As a pediatric dietitian, food safety for moms-to-be is my specialty. Here’s a list of 10+ foods to avoid when you’re pregnant. Plus, I’m also sharing a list of the best and healthiest foods to eat when you’re expecting.
As a pediatric and family dietitian, I’m often asked about safe vs. unsafe foods during pregnancy, as well as about the best foods for a healthy pregnancy. Most foods are completely safe for pregnant women to enjoy without worry. However, there are some foods that should be avoided during pregnancy (or even when you’re TRYING to get pregnant). These foods can be potentially harmful to a developing baby as well as a pregnant mom. The risk isn’t the food itself, but the potential for the food to contain harmful bacteria that can lead to food poisoning—think salmonella, E. coli, or listeria. Foods that are raw and unpasteurized are often a risk. You so do not want food poisoning while you are pregnant, so it’s better to skip these foods. It’s not forever—just 40 weeks (give or take)!
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Here’s why food safety is so important during pregnancy
When you’re pregnant, your immune system is fragile and not as strong as normal, meaning that your immunity to certain foodborne pathogens decreases, so you and your unborn babe are at higher risk for food poisoning. Take Listeria (a harmful bacteria that some foods may contain), for example: studies show that the incidence of listeria among pregnant women remains about 20 times higher compared with the general population.[i] And it’s not just dealing with some mild diarrhea… Listeria can cause miscarriage. The good news is that food manufacturers take measures to reduce things like Listeria, so it’s rare that you’d get sick from eating any of these foods. But mistakes still happen. This is why, during pregnancy in particular, it’s better to play it safe.
But first, don’t stress.
Okay, raise your hand if you glanced at the food list below and freaked out a little because you have eaten Brie cheese, runny eggs, or sushi before or during pregnancy. Don’t worry! Take a deep breath. You are fine. Your baby is fine. The risk from eating foods on this list is getting food poisoning from salmonella or listeria or another bacteria. But you didn’t—and you’re fine. Food poisoning is not going to happen now if you ate the sushi 3 months ago. You’re good to go! Take another deep breath.
Play it safe by taking note of these foods to avoid when pregnant:
- Certain fish and shellfish
- Cured and raw meats
- Undercooked eggs
- Some dairy foods
- Unpasteurized juices
- Unwashed veggies
- High mercury fish
1. Certain fish and shellfish
- Refrigerated, smoked seafood like smoked salmon (lox) or smoked trout.
- Raw fish or shellfish: Yes, this includes sushi. Try a dynamite roll (cooked shrimp) or a California roll (imitation crab), or stick with vegetable rolls for a while. Many people believe that consuming flash-frozen raw fish from reputable sushi restaurants is low-risk. But low-risk isn’t no-risk, and ultimately, it’s up to you. If you do eat sushi, make sure it’s low-mercury fish.
- High-mercury fish (see more info down below).
2. Cured and raw or undercooked meats
- Deli meats and hotdogs: Only eat them if you cook them thoroughly until steaming.
- Raw meat: This includes raw chicken, beef, pork, lamb, etc. And by raw, we mean both really raw (like steak tartare) and sorta raw, as in you didn’t cook it well enough. For $10, invest in a meat thermometer to ensure you are cooking your meat and poultry to a safe internal temperature. Use this chart on safe cooking temperatures as your guide.
3. Undercooked eggs
Eggs are extremely nutritious and are perfectly safe to consume during pregnancy if cooked well (aren’t raw, undercooked or runny). But certain sauces, spreads, and drinks, such as Caesar salad dressing, hollandaise sauce, unpasteurized eggnog, custard, and homemade ice cream, may contain raw eggs, so it’s important to ask questions. Commercially manufactured ice cream, dressings, mayonnaise, and eggnog are made with pasteurized eggs and do not increase the risk of salmonella.
