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Top 10 Foods to Avoid Eating While Pregnant—And What to Eat Instead

Head and shoulders photograph of Anju Mobin
Pregnant woman sitting cross-legged on bed surrounded by bowls of food
When you are pregnant, everything you eat gets shared with your growing baby, so you need to be especially careful with your diet. Exposure to toxins from contaminated foods can harm both the mother and baby—foods such as unripe papayas may even trigger miscarriages. While you can enjoy some foods in moderation or as an occasional treat, you should avoid others altogether.

As such, prepping meals in advance can help you avoid dangerous mistakes. Thankfully, there are various meal delivery services that can eliminate the stress of having to do this yourself.

Aside from that, to keep you and your little one safe, we have listed 10 things to avoid eating and drinking while pregnant and plenty of suitable alternatives.

1. Caffeinated Drinks and Sodas

Caffeine is a strong stimulant known for its ability to energize and rejuvenate people. Caffeinated drinks include coffee, tea, energy drinks, and even sugary sodas.

However, it is best to avoid caffeine during pregnancy. Caffeine intake can affect your unborn baby, increasing fetal catecholamine levels, fetal heart rate, and placental vasoconstriction. If the fetus' oxygen uptake is impaired, it can be fatal. Caffeine can cause birth defects, premature labor, preterm delivery, and an increased risk of low birth weight (1).

What to Drink Instead of Caffeine

During pregnancy, it is advised to limit your caffeine intake to 200 milligrams a day—actually, the less the better. When you feel thirsty, have water, fruit juice, and green smoothies that are refreshing and nutritious, offering many essential vitamins and minerals that are good for the growth of the fetus. Use plenty of spinach in your green smoothies for the following nutrients:

  • Iron—essential for a healthy blood supply to your baby
  • Potassium—helps maintain the balance of fluids and electrolytes
  • Fiber—promotes heart health and digestion

2. Unpasteurized Cheese

Cheese is highly beneficial for pregnant women as it is rich in calcium, fat, protein, vitamin A, B12, zinc, phosphorus, and riboflavin.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that pregnant women should consume at least 1000mg of calcium every day (2) to ensure the healthy growth of the baby’s bones and tooth buds. Cheese can easily fulfill this nutritional need.

However, unpasteurized cheese, such as Danish blue cheese and Camembert, can be infected with bacterial diseases like E. coli or listeria, both of which can cause food poisoning. Listeria also causes flu-like symptoms that might not be life-threatening to grown-ups, but can be severely dangerous for unborn babies.

What to Eat Instead of Unpasteurized Cheese

Have pasteurized cheeses, like cheddar, instead as they are high in calcium and completely free of harmful microbes. Not only are they safe, but they also contain 492% more calcium than milk.

If you crave soft, mold-ripened, unprocessed cheese, then make sure to heat it enough to kill the microbes and make the food safe for consumption. You can also get the calcium you need from pasteurized animal milks—like cow and goat—and plant-based milks like soy, almond, and coconut.

3. Raw Sprouts

How to figure out what you should be eating is no easy task during pregnancy.

For example, sprouts are considered a superfood because of their high content of folate, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, and vitamin K. Folate is essential in pregnancy, especially in the first trimester as it can help prevent major birth defects such as anencephaly and spina bifida. Magnesium helps reduce fetal growth restriction and supports a healthy weight while phosphorus is crucial for kidney and nerve function, muscle development, and cell repair.

However, in pregnancy, sprouts are only good when sufficiently cooked. Raw sprouts of mung beans, radish, clover, etc., can be a hub of disease-causing bacteria such as listeria, salmonella, and E. coli.

What to Eat Instead of Raw Sprouts

To enjoy the nutritional benefits of sprouts without compromising your baby’s health, simply cook them well. Use cooked sprouts in salads, hot soups, and stir-fries. Alternatively, try asparagus and leafy green vegetables like kale and spinach for the same nutrients.

4. Unripe Papaya

Papaya is a rich source of vitamin C, vitamin A, and vitamin E, powerful antioxidants that help keep our immune systems healthy, as well as potassium and magnesium.

However, in their first trimester of pregnancy, women need to be wary of unripe papayas as they contain a type of latex that can trigger uterine contractions, leading to early labor (3).

The proteolytic enzymes present in papaya is papain, which is used in marinades to tenderize meat. Your body can mistake this enzyme for prostaglandin and induce labor. Furthermore, papain can also weaken the membrane that supports the fetus.

What to Eat Instead of Unripe Papaya

Ripe papayas! Papain isn't present ripe papayas and they also do not contain latex.

You can also eat other fruits such as oranges, mangoes, lemons, apples, and berries that offer a good amount of vitamin A and C, while avocado, bananas, and apricots are a great alternative for potassium. Just be sure to wash them thoroughly and cut away any bruised bits—consider using these in one of the many ways to reduce food waste.

If you are a vegetarian struggling to find the time to get enough nutrients for your growing baby, consider letting one of the best vegetarian meal delivery services do the work for you.

5. High-Mercury Fish

Fish is a great addition to any diet. It's not only rich in high-quality protein, but it also provides you with a wide range of vitamins and minerals. The high omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA) in fish are vital for your baby's cognitive development.

