and let’s hope they aren’t for something on the banned list.

Time to play “MythBusters” and look at what foods you should steer clear of.

The Definite No-No’s

Santa has a naughty list and so do we. There are some foods which are fine when you aren’t incubating a baby, but are definitely off-limits during pregnancy. You might be asking why that is.

Some foodborne illnesses can harm you or your growing baby. The reason behind this is a change in the immune system, which fights off intruders to our bodies. It’s lowered during pregnancy, to tolerate the baby growing inside you, and is less efficient (1).

Foods you should avoid at all costs during this time include:

1. Unpasteurized Milk and Cheeses

If your inner mouse has woken up and you are hankering for a tasty chunk of Brie or Camembert, you’re out of luck. Soft cheeses, made from unpasteurized milk, might contain listeria.

If a pregnant woman contracts this bacterial infection, it usually causes fatigue and flu-like symptoms. However, it is also potentially harmful to your unborn baby and can cause miscarriage, severe infection, premature birth, or stillbirth (2).

Unpasteurized milk can contain many infectious bacteria, including salmonella and E. coli (3). Again, not good bugs to have in your body when you are pregnant.

Apart from the Brie and Camembert, avoid blue-veined cheeses, feta, and Mexican cheeses, such as queso fresco, panela, and queso blanco as they are often made with unpasteurized milk.

There are alternative cheeses you can safely eat, including hard cheeses, such as cheddar, or Swiss cheese.

If these cheeses are not going to float your boat, you may find soft cheeses available on the market that have been made with pasteurized milk. Check the label carefully and you might be able to satisfy that mouse after all.

2. Metallic Fish

This doesn’t mean the fish have shinier scales than normal; it means they contain high levels of mercury.

Over time, industrial process and the burning of fossil fuels release mercury into the atmosphere. This mercury then falls into the ocean by rain where bacteria convert it into a harmful form, known as methylmercury (4).

The food chain in the ocean means the big fish eat the smaller fish, which eat the even smaller fish and plankton. Consequently, the concentration of methylmercury in the larger fish is much higher. Bigeye tuna, marlin, shark, king mackerel, swordfish, orange roughy, and tilefish should be avoided.

Bigeye tuna should be avoided, but yellowfin tuna or canned light tuna is okay in moderation. Try to eat it three times a week or less.
Headshot of Caitlin Goodwin, MSN, RN, CNM

Editor's Note:

Caitlin Goodwin, MSN, RN, CNM

So how does this affect you when you’re pregnant? Mercury-contaminated fish can affect the neurological development of your baby.

This being said, consumption of mercury-free fish during pregnancy is good for your health and your baby’s development. It contains vitamins, fatty acids, and minerals. It’s important that you have some “safe” fish every week (5).

Which Ones You Should Choose

Stick with safer choices such as salmon, catfish, crayfish, and tilapia. To explore further options, this guide from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has a chart that shows which fish are safe for consumption during pregnancy (6).

3. Eggs Aren’t Always Good for You

Food poisoning is never good at any time, but having a fever, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and sickness could lead to severe dehydration when pregnant. Raw eggs can contain a bacteria called salmonella. This is one of the most common causes of food poisoning in the United States (7).

Salmonella can increase the chance of developing bacteremia, which infects the uterus and can harm the fetus (8).

Avoid eggs when the white and yolk aren’t cooked all the way through, such as sunny side up or soft scrambled eggs.

Other homemade foods which contain raw eggs include mayonnaise, custard, salad dressings, ice cream, eggnog, and cake batter. Avoid Caesar salads and other dressings in restaurants as well.

Once the eggs are properly cooked, the risk is eliminated (9). This means store-bought mayonnaise and salad dressings are generally safe. So, tempting though it might be to lick that spoon of raw cookie dough, don’t. Wait until they have baked.

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4. Side Step the Sushi

Sushi has become fashionable to foodies in recent years, even though certain cultures have eaten it for centuries. For most of the population, the risk of contracting a foodborne illness from raw fish is minimal.

But when you are pregnant, you fall into a high-risk category, and therefore should not eat raw fish (10).

It can contain parasites which are hard to treat if you’re pregnant (11). Other dangers posed by raw or undercooked fish include bacterial infections, such as salmonella and Vibrio vulnificus (12).

Make sure all the fish you eat is well cooked, to at least 145 degrees Fahrenheit, before eating (13). If you can’t live without sushi, stick to the California rolls or other cooked varieties.