4. Certain dairy products
Milk and milk products are also very nutritious and are safe to consume during pregnancy for the most part. But milk or cheese made with unpasteurized milk should be avoided due to the risk of listeria. Experts disagree about the safety of soft cheeses like Brie, feta, and goat. Some say they are fine if they are pasteurized, and some say not to consume them in any format. If you want to play it 100% safe, avoid soft cheese altogether during pregnancy (including feta and goat). If you can’t live without feta cheese (hello, Greek salad), make sure that the cheese is pasteurized by checking on the label or calling the manufacturer.
5. Unpasteurized juices
Was the fruit washed before it was juiced? Was the equipment properly sanitized? Was it kept refrigerated? Not sure? Skip it. Washing and then juicing at home should be fine as long as fruits and vegetables are washed properly and equipment is sanitized properly. And plus, I’m a much bigger fan of smoothies during pregnancy because you can pack so much more nutrition into them (and you get the fibre part of the fruits and veggies, not just the juice!).
6. Unwashed veggies:
YES, you should be eating several servings of veggies per day while pregnant (and when not pregnant), but it’s important to make sure that your veggies are thoroughly washed to avoid any risk of Toxoplasmosis, because the soil in which veggies are grown may be contaminated.
If you’re needing plant-based recipe inspiration, you’re going to love these cookbooks!
7. High mercury fish
Fish primer: Omega-3 fat = good, Mercury = not so good. You want a fish that is high in omega-3 fat , but low in mercury. Your best bets are salmon, trout, low mercury skipjack tuna, anchovies, herring, and sardines. Avoiding high intake of fish species that are high in mercury, including king mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, shark, swordfish, tilefish, and bigeye tuna. ) because mercury has been linked to an increased risk of birth defects and learning disabilities in children. Larger predatory fish (e.g., Chilean sea bass, grouper, swordfish) end up absorbing larger quantities of mercury, and as larger fish eat smaller ones, toxins build up and become concentrated. Unfortunately, cooking doesn’t lessen the amount of mercury in these. The fish you can eat can changes as environmental conditions change, so as a safeguard, download an app that’s up to date. Try “Fish4Health” or “Should I Eat This Fish?”
Is tuna a food to avoid when pregnant?
There are several varieties of tuna, and some have more mercury than others (1 serving = 4 oz.).
- Best choice (2-3 servings per week): canned, fresh or frozen skipjack tuna. If buying canned tuna, look for “light” instead of “white” tuna, and ensure the ingredient list says “skipjack.” Here are a few recipes using low mercury tuna.
- Good choice (1 serving per week): Canned, fresh or frozen yellowfin or albacore tuna. Canned albacore tuna is called “white” tuna.
- Choices to avoid: bigeye tuna (not available canned – usually used as steaks, sushi or sashimi)
What about ahi tuna? Be careful here. Ahi may refer to yellowfina tuna, which is safe to consume, but it may also refer to bigeye tuna, which you should avoid. If you are offered ahi tuna, find out which species it really is.
Can you eat pork (pork belly, gyros etc.) while pregnant?
This question comes up more often that you may think! The answer is yes! You can consume pork (and any cut of pork) while pregnant. Pork is safe to eat while pregnant if it has been thoroughly cooked or heated to 165°F/75°C. This same temperature applies to pork products that are served cold as well, such as cured charcuterie meat, gyros, pork pies, and deli pork.
While those who are not pregnant can eat pork cooked to only 145°F, expectant women have a lower immune system and are at a higher risk for getting sick from bacteria in food. Therefore, pork that is undercooked, or pork that is still pink-hued, can have active bacteria and other organisms which cause foodborne illness. The most common pork-related bacterial infections are Salmonella, E. Coli, Staph aureus, and Listeria. The severity of the foodborne illnesses caused by these bacteria can vary, but Listeria is the most concerning and can cause a serious infection, and harm to an unborn baby.
Is lamb a food to avoid when pregnant?
Lamb is often cooked to rare, and for this reason, many pregnant women wonder if it’s safe for them to eat. And the answer is yes! It’s safe. According to the FDA, the recommended safe minimum internal temperature for fresh lamb (steaks, roasts, and chops) considered safe for pregnant women is 145°F (62.8°C), with a resting time of 3 minutes. For ground lamb meat, the safe minimum internal temperature is 160°F (71°C) with no resting time. In the refrigerator, fresh lamb lasts for 3–5 days. In the freezer, it can last for 4–12 months, depending on the cut.
