Episode 137: May 10, 2011
Ask the Diva?
by Monica Reinagel, M.S., L.D./N.
Diane from New Jersey writes with a question about diet guidelines for pregnant women. As she says, the rules for what is safe to eat during pregnancy seem to be different in various parts of the world. She’s wondering how seriously women should take bans on various foods.
What Foods Should Pregnant Women Avoid?
There are legitimate reasons that particular foods might be a concern for pregnant women and their unborn babies. But Diane is right; there are definitely cultural differences in terms of what we’re worried about and how big a threat we perceive certain foods to be. In general, Americans seem to be a bit more nervous about their pregnancies than other cultures. But we still have some cultural blind-spots that cause us to focus on certain threats while ignoring others.
Let’s take a closer look at the rationale behind the various banned foods so that you can make informed decisions—in consultation with your obstetrician, of course.
Is it Safe to Eat Sushi or Soft Cheese When Pregnant?
Raw milk, soft unpasteurized cheeses, alfalfa sprouts, sushi, and deli meats are all foods that you’ll frequently see on the Do Not Eat While Pregnant list because they all pose an elevated risk of food-borne illness. Obviously, food poisoning isn’t fun for anyone—but because of changes in immune system, circulation, and metabolism, it can be more serious in pregnant women.
Although the risk of getting a food-borne illness from one of these foods is small, there’s nothing wrong with erring on the side of caution, of course. But our perception of risk seems to be sort of culturally programmed. European women think nothing of consuming unpasteurized cheese throughout their pregnancies, just as the Japanese do not stop eating sushi during theirs. Here in America, pregnant women swear off the brie and raw seafood but don’t hesitate to eat poached eggs or medium-done burgers. If minimizing your risk of food-borne illness is the goal, you’d want to avoid all of these.
Should Pregnant Women Avoid Fish?
Pregnant women should choose low-mercury options like salmon, black cod, sardines, and bluefin.
Whether raw or cooked, pregnant women have also been advised to limit their consumption of certain fish due to concerns over mercury, which could affect the baby’s brain development. Ironically, fish is also a primary source for omega-3 fatty acids that fuel healthy brain development. And in fact, the FDA has been quick to point out that the benefits of eating fish—even during pregnancy—outweigh the risks of mercury exposure.
Fortunately, you can get the benefits of those brain-building omega-3s without taking unnecessary risks. Choose low-mercury options like salmon, black cod, sardines, and bluefin. Avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish, and albacore tuna, which are high in mercury.
Are Cured Meats Safe for Pregnant Women?
As I wrote in a previous article, I also think it’s wise to avoid cured meats such as hot dogs, bacon, and ham during pregnancy—or choose those that are made without nitrites. Meats that are cured with nitrites contain nitrosamines, a compound that’s been shown to cause cancer in lab animals. Although occasional consumption of cured meats by adults isn’t a huge concern, developing fetuses are much more vulnerable to the carcinogenic effects of nitrosamines.
How do Pesticides in Foods Affect Unborn Babies?
Pesticides and other industrial chemicals like BPA in foods are also a growing concern—and not just for pregnant women. We all have traces of these chemicals in our bodies and it’s become clear that they are not biologically inert, as was once thought. Although these chemicals aren’t good for anyone, the greatest potential for harm is in developing fetuses, which are likely to be particularly vulnerable to their effects.
Just recently, in fact, a series of studies found that kids whose mothers had high exposure to pesticides during their pregnancies scored lower on IQ tests. Pregnant moms might want to work even a little harder than the rest of us to reduce their exposure to these chemicals. Buying organic produce—especially for those fruits and vegetables that have high pesticide residues—can go a long way toward reducing your exposure to pesticides.
Three Tips to Reduce your Exposure to BPA
In addition to steering clear of pesticides, here are three steps your can take to reduce your exposure to bis-phenol A, or BPA.
Avoid canned foods, especially tomatoes, unless you can find brands that are specifically-labeled BPA-free
Use glass or ceramic containers to microwave foods
Use a stainless-steel, reusable water bottle instead of bottled water.
Urban legend alert: You may have heard that you can check whether a can contains BPA with a magnet. A magnet will tell you whether a can is made with steel or aluminum, but both are equally likely to be lined with BPA.
Is Any Amount of Caffeine or Alcohol Safe During Pregnancy?
Caffeine and alcohol have both been linked to low birth weight and other developmental problems and here in America, pregnant women are strongly advised to completely avoid both for the duration of their pregnancies. Europeans are a little more relaxed about this. I’m not saying that there bars are full of pregnant women doing body shots, but it’s not unusual to see a pregnant woman in Europe enjoying a small glass of wine or demitasse of espresso.
When pressed, many American obstetricians will admit that a small amount of alcohol or caffeine is unlikely to have detrimental effects on the fetus. The problem is that we don’t have any research that allows us to say what amount is safe. And, in fact, it would be completely unethical to conduct that experiment. Again, this is an issue where most people choose to err on the side of caution—at least on this side of the pond.
Should You Avoid Peanuts During Pregnancy?
And finally, because peanut allergies have become so common, some obstetricians have been instructing their patients not to eat peanuts during pregnancy or while breast-feeding. But more recent studies have found that avoiding peanuts during pregnancy does not reduce peanut allergies in infants. Check with your obstetrician for more guidance, especially if peanut allergies run in your family. However, the latest research suggests that avoiding peanuts and peanut butter during pregnancy is an unnecessary precaution.
See also: Are Peanuts Good For You?
More Advice on What to Eat, What to Avoid, and What to Stop Worrying About
Thanks to Diane for the great topic suggestion. To show my appreciation, I’m sending her a signed copy of my new book, Nutrition Diva’s Secrets for a Healthy Diet: What to Eat, What to Avoid, and What to Stop Worrying About. This book is my essential guide to eating well and feeling fabulous and it’s available wherever you buy or download books.
If you have other questions about eating during pregnancy or any other nutrition topic, feel free to post them below or on my Nutrition Diva Facebook page.
Have a great week and remember to eat something good for me!