Pregnancy Diet: What Not to Eat When Pregnant
What foods and beverages should I limit or avoid during pregnancy?
In general, stick to a healthy fiber-rich diet. Choose ‘whole’ foods, such as legumes, grains, fruits, vegetables, lean meats, eggs and dairy products most often. Keep in mind that everything you eat and drink is concentrated and must be metabolized by a very small system. Certain foods, beverages and other substances may be harmful to a growing fetus.
Alcohol and Caffeine
All pregnant women should completely avoid alcohol. It increases your risk of delivering an infant suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome or related birth defects. Caffeine is absorbed rapidly, in your system and through the placenta. A fetus cannot ‘detoxify’ (that is metabolize fully efficiently) caffeine. Thus, consuming large quantities, or more than the equivalent of three 6-oz. cups of regular coffee (provides 270 mg – 450 mg depending on brewing method, variety and other factors) is ‘too much’. In addition to coffee, caffeine is found in tea, chocolate and is added to many ‘energy’ beverages and soft drinks. Over-loading on this stimulant can increase your risk of miscarriage, delivering a low-birth-weight baby and/or disturb a fetus’ sleep patterns.
According to the American Pregnancy Association, most experts agree that the safest course of action is to abstain from caffeine. However, if you need your caffeine ‘fix’ to function, then limit your intake to 150 mg – 300 mg daily. This range has not been found to adversely affect pregnancy (the approximate equivalent of 1.5 to two 6-oz. cups of regular coffee).
Limit your intake of sugary, high-fat desserts, fried foods and other ‘junk’ foods, such as chips, cookies and pastries. These items are high in calories but not rich in nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals and protein. Taking in too many calories and/or overeating may lead to excessive weight gain during pregnancy. While gaining a few extra lbs. may not be serious, gaining too much weight (varies by individual) can be dangerous. Pregnant women that have gained too much weight are more likely to develop high blood pressure and gestational diabetes, especially those with a family history of either condition.
All pregnant women should avoid seafood known to be high in methyl mercury, a toxin. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), fish with high levels of methyl mercury include shark, swordfish, king mackerel, albacore “white” tuna and tilefish. Many varieties of seafood are low in this harmful substance so you have plenty of other choices. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends checking local advisories regarding the safety of fish caught by family members and friends locally. If this information is unavailable, limit your consumption of fish from these sources to 6 oz. per week.
Sodium and Artificial Sweeteners
Most pregnant women do not need to limit their sodium intake unless advised by a physician or health care provider. In some cases, for pregnant women that develop high blood pressure and/or suffer from excessive swelling, limiting sodium intake may be helpful.
Many pregnant women are wary of choosing foods and beverages that contain artificial sweeteners. However, according to the FDA, artificial sweeteners currently on the market, such as aspartame, are Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). The only exception or questionable artificial sweetener is saccharin, according to the American Pregnancy Association.
Women with type I or II diabetes (pre-pregnancy/existing) or who develop gestational diabetes should consult a registered dietitian/health care provider. He/she can provide information about consuming foods that contain artificial sweeteners in place of conventional sweeteners, such as honey. In most cases, controlling your blood sugar levels takes priority and is essential for a healthy pregnancy and delivering a normal-weight baby.
- Drummond, K.E. & Brefer, L.M.: Nutrition for Foodservice & Culinary Professionals, 7th ed. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, New York, 2010.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Library: Food and Nutrition Information Center: Lifecycle Nutrition: Pregnancy.
- Food and Drug Administration (FDA): Mercury Levels in Commercial Fish and Shellfish (1990-2010).