Foods to avoid during pregnancy

foods to avoid when pregnant shopping supermarket

There are some foods you should avoid while you're pregnant because they could harm your baby. Although much of the list of what not to eat when you're expecting is common sense, it’s a good idea to check exactly what's on – and off – the menu for the next nine months

Dairy & Eggs | Meat & Fish | Caffeine & Alcohol | Soil | Vitamins/Supplements | Other foods | Food safety tips

Dairy & Eggs

Dairy products

Why should I avoid certain cheeses while pregnant?

In cheeses with a high water or mould content, there is sometimes a bacteria called listeria. Although infection with listeria (listeriosis) is rare, it can cause miscarriage and stillbirth – so it's just not worth taking the risk.

Which cheeses can't I eat during pregnancy?

  • Soft cheese with blue mould such as Roquefort, Danish blue, and Gorgonzola should be avoided completely.
  • Soft cheeses with a white mould rind such as brie, camembert and goat's cheese, are also off the menu unless they have been cooked at a very high temperature – above 70 degrees celsius.
  • Hard cheeses such as cheddar, parmesan and stilton are fine as they do not provide the right environment for listeria to grow, even if they're made with unpasteurised milk. Although a slight risk of listeria remains with these cheeses, it is very low.
  • Other types of cheese (including feta, halloumi, mozzarella, ricotta, and cottage cheese) are OK to eat, but check that they are made with pasteurised milk.
  • Goat's cheese and cheese made from sheep are often unpasteurised.
I would love it if the supermarkets could put a 'safe for pregnant women' logo on their cheeses (like their nut allergy warnings). I spent ages trying to figure out what I could and couldn't eat in the dairy aisle.

Milk

It is safe to drink milk during pregnancy – as long as it is pasteurised (and the calcium you'll get is important for keeping you and baby healthy). However, unpasteurised milk is not safe because it could contain bacteria. This is also the case for sheep's milk and goat's milk – so make sure to check the label. If only unpasteurised milk is available, boil it first.

Raw eggs

Eggs can sometimes contain salmonella, which shouldn't harm your baby, but can make you very ill with food poisoning. Advice used to be to avoid all runny or uncooked eggs and any products containing them (such as raw dough/batter and homemade ice cream, custard, and mayonnaise to name a few) but new advice issued in January 2016 suggests the risk is very low if you are using eggs produced in the UK adhering to the Lion code – check for a stamp. If you still want to avoid this very low risk, make sure that eggs are thoroughly cooked until the whites and yolks are solid.

Yoghurt and ice cream

As long as they have been made with pasteurised milk, all yoghurts are fine – bio, live, Greek – you name it so now's the time to indulge in your Onken obsession (other yoghurt brands are available).

Shop-bought cream should be fine too (hooray!) as it's usually made with pasteurised milk and eggs, so there's no risk of contracting listeria or salmonella. If you're getting fancy and making your own ice cream, you could use an egg substitute or an egg-free recipe in order to avoid the very low salmonella risk (see above).

Meat and fish

Liver pate

Can I eat meat during pregnancy?

In short, yes, but there are exceptions. Make sure what you're eating is completely cooked, and don't eat anything raw or underdone (now's not the time for steak tartare or a dodgy BBQ burger). This is because raw meat can carry a risk of toxoplasmosis.

  • Avoid venison or game shot with lead pellets – it can contain high levels of lead which is poisonous. Most game you buy in supermarkets is farmed and will not contain any lead, but do ask if you're not sure.
  • Avoid liver and pate (even vegetarian kinds). Liver contains high levels of vitamin A which can harm your baby's development, and pate can contain listeria.
First thing I did when I got home from hospital after having my baby was get the brie, pâté and Cava out. I'm not lying when I say it was better than sex.
  • Take care with deli meats such as salami, chorizo and Parma ham. These are often cured and fermented rather than cooked, so they carry a risk of listeriosis and toxoplasmosis. If you want to eat them, make sure they're pre-cooked or cook them yourself at home.
  • Also avoid touching raw meat where you can – if you can't avoid it, wash your hands thoroughly afterwards.
  • Pre-packed meats, such as ham and corned beef, are safe to eat whilst you're pregnant.

Can I eat fish and shellfish whilst pregnant?

Fish

Generally speaking fish is good for you and helps your baby's development, so do include it in your pregnancy diet. However, there are some things to avoid and take care with.