5. Pass on the Lemonade Stand

On a hot day, a freshly squeezed juice from a farm stand could be just the thing you need to quench your thirst. Maybe you’re at a school fair with your older children or taking a walk in the park. One juice from the lemonade stand can’t hurt, can it?

I’m afraid it can when you are expecting, and it’s another thing to be avoided. These juices are often unpasteurized and can contain E. coli (14).

Most commercially-sold juices are pasteurized, but always check the label before drinking, as sometimes they aren’t. If you really want some fresh juice, make it yourself, and ensure you boil it first to kill the bacteria. Heating it in a double boiler to at least 158 degrees Fahrenheit for a minute or longer will kill any harmful bugs (15).

6. Skip the Raw Shellfish

We’ve already explained that eating the right fish during pregnancy is good for both you and your baby. As with other fish we mentioned previously, shellfish must also be cooked thoroughly, to kill any bacteria or viruses.

Raw shellfish, such as oysters, scallops, shrimps, clams, prawns, lobster, and crayfish, should be off your menu for the time being. They can cause bacterial or viral infections and upset your stomach, or pass through to your baby.

Nevertheless, a good bowl of clam chowder, or some well-grilled shrimp, is fine. Just check the source of the shellfish (16).

Commercial fisheries have to test and regulate their fish. If you are sourcing your shellfish locally, check with local authorities whether it’s safe to eat seafood from that area.

7. Ready Made Store Salads

While ready-made salads from the store are convenient and easy, now’s the time to start making your own. This includes fruit salads, potato salads, and coleslaw.

When you buy these foods prepared and ready to go, you don’t know whether they have been cleaned properly. You also don’t know how long they have been stored, or whether they have been stored at the correct temperature.

Listeria is a bug that can cause issues from these foods (17).

By preparing salads at home yourself, you know they’ve been washed properly, separated, and stored. If you need to cook anything in them, you know it’s at a standard that won’t harm you or your baby.

8. Swerve Past the Sprouts

Often added to salads and stir-fry, innocuous foods, like alfalfa sprouts, mung bean sprouts, radish, and clover, can have a devastating effect.

Following several cases of salmonella in 2016, the FDA advises that all sprouts should be cooked before eating, whether you’re pregnant or not (18).

The bacteria thrive in the conditions these beans need to sprout and can be virtually impossible to wash off (19).

Apart from the usual hygiene followed when washing and cooking foods, ensuring they’re thoroughly cooked should be sufficient.

9. Leave Alcohol Alone

Alcohol and pregnancy do not mix. What you drink enters your bloodstream, and therefore enters your baby’s bloodstream. Most of us know to some extent the effect alcohol has on us, even just one or two glasses of wine can lead to a hangover.

Imagine the effect it can have on the baby growing inside you. It enters their organs and tissues and takes much longer to dissipate. The damage alcohol can cause, particularly during the first trimester, can be permanent in your baby’s life.

It can lead to impaired growth, both in the womb and after birth. Learning difficulties, attention and behavioral issues, and heart defects can also result.

There is no known level of alcohol which may be safe during pregnancy, so it’s best to avoid it altogether (20).

10. Evict the Bacterial Communities on Fruit and Vegetables

The surface of unwashed fruit and vegetables can harbor little cities of bacteria and parasites. These unwanted passengers can be picked up anywhere, from the soil in which the produce grows, to the store shelves where they end up for sale (21).

The sort of microorganisms you might find include salmonella, E. coli, and listeria. Which is why you should wash your fruits and vegetables properly, to avoid infection.

Instead of focusing on what you can’t eat, I prefer to encourage my clients to focus on what they CAN eat. There are so many healthy, colorful foods out there to nourish you and your baby!
Headshot of Caitlin Goodwin, MSN, RN, CNM

Editor's Note:

Caitlin Goodwin, MSN, RN, CNM

Approach With Care

You might be wondering by now if there is anything safe to eat when you’re pregnant. Don’t worry, you aren’t going to starve! We have highlighted the foods you should avoid, and now it’s time to look at the ones that you need to be careful of.

1. Reheat Deli Meats

Deli meats have generally already been cooked. Nevertheless, during handling and storage, the meat can pick up bacteria, like listeria.

Be cautious when eating processed meats, like hot dogs, pepperoni, salami, and lunch meats. If you reheat them to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, until they are steaming, then they will be safe to eat.

This process will kill off any bacteria that may have come into contact with the meats since they were originally cooked (22).

2. Ice Cream, Mayonnaise, and Eggnog

We mentioned raw egg products earlier, and the possibility they may contain salmonella.