Can you consume deer (venison) while pregnant?
Venison and deer are a lean and tasty meat source. But many pregnant women wonder if this type of game meat is ok to consume. Good news – it is safe to eat venison when pregnant as long as it’s cooked to the safe internal temperature of 145°F (62.8°C) for meat, 160°F (71.1°C) for ground venison and sausages, and 165°F (73.9°C) for others (use a meat thermometer to be sure!).
Can pregnant women eat spam?
Interestingly, some pregnant women might find themselves craving Spam quite often during pregnancy. I’ve never tried it before, so I can’t say that I ever craved it during pregnancy (or ever), but to eat their own! For all of you spam-lovers out there, I have good news: Spam and most products made from spam are safe to eat during pregnancy. But because spam is considered a highly processed food, it might be something that you want to enjoy sparingly.
Spam is actually cooked meat made from processed ham and ground pork. It also contains many preservatives and additives for shelf stability and flavour like salt, sugar, sodium nitrate and potato starch. The main concern here is the sodium nitrate, which is something that you want to limit anytime, not just during pregnancy. Stick to enjoying spam once in a while, not regularly.
Can pregnant women consume smoked salmon?
Smoked salmon is a very tricky food to classify during pregnancy because there are so many different types of smoked salmon and its safety depends on many factors.
Pregnant women can safely consume “hot smoked salmon”, in other words smoked salmon that has been cooked during the smoking process. “Cold smoked salmon” can be eaten as long as it’s shelf-stable or fully cooked. Ready-to-eat refrigerated smoked salmon should be avoided unless fully cooked to steaming prior to consuming. This is because of both the risk of Listeria contamination, as well as infection from parasitic worms. Yikes! No thank you.
Can pregnant women consume soft cheeses?
I’m sure if you’ve been pregnant (or are pregnant), you’ve heard that it’s unsafe to consume certain cheeses. But you might wonder “but which cheeses are safe and which aren’t?” To keep it simple, you can rest assured that most hard cheese, like cheddar, gouda, provolone, and Manchego, are safe to consume during pregnancy.
On the other hand, what are considered “soft cheeses” such as burrata, blue cheese, brie, cambozola, chevre, gorgonzola or camembert, whether pasteurized or not, are not considered safe unless cooked until steaming. This way, the Listeria bacteria will be killed and it will be safe to eat during pregnancy.
Is feta cheese safe during pregnancy?
Feta cheese is safe to eat during pregnancy as long as it’s made with pasteurized milk. In fact, even if the feta cheese is made with unpasteurized milk, as long as it’s cooked to steaming hot, it’s safe to consume during pregnancy. This is because cooking feta, like any other cheese, will kill any listeria and eliminate the risk of any listeria infection. Make sure to cook it to 165F or 75C.
Is sushi a food to avoid when pregnant?
This is one thing that I really missed during pregnancy (raw sashimi and sushi). Pregnant women should avoid any raw fish and shellfish during pregnancy, no matter what. High mercury fish such as marlin, king mackerel, swordfish, tilefish and northern pike should also be avoided, whether raw or cooked. Sushi made with cooked, lower mercury fish is considered safe during pregnancy.
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Almond milk is safe to drink during pregnancy. It’s much better for you if it’s both unsweetened and without added thickeners or artificial flavorings. Many women choose a vegan alternative (like almond milk) to real milk because of either a dairy allergy or intolerance. Almond milk doesn’t have the same nutrition as regular milk (it doesn’t have nearly the same amount of protein for example), but it is fortified with things like calcium, vitamin D and magnesium and is totally safe to consume during pregnancy.
[i] Carolyn Tam, Aida Erebara, and Adrienne Einarson, “Food-borne illnesses during pregnancy: Prevention and treatment,” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2860824/