As soon as you leave your OB’s office with a pregnancy confirmation, you’re bombarded with checklists, warnings, and restrictions — especially concerning what a pregnant woman can and can’t eat. I remember feeling a lot of fear around what I was putting in my mouth — Is my favorite deli sandwich now off limits? Will my grande iced coffee cause my fetus to get all jittery? Is it safe to have tuna while pregnant? Because the rules are constantly changing (and are often contradictory), you might feel like you need a nutrition degree just to navigate the pregnancy diet rules. Even if you suspect some of the food “don’ts” tread into fear-mongering territory (like, will one glass of wine really hurt?), you certainly don’t want to hurt your baby. And so you err on the side of caution, passing up your favorite fresh mozzarella panini despite angry cravings that tug at your will power.
Of course there’s a reason certain foods are off limits, and most circle around the risk of pathogens — specifically listeria bacteria, which pregnant women are more susceptible to get and then pass through the placenta, possibly causing premature delivery, miscarriage, even stillbirth. That’s where the hot dog/deli meat no-no comes from, along with soft cheeses like brie and feta, and raw foods like sushi.
And yet, as it turns out, there is some wiggle room in what’s safe for a pregnant woman to eat. Based on recent research and expert opinions, here are some common foods pregnant women think they can’t eat, but totally can (well, in moderation.)
Most pregnant women are suddenly aware of the big bad “M” word: mercury. But on the other hand, omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish, are really good for your baby’s brain development. So what’s the deal with your fave tuna salad?
“Though mercury can harm a developing baby’s brain, eating average amounts of seafood containing low levels of mercury during pregnancy hasn’t been shown to cause problems,” Roger Harms, a pregnancy specialist at Mayo Clinic and medical editor of “Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy” wrote. “And the omega-3 fatty acids in many types of fish — especially salmon — can promote healthy cognitive development.” Because of the proven benefits of omega-3s during pregnancy, The Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency updated their guidelines, saying pregnant women can (and should!) eat up to 12 ounces of lower-mercury fish a week, like salmon, shrimp, and pollock. Fresh tuna is still pretty high in mercury, but light canned tuna is on the FDA’s safe-in-moderation list.
The restrictions on drinking booze during pregnancy are there for a very good reason, backed up by very strong science. If you binge drink with a baby in your belly, you’re risking fetal alcohol syndrome — something no baby should ever have to suffer through, and which can seriously affect your kid in the long-term. But still, even experts have differing opinions — some sources saying absolutely no alcohol during pregnancy, while others have an “Eh, one occasional drink won’t hurt” attitude. And in a 2010 survey asking obstetricians how much alcohol a pregnant woman can drink without risking her baby’s health, 60 percent of OBs said zero drinks, while 40 percent said a little alcohol is OK. That’s a pretty close split. So I mean, probably don’t drink a lot of alcohol, if any. It’s just not worth the risk. But if you have a champagne toast at a wedding, don’t panic.
This is a hard one for a lot of pregnant women, especially if you rely on a morning jolt to start the day. But just try waiting in a Starbucks line with a baby bump without getting at least one lecture or side-eye glare. The big warning about caffeine during pregnancy is that it might cause miscarriage, especially because, as The Wall Street Journal notes, caffeine crosses the placenta to your fetus’s bloodstream and might even limit blood flow to the placenta. That’s some scary stuff.
But the research doesn’t always back up the fears. Although a 2008 study linked caffeine to increased health risks and miscarriage, it was only for women who drank two cups or more a day. Another 2008 study showed no risk in drinking up to three 8-ounce coffees. Because of the iffy data and strong risks, the March of Dimes says to play it safe with one 12-ounce cup a day. You can live with that, right?
4. The Deli Counter
I didn’t mind cutting out booze or even coffee, but I had a whopper of a time avoiding my favorite sandwiches — especially the ones with soft cheeses like fresh mozzarella and brie. Deli meats and soft cheeses fall on the “don’t touch ‘em” list because they’re potential breeding grounds for listeria — which, as mentioned, is super dangerous for pregnant women.
But plot twist! There is a way you can have your deli favorites during these three trimesters. For starters, Parents magazine notes that you can heat the deli meat to kill off any bacteria, which could mean popping it in the microwave, or just ordering a hot sandwich (as if you needed another reason to splurge for the gooey-hot panini). Also, keep in mind that the FDA changed their rules about cheese, saying soft cheeses are fine during pregnancy as long we they’re made with pasteurized milk. So before you buy feta or fresh mozz, check the label. Other than that, indulge (in moderation).
Sushi is one of the most common food no-nos for pregnant women, passed down by doctors and pregnancy experts for decades. I assumed it was a bacteria-based warning, given the raw fish, but sushi was actually axed from the pregnancy diet because of mercury. And as pointed out, even the FDA realizes their mercury fears have been largely overblown. A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found no negative association between prenatal mercury exposure and neurodevelopmental issues. In fact, the brain-boosting benefits of fish might even counteract the effects of mercury. That being said, it may best to opt for a roll with cooked fish or one low in mercury, such as salmon.