12 worst foods for pregnancy

Find out which foods you'll definitely want to avoid to keep you and your baby safe and healthy, from high-sodium snacks to non-dairy creamer.

Here's a handy guide to the 12 worst pregnancy foods. And for positive encouragement, check out our 10 best foods for pregnancy and tips on eating well, too.

1. High-mercury seafood

Here are the four to avoid: shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advise pregnant women, those who may become pregnant, and those who are breastfeeding to abstain from these fish completely due to their high levels of mercury. Mercury can impair a baby's developing brain and nervous system.

Other experts are more cautious, offering a longer list of fish to avoid. And the FDA cautions that pregnant women should eat no more than 6 ounces a week of canned "solid white" or albacore tuna due to mercury risks.

However, there are plenty of types of seafood with low levels of mercury that should be included in your pregnancy diet. The fatty acids in seafood (DHA and EPA, both forms of omega-3) play a key role in baby brain development.

In fact, the FDA and EPA recommend that pregnant women eat up to 12 ounces of low-mercury fish and shellfish a week. Find out more about which fish – and how much of it – is safe during pregnancy.

2. Unpasteurized (raw) milk and juices

While there are plenty of people who tout the benefits of raw milk and raw juices, there are serious health risks to drinking these during pregnancy. The main concern is listeriosis, a bacterial infection that can be very dangerous to your baby. You're especially at risk during pregnancy because your immune system is suppressed.

The bacterium Listeria monocytogenes can lurk in unpasteurized milk and dairy products, unpasteurized juice, and other foods, and it can continue to grow, even in the refrigerator. That's why it's best to avoid these beverages completely.

3. Refrigerated meats and deli salads (unless steaming hot)

Listeria contamination is also a threat with refrigerated deli meats like turkey, ham, bologna, roast beef, and hot dogs. These aren't safe unless you heat them to steaming hot (165 degrees Fahrenheit) before you eat them.

Same goes for refrigerated smoked seafood, meat spreads, and deli salads such as coleslaw, potato salad, ham salad, and seafood salad. Unless you don't mind eating these steaming hot, you'll want to avoid them. (Smoked seafood, like lox and whitefish, is fine if it's in a casserole or quiche that has been cooked to 165 degrees F.)

Canned, shelf-stable meats and seafood are safe to eat, but these products contain high amounts of sodium, so they're not the best nutritional choice during pregnancy.

4. Raw or undercooked meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, and eggs

The main risks in eating raw and undercooked food are the bacteria Salmonella and the parasite Toxoplasma, both of which can infect your unborn baby and cause serious health problems.

To eliminate the risk, use a food thermometer and cook beef, veal, pork, and lamb to 145 degrees F. Make sure all ground meats reach 160 degrees F, and poultry reaches 165 degrees F. Cook eggs 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, which can include homemade Caesar salad dressing, béarnaise and hollandaise sauces, and mayonnaise. 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 lick the spoon or eat the uncooked goods.

When dining out, order your meat well done, your eggs and seafood fully cooked through, and avoid the sauces and dressings listed above.

5. Raw sprouts and unwashed raw produce

Raw sprouts seem like a health "do," but during pregnancy they're definitely a "don't." Before the sprouts are even grown, bacteria can get into the sprout seeds through cracks in the shell. And since sprouts generally aren't cooked before eating, there's no way to kill the bacteria. So avoid raw alfalfa, clover, radish, and mung bean sprouts, which can be found in some sandwiches and salads.

Toxoplasma is also a concern in unwashed fruits and vegetables. Make sure to rinse produce thoroughly under running water before using it. And avoid eating bruised fruit or vegetables, as bacteria can thrive in areas where the produce has been damaged.

6. Unpasteurized cheese

Like raw milk, unpasteurized soft cheese carries the risk of Listeriacontamination. The cheeses that are typically of concern include feta, Brie, Camembert, fresh mozzarella, blue cheese like gorgonzola, Limburger, queso blanco, and queso fresco.

As long as the label says that the cheese is pasteurized, it's safe to eat. In restaurants, ask if the cheeses listed are pasteurized. If they don't know, it's smart to skip it.

7. Energy drinks and excessive coffee

Up to 200 milligrams a day of caffeine is considered safe during pregnancy. That amounts to about 12 ounces of drip coffee, which sounds like a lot until you consider your consumption throughout the day. The stimulant can lurk in many other drinks and some foods, pushing you over the maximum. For guidance, see a list of how much caffeine is in common foods and beverages.

Skip the energy drinks during pregnancy. While some contain less caffeine overall than a cup of coffee, they've been linked to increased blood pressure and abnormal heart rhythms.

And avoid drinks with "natural" energy boosters such as guarana, ginseng, yerba mate, and green tea extract, all of which are stimulants that have not been proven safe to use during pregnancy.

8. Unripe papaya

Unripe (green) papaya contains a latex substance that can trigger uterine contractions. The latex found in unripe papaya acts like the hormones oxytocin and prostaglandin, which are involved in the start of labor. So it's wise to avoid unripe papaya, which is often found on menus in Thai restaurants.

9. Foods with trans fats

Even though the health dangers of trans fats have been known since the early 1990s, they weren't called out on nutrition labels until 2006. Many consumers assume they're not being used anymore, but some products still include this unhealthy fat. (Learn more about "good" and "bad" fats in your pregnancy diet.)