There are some egg products, though, which are not on your banned list. You can make ice cream by adding pasteurized eggs to the required amount of liquid you need to make it, then heating it.

Likewise, eggnog can be made with pasteurized products and again heating it first. The required temperature for safety is 160 degrees Fahrenheit (23).

The alternative is to buy commercial products, like mayonnaise or eggnog, which are labeled as pasteurized. Some stores also stock pasteurized eggs which have already been treated to kill bacteria (24).

3. Caution with Caffeine

This was one thing that never bothered me. I completely went off tea and coffee for the whole time I was pregnant. My husband didn’t give up his in a show of solidarity though — he is strictly a “Do not disturb before coffee in the morning” person.

Restrict the consumption of caffeinated drinks during pregnancy to about 200 milligrams per day. That’s the equivalent of two to three cups of coffee.

High caffeine intake can contribute to low birth weight for your baby (25). Consuming more than 200 mg of caffeine per day can double your miscarriage risk (26). Another consideration is that your unborn baby can’t process caffeine as quickly as you can. Just like any other drug, it could build up in their system (27).

4. Control the Cravings for Junk Food

We all enjoy some processed junk food from time to time, whether it’s a bag of chips, some biscuits, a microwave meal, or soda. These foods generally contain high levels of sugar, salt, or fats, leaving us to crave more (28).

Overeating this type of food can leave you at risk of developing diabetes, and can also contribute to problems for your child later on in life (29).

Some processed junk food is fine, just don’t pig out on it. You may be eating for two, but you don’t want to end up ill, or harming your baby. And remember to continue getting some exercise during pregnancy to counteract the weight gain your junk food may cause.

5. Steer Clear of Rare Steak and Undercooked Meats

Our old enemy, E. coli, is back again. This bacteria may be found in raw and undercooked meats. While usually found on the outside of the meat, E. coli can be found inside the muscles.

The minimum recommended internal temperature of whole-cut meats when they are cooked should be 145 degrees Fahrenheit. This includes lamb, beef, and veal, all of which you should let rest for three minutes before eating. Ground meats, as well as pork, should be cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit (30).

It’s a good idea to invest in a meat thermometer rather than leave it to chance as to whether your meat is cooked to the correct temperature.

6. Leave Room for Liver

Liver is one of those “love it” or “hate it” foods. I fall into the first category, but my eldest child falls into the second. Whichever camp you follow, liver is safe to eat occasionally — a couple of times a month — when you’re pregnant.

It’s high in iron, and some vitamins and minerals, and it’s low calorie. The reason for the restriction is the amount of vitamin A it contains, in particular, retinol or preformed vitamin A.

Too much of this particular type of vitamin A can cause birth defects in your unborn baby (31).

7. Permitted Pate

Yes, you did read it right, there are some pates and meat pastes you can eat. Unfortunately, you will have to forgo the ones on the deli counter, though, even the veggie varieties. These are unpasteurized and can contain listeria (32).

What you are allowed are the processed canned types which have been pasteurized and are therefore safe to eat. I know these might not be quite the same, but if that’s what your taste buds are yearning for, it’s a good compromise.

8. Prepare for Poultry

Chicken and poultry is a healthy option on any diet, but you should always make sure it is cooked right through. This applies to breasts, legs, ground poultry, and whole birds.

The recommended internal temperature for a cooked chicken is 165 degrees Fahrenheit. This also applies to the stuffing, whether cooked inside or outside (33).

Just like other meats, poultry is a safe harbor for salmonella, until you zap it with heat. So, make sure you’ve cooked that Thanksgiving turkey or Christmas goose all the way to the middle.

9. Selecting Smoked Seafood

Once again, we are avoiding that deli counter as moms-to-be, unless the fish is reheated. This time it’s listeria which can be found in smoked fish, such as salmon, mackerel or herring (34).

Canned versions are safe, or can be heated as well. Dig yourself out a recipe for a nice smoked fish casserole, or add it to a fish pie for extra flavor. The temperature of the fish should reach at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

10. Liking Licorice

I love licorice, but luckily it’s something I can’t eat much of, which is more than likely a good thing following the results of a recent study in Finland. It’s definitely something to be eaten in moderation when you are pregnant (35).

Licorice contains glycyrrhizin, which is a sweetener found in the root of the plant. It’s used to flavor soft drinks, teas, and candies. It can also be found in concentrated levels in some supplements.

The study tested children when they were 13 years old, born to women who had consumed more than 8.8 ounces of pure licorice a week while pregnant.

