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Here's Why Doctors Don't Want You To Eat Deli Meat During Pregnancy

Because you’re really craving a turkey sandwich.

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Sandwiches are seriously an underrated meal. They’re perfectly portable, filled with proteins and dairy that are nutritious for your body — and they taste damn good, too. Thing is, if you’re expecting, you might have to skip your favorite sub, as experts advise caution when eating lunch meat or deli meat while pregnant.

Along with high mercury fish (like swordfish, king mackerel, and shark, for example) and raw eggs, deli meat is also on the no-no list when it comes to foods you can safely consume while pregnant. “Deli meat is not safe for pregnant women to have as there's a risk that it may contain Listeria, a bacteria that is harmful and could result in stillbirth or miscarriage,” says Kara Hoerr, a registered dietitian nutritionist. Listeriosis is a harmful infection that can occur when eating food contaminated with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It’s particularly dangerous for older adults and, you guessed it, pregnant women.

Why is there listeria in deli meat?

Listeria is typically found in soil and water, and unfortunately, can live for many months in these environments, per the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Add to that the fact that it can thrive in high and low temperatures (as well as acidic and salty conditions), and it makes sense that Listeria can live for a long time in not just food processing plants, but the food itself. In fact, the study “Food safety during pregnancy” found that putting deli meat in the fridge can actually allow increased growth of Listeria, since the bacteria can quickly multiply at those frigid temperatures.

Is it safe to eat deli meat, lunch meat, or cold cuts while pregnant?

Even if you’re seriously craving a sub stuffed with salami, black forest ham, and other cold cuts, you’re going to have to wait until baby is born to sink your teeth into that sammy. “During pregnancy, it is recommended to avoid deli meats due to a risk of listeria, which can be very dangerous to your unborn child,” says registered dietitian Erin Palinski-Wade. “If you do wish to eat these meats, heating the meats to a steaming temperature (165 F or above) is the best way to ensure that any potential listeria has been destroyed by heat.”

But what about sliced cheese that you get from the deli? For the most part, those are OK, according to Palinski-Wade. “All deli meats run the risk of listeria, but this is not the case with cheese,” she says. “Unpasteurized cheeses and cheeses that have been mold-ripened (this includes brie, camembert, and chevre) or blue-veined cheese such as gorgonzola, should be avoided during pregnancy.” This is because these cheeses, similarly to lunch meat and deli meat, have a risk of containing listeria bacteria, too. Still, there are some cheeses that you can eat during pregnancy. Says Palinski-Wade: “Pasteurized, hard cheeses are fine to consume.”

Why is deli meat not safe to eat during pregnancy?

Getting food poisoning is never fun, but Listeriosis during pregnancy is particularly dangerous. According to the study “Listeriosis during pregnancy,” pregnant women are at an 18 times greater risk of infection than everyone else. The cause: “Pregnancy-related suppressed cell-mediated immunity and placental tropism of L. monocytogenes.” That means that your immune system can become weaker during pregnancy, and as such, if you were to eat something contaminated with Listeria, it could cause fetal Listeriosis, which has a mortality rate of 25-35%, researchers found.

“The CDC recommends that pregnant women not consume deli meat because it can carry the listeria bacteria which can cause food poisoning, vomiting, and sickness,” says Jana Mowrer, a registered dietitian, nutritionist, and certified diabetes care and education specialist. “The likelihood is rare, however, still there is the chance and it is more debilitating for pregnant women and people over 65.”

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Can you safely eat deli meat during pregnancy?

Sort of. If you can’t wait to dive into some deli meat, just make sure that you pop it into the oven or microwave first, Hoerr advises. “No matter what kind of deli meat it is, in order to safely eat it, it must be heated up to an internal temp of 165 degrees F,” she says, with the goal for the sammie to be steaming hot. Also, keep an eye on expiration dates, since all food should be consumed quickly. “Deli-meat should be stored factory-sealed unopened for no more than two weeks in the refrigerator and, if opened, no longer than three to five days in the refrigerator,” according to registered dietitian nutritionist Mary Wirtz.

But what about the Havarti, gouda, or muenster to go on that monster sandwich? “Cheeses are safe as long as the cheese has been pasteurized and isn't raw,” says Hoerr. “Most deli cheeses are pasteurized, but it never hurts to ask at the deli counter or check the package.”

And there you have it. If you’ve been wondering why can’t pregnant women eat deli meat is due to a potential bacterial infection. Now, if you do decide to have some lunch meat while pregnant, it should be done very carefully and infrequently to avoid possibly contracting Listeriosis. In fact, you might want to leave lunch meat off of your menu until you give birth, at which point you can celebrate with a sub.

Studies referenced:

Taylor, M. Galanis, E. 2010. “Food safety during pregnancy”, Can Fam Physician,

Madjunkov, M., Chaudhry, S., Ito, S. 2017. “Listeriosis during pregnancy”, Arch Gynecol Obstet,

Experts sourced:

Kara Hoerr, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist

Jana Mowrer, MPH, RDN, CDCES, a registered dietitian, nutritionist, and certified diabetes care and education specialist

Mary Wirtz, MS, RDN, CSSD, a registered dietitian nutritionist

Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, LDN, CPT, a registered dietitian

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