Food safety during pregnancy

When you're pregnant, you're eating for two. What you eat affects the health of both you and your unborn child.

Choosing a healthy, well-balanced diet can help your baby grow and develop well.

But eating the wrong foods or not handling food safely can affect your baby. And it could put your pregnancy at risk.

Certain foods can pose risks during pregnancy, according to the March of Dimes. These include:

  • Some types of fish.
  • Some soft cheeses.
  • Ready-to-eat meats.
  • Raw sprouts.

These foods often carry bacteria, parasites or chemicals. They can cause serious health problems for you and your baby.

Know the risks

There are four big foodborne dangers you should be aware of during pregnancy. They include:

  • Listeriosis
  • Toxoplasmosis.
  • Mercury.
  • Arsenic.

Listeriosis. This is caused by bacteria. It's most often found in:

  • Ready-to-eat meat, poultry and seafood.
  • Unpasteurized dairy products.
  • Unwashed fruits and vegetables. 

Toxoplasmosis. This is caused by a parasite. It's found in unwashed fruits and vegetables. It's also found in undercooked meat—especially lamb, pork or venison.

You can also get the disease by touching your mouth after handling undercooked meat. Cross-contaminating food with items that have touched raw meat is another risk.

Mercury. This is a poisonous metal. It's found in high levels in some fish. Eating too much of certain types of fish can damage many parts of your body, including the:

  • Nervous system.
  • Lungs.
  • Kidneys.

Unborn babies who are exposed to mercury can suffer brain damage and severe nervous system damage.

Arsenic. This is a chemical element that may be absorbed by some plants as they grow. High levels of arsenic can cause problems such as miscarriage and birth defects.

Rice tends to absorb arsenic more easily than other grains. Using extra water to cook rice, and draining the excess water afterward, can reduce the amount of arsenic by 40 to 60 percent. Pregnant women should eat a variety of foods, including an assortment of grains such as wheat, barley and oats.

Avoid risky foods

To avoid these risks, it's best not to eat certain foods when you are pregnant. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the March of Dimes recommend that pregnant women avoid:

  • Raw or undercooked meat or poultry.
  • Raw fish.
  • Swordfish, tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, king mackerel or shark.
  • Refrigerated smoked seafood, such as whitefish, salmon and mackerel.
  • Refrigerated pates or meat spreads.
  • Raw sprouts, including alfalfa, clover, radish and mung bean.
  • Hot dogs and luncheon meat, unless they're heated to steaming.
  • Soft cheeses, such as feta, Brie, Camembert and Roquefort—unless they are pasteurized or made from pasteurized milk.
  • Raw or unpasteurized milk or juice.
  • Unwashed fruits and vegetables.
  • Soft scrambled eggs and all foods made with raw or lightly cooked eggs.

You should also avoid getting too much vitamin A, because high amounts can lead to birth defects, according to the March of Dimes.

Also take steps to safely handle and prepare food:

  • Wash your hands with hot, soapy water before and after handling food.
  • Wash cutting boards and utensils with soap and hot water after contact with raw meat, poultry or fish.
  • Keep all raw meats separate from cooked foods.
  • Rinse fruits and vegetables before eating.
  • Refrigerate leftovers right away. Never eat cooked food that has been out of the refrigerator longer than two hours.

So be aware of food risks. Carefully choose, handle and prepare foods. And you can help ensure a healthy pregnancy.

Reviewed 8/19/2020

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