The results showed that on average, they scored lower by seven points on IQ tests and were three times as likely to have ADD (attention deficit disorder). Girls in this group were also likely to reach puberty early and be higher on a body mass index (BMI) scale.

If you crave something sweet, turn to fruit, which is better for you and your baby.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Are Herbal Teas and Supplements Safe?

Curling up on the couch with a nice cup of herbal tea and a good book or the latest Netflix series might sound like heaven. Well, you’ll be pleased to know it’s something you can take advantage of, while you still can. Although, you do need to be careful which herbal teas you choose.

Rooibos is a good choice. Not only is it caffeine-free but it contains antioxidants, boosts your immune system, and helps circulation.

Other herbal infusions that are safe are ginger and mint, particularly good for morning sickness. Chamomile can aid sleep, and red raspberry might help your uterus prepare for delivery (36).

Nettle leaf tea is another good option: They aren’t just good for stinging you when you touch them in the garden. Make sure your tea is made from the leaves, and restrict the use during the first trimester when it can stimulate the womb (37). This is a good source of vitamin C as well as calcium and iron.

Some other teas are not safe to drink during pregnancy. These include:

  • Cohosh (black and blue): This can induce labor (38).
  • Dong Quai: Can raise your blood pressure, and that of a newborn if you are breastfeeding (39).
  • Teas that act as herbal laxatives, or are for PMS, cleansing, diet, and detoxification teas (source): Check the label of the tea for ingredients like senna, St. John’s Wort, or ginseng. Also, check the label for any caffeine content. Remember, the recommendation is no more than 200 milligrams per day.

When it comes to supplements, there are some, such as folates, probiotics, and iron, which are beneficial. On the other hand, those such as vitamins A and E, Yohimbe, and goldenseal, should be avoided (40).

The best thing you can do for you and your baby is to eat a healthy, varied diet, get lots of rest, de-stress, and do some gentle exercise. Check with your medical provider before you take any supplements during pregnancy.

Can I Eat at Buffets?

Buffets are best given the boot while you’re pregnant, whether at a party or a restaurant. You don’t know how the food has been prepared, whether it has been kept at the right temperature, or how long it’s been standing.

Add other people’s hands into the mix as they’re taking food, and you could have a melting pot of bacteria and parasites which cause food poisoning (41).

Are Pineapples Safe to Eat in Pregnancy?

This is where we hit a bit of fiction. Old wives’ tales might tell you not to eat pineapple during pregnancy. In fact, one of these tales is that eating a whole pineapple can induce labor.

If that were the case, we would all be buying them when we hit our due date and can’t wait for the action to begin.

Pineapples contain lots of vitamins and minerals, which are good for you and your unborn baby. These include folates, iron, magnesium, and vitamin B6. Just one cup contains over 100 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin C (42).

So, go ahead, mix up those virgin pina coladas, or pop it on a pizza, and enjoy.

Can I Eat Peanuts While Pregnant?

When I was pregnant, I received the advice to avoid eating nuts, as it could cause an allergy in my child. This was tough for me, as I love peanut butter and nuts are one of my favorite energy snacks.

You lucky moms don’t need to worry about this advice as it’s been turned on its head. Scientists now think eating these potential allergens during pregnancy can reduce the risk of allergy in your child (43).

So, as long as you aren’t allergic to nuts yourself, go ahead and reach for a “PB and J” sandwich. Good old comfort food, that’s loaded with protein.

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Sit Back and Feed Those Cravings

Hopefully, we have now separated the fact from the fiction for you. Yes, there are some foods you need to avoid at all costs, but it’s only temporary. Just think how much you’ll enjoy those oysters or that feta cheese salad after the baby is born — all washed down with a glass of wine or champagne.

Eating a balanced, healthy diet is the best thing you can do, for you and your growing baby. Get some regular exercise and remember to rest. Take time for yourself while you can, and enjoy the myriad of good foods you can eat, instead of craving the ones you can’t.

We hope you enjoyed our guide to foods to avoid while pregnant and found our insights useful.

Please leave us a comment with your thoughts, or any tips you might have for other moms-to-be. We would love to hear from you. Don’t forget to share with others so they can benefit as well.

Headshot of Caitlin Goodwin, MSN, RN, CNM

Reviewed by

Caitlin Goodwin, MSN, RN, CNM

Caitlin Goodwin MSN, RN, CNM is a Certified Nurse-Midwife, clinical instructor and educator. She has ten years of nursing experience and enjoys blogging about family travel and autism in her free time.
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