  • Avoid marlin, swordfish and shark (yes, shark) because they contain high levels of mercury – this can affect your baby's developing nervous system.
  • Shellfish should be cooked properly to avoid the risk of food poisoning.
  • Oysters are out too, unless you like them cooked.
  • Keep your consumption of oily fish (mackerel, salmon, sardines) to 2-3 portions per week, as it can contain pollutants such as dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
  • Limit your tuna intake as it is an oily fish which also contains more mercury than other fish. Stick to a maximum of two tuna steaks (about 140g cooked) or four medium cans of tuna (about 140g when drained) a week.
  • Have as much white fish and cooked shellfish as you like – this includes cold, pre-cooked prawns and smoked fish is safe to eat too.
  • Sushi is fine to eat, including varieties with raw fish, so long as it has been frozen before serving. This is because wild fish can sometimes contain small parasitic worms (yuk) that make you ill. Freezing the raw fish kills these worms – cooking the fish also kills them. If you're unsure, you can avoid the risk altogether by sticking to vegetarian or cooked sushi.

Caffeine and alcohol

Can I have caffeine during pregnancy?

There's no need to go cold turkey with caffeine while you're pregnant, but if you're a serious coffee drinker or Diet Coke addict, you'll want to cut down your intake to 200mg a day – which amounts to about one Americano and a small bar of chocolate (yes, there's caffeine in chocolate – sorry).

I switched to decaf tea and coffee, and reduced the amount of Coke I was drinking. But if I was at a friend's house and they offered a cuppa I’d have it without a moment's hesitation.

Too much caffeine can cause your baby to have a low birth weight and may cause miscarriage, so you'll need to think about your diet and where you can make changes.

Remember that caffeine is also in tea (including some herbal and green teas), some foods, and some cold and flu remedies – it's worth talking to your doctor before taking them.

Can I drink alcohol while I'm pregnant?

Current guidance is to avoid alcohol altogether during pregnancy, particularly in the first three months, but if you must drink, limit yourself to only one or two units once or twice a week. If you've always thought units were something to do with kitchens, use Drinkaware's alcohol unit calculator to see how they stack up.

Advice on drinking during pregnancy is one of those areas that seems to keep changing and experts don't seem to be able to agree on what level is safe – hence the advice to avoid alcohol completely.

Alcohol

There's no doubt that drinking during pregnancy is potentially dangerous, because alcohol crosses the placenta but your baby's developing liver can't process it as fast as your liver can. Too much alcohol increases your risk of miscarriage and your baby's chance of having a low birthweight. It can also lead to foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, which can cause serious health problems for your baby, such as heart defects.

Soil

Unless you have a bad case of pica, it's doubtful you are going to be eating handfuls of earth, but make sure you wash fruit and vegetables thoroughly as soil can contain toxoplasma.

Unpasteurized or “freshly squeezed” juice from a juice bar or supermarket can also be a risk, so it's best avoided – if you want to make your own juice at home, wash all fruit and vegetables thoroughly before squeezing.

Toxoplasma is also found in cat poo (not that you should eat that even when you're not pregnant) so take care when cleaning Fluffy's litter tray, or – better still – get someone else to do it for the time being.

Vitamins and supplements

Folic acid

It's important to make sure you're eating well and getting the right nutrients while you're pregnant, but avoid high-dose multivitamin supplements, fish liver oil supplements, and any supplements containing vitamin A, which can affect your baby's development.

Do take folic acid though, especially in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy – it helps create new cells, which is important when you've got a tiny person growing inside of you.

Other foods on the 'safe for pregnancy' list

Can I eat peanuts in pregnancy?

The latest research says there is no clear evidence that eating or avoiding peanuts during pregnancy affects whether your baby develops a peanut allergy. So now you can get in a bag of dry-roasted while you're nursing your lime and soda. Hooray!

What about liquorice?

There's no recommendation to avoid liquorice sweets or teas whilst you're pregnant – but avoid the herbal remedy liquorice root as it's been linked to premature labour.

Other tips for food safety in pregnancy

  • Use a food thermometer when cooking meat or fish to ensure it's cooked all the way through.
  • Avoid prepackaged salads (especially ones containing eggs, chicken, ham, or seafood).
  • Steer clear of buffet/picnic food that's been sitting out for longer than two hours.
  • Reheat leftovers until steaming.
  • Peel fruit and veg (or wash them really well) and keep them refrigerated to avoid the risk of bacteria growing.