Trans fat is a concern because it not only increases LDL cholesterol, it also lowers levels of heart-protective HDL cholesterol. And studies have linked trans fats to higher rates of endometriosis and infertility. There's even some evidence linking trans fats to lower birth weights and a higher risk of having a small for gestational age (SGA) baby.

So which products do you still need to watch out for?

Fried foods: While most fast food chains switched to oils that are not hydrogenated, some still use partially hydrogenated (and trans fat producing) oils to fry foods like hash browns, mozzarella sticks, and French fries. While you can always ask what type of oil your local restaurant uses, it's smart to limit your intake of high-calorie (and often high-sodium) fried foods anyway.

Margarine, frosting, and non-dairy creamer: Several companies have eliminated trans fat from their soft spreads, but some include it, so be sure to check the nutrition facts. Also, since companies technically don't need to list trans fat if the product contains less than 1 g per serving, it's possible that your creamer or margarine may still contain some even if it's not listed. Be sure to scan the ingredient list for "partially hydrogenated" oils.

Biscuit and pancake mixes: Trans fat in your waffle mix? Yup. Companies include it to give the product a light, fluffy texture. Again, be sure to check the nutrition facts to make sure you see a big fat zero listed for trans fat, and check the ingredient list for "partially hydrogenated" oils. 

10. Foods with sneaky sugars

Cookies, cakes, candy, and ice cream obviously have lots of sugar, but the sweet stuff can also lurk in some unlikely places. Not only is added sugar contributing to the obesity and diabetes epidemics, it doesn't provide any nutritional benefits. And if you're predisposed to gestational diabetes (which is on the rise), your body may not be able to produce enough insulin to handle all the extra sugar in your blood.

Americans consume a whopping 22 teaspoons (or 88 grams) of added sugar each day. We're not talking about naturally occurring sugars in fruit and dairy products, but the sugars and syrups that are added to food products to make them taste better.

Here's where added sugar might be hiding:

Bread and rolls: Look out for molasses, high fructose corn syrup, and other sweeteners in these bakery items. While the total grams of sugar are probably no more than 5 g, wouldn't you rather spend your sugars on something like a bowl of ice cream?

Frozen meals: Frozen pizzas, diet meals, and especially Asian-inspired convenience meals can pack up to 20 g of sugar per serving. If a meal has more than 10 g of sugar per serving, skip it. 

Salad dressing: There's nothing wrong with dressing up your salad to make it tastier, but take a good look at what you're pouring on top of your healthy greens. Some bottled dressings rack up 8 g of sugar per 2 tablespoons. The fat-free varieties can be the worst because they replace the fat with sugar or corn syrup to make the dressing taste good.

Snacks (crackers, popcorn, snack bars, etc.): Even products that don't taste particularly sweet may be packed with sugar. Cereal bars can be major offenders, especially if they have a jam-like filling. And graham crackers can contain a gram of sugar per cracker.

Cereal: You know you should avoid frosted kids' cereals and the like, but even some grown-up, whole-grain cereals have 14 to 16 g of sugar per serving, which is about half of what you're supposed to get in a day! Always look at the ingredient list and if the first ingredient listed is sugar, put the box back on the shelf. 

11. Soda and sweetened beverages 

It's not just the caffeine that puts cola and other sodas on the no-no list for pregnancy, it's also the high level of processed sugar in each can. A 12-ounce can of cola contains 27 g of added sugar. That's nearly 7 teaspoons. And other bottled beverages aren't much better. Sweetened iced tea, juice drinks, lemonade – they all have between 20 and 35 g of sugar per bottle, and don't provide many nutritional perks. So quench your thirst with water, milk, and pure (100-percent) fruit or vegetable juice. And if water is getting boring, make your own "spa" water by adding a few (washed) sprigs of rosemary and some cucumber and lemon slices to a pitcher of water – very refreshing!

12. High-sodium foods

While we often crave salty foods when we're expecting (especially during the first trimester), sodium is not a pregnant woman's friend. Pregnancy already makes you prone to swelling and water retention, and too much sodium only makes those conditions worse. In addition to avoiding processed and fast food, look out for these sodium culprits and keep sodium to 2,300 mg per day.

Frozen meals: Salt is a natural preservative, so these meals are usually packed with sodium. Some of them reach nearly 1,000 mg – yikes! There are definitely healthier options out there these days, so be sure to scan the package and look for meals with less than 500 mg sodium.

Bread and rolls: Bread doesn't usually taste salty, but salt is almost always added to provide flavor. One roll can top more than 400 mg of sodium, and cheese rolls can have over 800 mg.

Shelf-stable lunches and snacks: Usually made up of crackers, processed meat, cheese, and a fruit cup, these products are loaded with sodium (over 800 mg), nitrates, and sugar. You're much better off bringing your own snacks or sandwiches when you're at work or on the go.

Soup: Canned soup is a known offender, often containing 900 mg of sodium per serving (even more per can). But also watch out for soups at national chain restaurants, which can have just as much. And packaged ramen noodles have tons of salt and fat.

Bottom line: Stick to fresh, unprocessed foods as much as possible and you'll go a long way toward cutting down on excess sugar, sodium, and other bad stuff. For ideas, see the 10 best foods for pregnancy.

Frances Largeman-Roth is a nationally recognized nutrition expert and bestselling author. She has written Feed the Belly: The Pregnant Mom's Healthy Eating Guide and Eating in Color: Delicious, Healthy Recipes for You and Your Family.




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