Foods to avoid while pregnant

All Woman

BEING pregnant requires a lot of dietary and lifestyle changes. And apart from aiming for a more balanced diet, there are some foods that the expecting mother should avoid totally and/or take extra care when consuming to prevent any harm to her baby.

“Proper nutrition is important to maintain the health of the mother and the baby and ensure proper development of the baby. The fact is, whatever the mother consumes will also be fed to the baby and may compromise healthy development,” explained Dr Keisha Buchanan, obstetrician-gynaecologist at ICON Medical Centre.

She underscored that the first trimester, which is the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, is the time at which the baby is most susceptible to birth defects as this is the time that the foetal organs are developing such as the brain and heart. However, she warned that taking care with foods consumed should be practised throughout the entire pregnancy and even while breastfeeding.

Below, Dr Buchanan shares some of the foods that pregnant women should avoid.


“No amount of alcohol should be consumed during pregnancy as this can lead to foetal alcohol syndrome, which is marked by abnormal facial features, brain development abnormalities, kidney and bone problems, low IQ, learning disabilities and behavioural problems,” Dr Buchanan warned. She said that binge drinking of alcohol places the woman at highest risk for this. Also, alcohol should not be consumed while breastfeeding as alcohol can enter the breast milk.


“Fish that contain a high mercury content such as king mackerel, shark, barracuda, tilefish, some forms of tuna should be avoided. Some sushi may contain high mercury meats so choose sushi made with salmon, crab or shrimp,” Dr Buchanan advised. She explained that mercury can negatively affect the brain development of the foetus and as such recommends safer alternatives such as salt fish, salmon, sardines, snapper, tilapia and butterfish. Seafood such as shrimp is also safe to eat and provide omega-3s that are good for baby's brain development.


“Pregnant women should not consume uncooked seafood or undercooked eggs or chicken or vegetables that are not properly washed such as cucumbers as this can expose the mother to salmonella poisoning,” Dr Buchanan said.

Salmonella poisoning, she said, presents like gastroenteritis in the pregnant woman and may also result in foetal infection, though rare. Foetal infection can be severe, causing pre-term labour or stillbirth.

In the case of undercooked meats such as lamb and pork, these can cause exposure of the foetus to toxoplasmosis. Vegetables that have been exposed to cat faeces, for example cabbage, can have toxoplasmosis, which is why vegetables must be washed before consumption.

“Consuming properly washed and steamed vegetables can significantly decrease the risk of toxoplasmosis (and other infections such as E coli). Toxoplasmosis is a parasitic infection that can cause foetal brain damage, such as hydrocephalus, a swelling of the brain; eye damage, seizures, developmental delays and stunted growth,” Dr Buchanan explained.

She said that infection in the first and early second trimester is rare but can be severe. Hence food must be properly cooked, and you should always ensure that food is acquired from a reputable source.

Deli meats should be properly cooked, as undercooked deli meats and cold cuts may increase the chances of infections such as listeriosis (a bacterial infection).


For many women, there is nothing quite like coffee to help kick-start and keep them awake throughout the day. However, Dr Buchanan said that you will want to break the habit as soon as you become pregnant.

“Coffee intake in pregnancy should be limited to 200 mg or less per day. That is equivalent to a 12-ounce cup or less per day. Caffeine is a stimulant and as such can increase the mother's blood pressure and pulse rate, causes insomnia, which is already a common complaint during pregnancy, and cause the mother to urinate even more frequently than what occurs in pregnancy,” Dr Buchanan explained. She explained that it is important to be cautious since caffeine crosses the placenta and is also a stimulant to the foetus, which will affect the baby's sleep-wake cycles, cause the foetus to stay awake longer, and can also affect foetal movements. Some studies have also linked excessive caffeine intake to premature labour and delivery and stunted foetal growth. Dr Buchanan recommended swapping caffeinated beverages including coffees, teas, power drinks, chocolate and chocolate drinks for safer warm beverages like peppermint, ginger and green teas.


Many women enjoy herbal teas because of their calming effects not only on the stomach but on the mind. Dr Buchanan said you need to be careful when consuming herbal teas, noting that you should avoid black cohosh, lemongrass, hibiscus, comfry and alfalfa tea as these may be linked to miscarriage. Also, thyme tea can trigger a miscarriage or early labour.


Dr Buchanan said that while most cheeses and milk are safe to consume during pregnancy, you should avoid soft cheeses and do not consume cheeses and milk that are unpasteurised, as these put women at risk of listeriosis.

“Listeriosis is a bacterial infection and if contracted in pregnancy it usually causes mild flu-like symptoms such as fever, joint pains, diarrhoea, and rarely more severe symptoms such as seizures,” Dr Buchanan explained. She said that pregnant women are 20 times more likely to get listeriosis than the non-pregnant population. If the foetus contracts listeriosis this can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, premature labour, central nervous system damage causing seizures, blindness and kidney and heart damage.




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