Salmon also offers you plenty of selenium, a mineral that plays an important role in detoxifying heavy metals and protecting the brain. Selenium-based enzymes may also reduce pregnancy-induced hypertension and lower the risk of preterm delivery (4).

However, you should avoid certain types of fish during pregnancy as they may contain high levels of mercury, a toxic substance that can damage the nervous system, kidneys, and immune system.

Fish such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and certain types of tuna (albacore, yellowfin, and bigeye) tend to be high in mercury—both canned and fresh.

What to Eat Instead of High-Mercury Fish

Fish with low mercury offer all the amazing benefits of seafood without the risk of poisoning. Such varieties include anchovies, cod, salmon, and sardines.

6. Sushi

Raw fish is far more likely to contain harmful bacteria or parasites than cooked fish. Therefore, you should stay away from it during pregnancy to be on the safe side. Sadly, this means no sushi or sashimi!

What to Eat Instead of Sushi

Most varieties of fish are fine, so long as they’re low in mercury and cooked well. Overcooked fish may be less appealing, but it’s better than risking your baby’s health.

7. Egg-Based Products

Eggs are one of the most nutritious foods on the planet as they have high levels of protein and healthy fats. Additionally, they are great sources of iron, vitamins, minerals, and carotenoids that decrease the risk of SGA babies.

However, raw or undercooked eggs can be infected with salmonella, which causes dangerous food poisoning. Even though anyone can be affected by it, pregnant women are far more vulnerable. Salmonella can lead to an amniotic fluid infection and trigger a miscarriage.

What most people don't realize is the number of egg-based products that contain raw eggs, including mayonnaise, mousse, and Ceasar salad dressing. It's imperative to avoid these products as a pregnant woman in order to stay on the safe side.

What to Eat Instead of Egg-Based Products

It’s best to cook your eggs until the yolk is completely hard. Hard-boiled or double-fried eggs are better than soft-boiled and sunny side options. Thankfully, there are plenty of egg-free alternatives to your favorite egg-based products, such as chickpea-based chocolate mousse that will still contain healthy fats and trace amounts of iron and folate, but without the risk.

8. Organ Meats

Organ meats are extremely rich in vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin A. They are also rich in B-vitamins such as vitamin B12 and folic acid; vitamins A, D, E, and K; zinc; magnesium; and selenium.

However, having too much animal-based vitamin A may cause pregnancy complications such as congenital malformations and even miscarriage in the first trimester of pregnancy. Consuming a few ounces may be okay, but why take the risk?

What to Eat Instead of Organ Meats

Instead of organ meats, go for quality meats like grass-fed beef and free-range chicken, and leave the livers aside. Furthermore, legumes, sweet potatoes, dark leafy green vegetables, and berries can give you a similar vitamin and mineral profile.

9. Medium-Rare Steak

Steaks are an excellent source of protein, iron, zinc, dietary creatine, and vitamin B12, making them a great addition to your diet during pregnancy. Unfortunately, anything pink is a major risk for salmonella and Toxoplasma gondii, which can cause severe gastrointestinal problems.

Though it's not exclusively applicable for pregnancy and is true for all, pregnant ladies are more vulnerable. Other individuals can safely eat medium-rare—or even rare—steak and not risk more than a few sick days, whereas anything less than well-done for a pregnant woman can lead to dehydration from stomach issues and potentially cause preterm delivery, low amniotic fluid, and even birth defects.

What to Eat Instead of Rare Steak

Cook your steak thoroughly before eating. You may not enjoy the flavor as much, but at least you can rest easy knowing your baby is safe. When it comes to nutrients, be rest assured that there is no difference between well-cooked and medium-rare steak.

10. Herbal Teas

Herbal teas like chamomile, peppermint, and lemon balm are often touted as great ways to relax and unwind as they are rich in antioxidants, anti-inflammatory components, and polyphenols (which can help with blood circulation). Although they can be a great way to destress after a long day, pregnant women should beware as there is very little research on the effects of herbal teas on developing babies.

What to Drink Instead of Herbal Teas

If you absolutely can't live without your herbal teas, then be sure to check with your doctor which ones are undoubtedly safe for pregnant women. Alternatively, you can get the same beneficial components of herbal teas from low-caffeine green teas, beet juice, and cocoa.

The Final Note

During pregnancy, we need to be extremely mindful of the food we eat. Anything that is not washed, thoroughly cooked, or pasteurized may be a hub of disease-causing pathogens that can easily reach the baby and cause harm. Knowing what to eat and avoid can help you have a healthy pregnancy.

Getting prepped meals from reputable companies like Sunbasket or Factor is a great way to ensure you are eating the right foods. If you wait until you are hungry, you may end up reaching for the wrong foods.

References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7035149/
  2. https://www.acog.org/womens-health/faqs/nutrition-during-pregnancy
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12144723/
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21849598/
Head and shoulders photograph of Anju Mobin
Anju Mobin is a certified nutritionist and has worked in numerous medical clinics. She specializes in nutrition and fitness content with over a decade of experience as a writer and editor.

*The information on this site is based on research, but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new diet plan, we recommend consulting with a physician or other professional healthcare provider. Results may vary based on various health factors, individual weight loss plans and adherence to the meal plan.