Do you really need to avoid sushi, coffee, or peanuts when you’re pregnant?
Diane from New Jersey writes with a question about diet guidelines for pregnant women. As she says, the rules for what is safe to eat during pregnancy seem to be different in various parts of the world. She’s wondering how seriously women should take bans on various foods.
What Foods Should Pregnant Women Avoid?
There are legitimate reasons that particular foods might be a concern for pregnant women and their unborn babies. But Diane is right; there are definitely cultural differences in terms of what we’re worried about and how big a threat we perceive certain foods to be. In general, Americans seem to be a bit more nervous about their pregnancies than other cultures. But we still have some cultural blind-spots that cause us to focus on certain threats while ignoring others.
Let’s take a closer look at the rationale behind the various banned foods so that you can make informed decisions—in consultation with your obstetrician, of course.
Is it Safe to Eat Sushi or Soft Cheese When Pregnant?
Raw milk, soft unpasteurized cheeses, alfalfa sprouts, sushi, and deli meats are all foods that you’ll frequently see on the Do Not Eat While Pregnant list because they all pose an elevated risk of food-borne illness. Obviously, food poisoning isn’t fun for anyone—but because of changes in immune system, circulation, and metabolism, it can be more serious in pregnant women.
Although the risk of getting a food-borne illness from one of these foods is small, there’s nothing wrong with erring on the side of caution, of course. But our perception of risk seems to be sort of culturally programmed. European women think nothing of consuming unpasteurized cheese throughout their pregnancies, just as the Japanese do not stop eating sushi during theirs. Here in America, pregnant women swear off the brie and raw seafood but don’t hesitate to eat poached eggs or medium-done burgers. If minimizing your risk of food-borne illness is the goal, you’d want to avoid all of these.
See also: Is Raw Milk Safe?
Should Pregnant Women Avoid Fish?
Pregnant women should choose low-mercury options like salmon, black cod, sardines, and bluefin.
Whether raw or cooked, pregnant women have also been advised to limit their consumption of certain fish due to concerns over mercury, which could affect the baby’s brain development. Ironically, fish is also a primary source for omega-3 fatty acids that fuel healthy brain development. And in fact, the FDA has been quick to point out that the benefits of eating fish—even during pregnancy—outweigh the risks of mercury exposure.
Fortunately, you can get the benefits of those brain-building omega-3s without taking unnecessary risks. Choose low-mercury options like salmon, black cod, sardines, and bluefin. Avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish, and albacore tuna, which are high in mercury.
See also: Mercury in Fish
Are Cured Meats Safe for Pregnant Women?
As I wrote in a previous article, I also think it’s wise to avoid cured meats such as hot dogs, bacon, and ham during pregnancy—or choose those that are made without nitrites. Meats that are cured with nitrites contain nitrosamines, a compound that’s been shown to cause cancer in lab animals. Although occasional consumption of cured meats by adults isn’t a huge concern, developing fetuses are much more vulnerable to the carcinogenic effects of nitrosamines.
See also: Nitrates and Nitrites