Food to avoid

You’ve just found out you’re pregnant and it's time for lunch. But wait: aren’t there all kinds of food rules for pregnant women? Here's what to check for.

Well, there are a few rules. On the whole, you don’t need to change your eating habits, eat for two or do anything other than eat a varied, healthy diet.

Yet some foods are off the table and you should only eat others in moderation. Here are the important bits you should know about.

Liver and pate

"Don't eat liver or products containing liver, like liver pâté, liver sausage or haggis."

This is because they might contain a lot of vitamin A, which can harm your baby (Rothman, 1995; NHS Choices, 2017a).

Pâté wise, it’s not just the liver you’re avoiding: avoid any pâté, including the vegetarian kind, as it can contain listeria. Some vegetarian pâté contains raw eggs, which might carry a risk of salmonella (NHS Choices, 2018).

Raw eggs

Lion Code eggs are those with a red lion logo on their shell, they’re considered safe for pregnant women to eat raw or partially cooked (NHS Choices, 2017a). So you can help yourself to soft-boiled eggs, that delicious chocolate mousse, soufflés and fresh mayonnaise if the eggs were produced under the Lion Code. 

If they’re not Lion Code eggs, make sure they’re are cooked thoroughly. This means cooking until the whites and yolks are solid to prevent the risk of salmonella (NHS Choices, 2017a).

Uncooked meat

Stay away from raw or undercooked meat because of the potential risk of toxoplasmosis (NHS Choices, 2017a). This is an infection caused by a parasite (NHS Choices, 2017b).

Cook all meat and poultry thoroughly, making sure it's steaming hot and has no trace of pink or blood. Be especially careful with poultry, pork, sausages and minced meat, including burgers (NHS Choices, 2017a).

Cold meats

Many cold meats like salami, prosciutto, chorizo and pepperoni are not cooked, they're just cured and fermented. This means there's a risk they contain toxoplasmosis-causing parasites too (NHS Choices, 2017a)

Check the instructions on the pack to see whether the product needs cooking. Pre-packed meats like ham and corned beef are considered safe to eat in pregnancy.

Game

Avoid eating game that has been shot with lead pellets while you're pregnant. It might contain high levels of lead (NHS Choices, 2017a).

Vitamin and fish oil supplements

Don't take high-dose multivitamin supplements, fish liver oil supplements, or any supplements containing vitamin A (Rothman, 1995; NHS Choices, 2017a, 2017c).

Fish

Avoid shark, swordfish or marlin and limit the amount of tuna you eat to two steaks a week. These fish contain more mercury than other fish, which could affect your baby's nervous system (NHS Choices, 2017a).

As well as that, avoid having more than two portions of oily fish a week, which includes fresh tuna, salmon, trout, mackerel and herring. These fish can contain pollutants (NHS Choices, 2017a).

Tinned tuna doesn't count as oily fish, so you can eat four medium-sized cans a week on top of two portions of oily fish (but not fresh tuna) (NHS Choices, 2017a). We know. Complicated.

Shellfish

Always eat shellfish cooked not raw, that includes mussels, lobster, crab, prawns, scallops and clams. Shellfish can contain harmful bacteria and viruses that can cause food poisoning. Cold pre-cooked prawns are fine (NHS Choices, 2017a).

Sushi 

Fine, as long as any raw wild fish has been frozen first (NHS Choices, 2017a). Wild fish can contain small parasitic worms that could make you ill but freezing (and cooking) kills the worms.

If you don’t know whether the sushi you’re about to tuck into has been frozen, go for the fully cooked or vegetarian varieties.

Peanuts

Help yourself to peanuts or food containing peanuts like peanut butter. That is, unless you're allergic to them or a health professional advises you not to (NHS Choices, 2012; NHS Choices, 2017).

Unpasteurised milk and soft cheese

Stick to pasteurised or ultra-heat treated (UHT)/long-life milk (NHS Choices, 2017a). If only raw (unpasteurised) milk is available, boil it first.

Don't drink unpasteurised goats' or sheep's milk (NHS Choices, 2017a). Avoid eating foods made from unpasteurised milks (e.g. soft goats' cheese), mould-ripened soft cheese (e.g. brie or camembert) or soft blue-veined cheese (e.g. Roquefort or Danish blue).

Unpasteurised milk and cheese could contain listeria, which can cause a rare infection called listeriosis (NHS Choices, 2017d). That might lead to miscarriage, stillbirth or serious illness in newborn babies (American Pregnancy, 2017).

Coffee

High levels of caffeine can result in miscarriage or babies having a low birth weight, which can cause health problems in later life (Kuczkowski, 2009). You don't need to cut out caffeine but avoid having more than 200mg a day (NHS Choices, 2017a).

The approximate amount of caffeine found in food and drinks is a:

  • mug of instant coffee: 100mg  
  • mug of filter coffee: 140mg  
  • mug of tea: 75mg 
  • can of cola: 40mg  
  • 250ml can of energy drink: 80mg 
  • 50g portion of dark chocolate: less than 25mg 
  • 50g portion of milk chocolate bar: less than 10mg. (NHS Choices, 2017a)

Herbal and green teas

There's little information on their safety so aim for no more than four cups a day. Ask your GP or midwife about specific herbal products (NHS Choices, 2017a). Oh, and bear in mind that green tea contains caffeine.

One study suggested liquorice might be harmful during pregnancy but no guidelines have been made (Raikkönen et al, 2011). The NHS suggests you can have moderate amounts of liquorice sweets and teas but should avoid liquorice root herbal remedies (NHS Choices, 2017a).

This page was last reviewed in February 2018.

Further information

Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0300 330 0700.

We also offer antenatal courses which are a great way to find out more about birth, labour and life with a new baby.

American Pregnancy Association. (2017) Listeria and pregnancy. Available from: http://americanpregnancy.org/pregnancy-complications/listeria/ [Accessed 18th March 2018].

Kuczkowski KM. (2009) Caffeine in pregnancy. Archives of Gynecology and Obstetrics 280(5):695. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19238414 [Accessed 18th March 2018].

NHS choices. (2012) Nut consumption in pregnancy linked to ‘reduced child allergy risk’. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/news/pregnancy-and-child/nut-consumption-in-pregnancy-linked-to-reduced-child-allergy-risk/ [Accessed 18th March 2018].

NHS choices. (2017a) Foods to avoid in pregnancy. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/foods-to-avoid-pregnant/ [Accessed 18th March 2018].

NHS choices. (2017b) Toxoplasmosis. Available from:  https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/toxoplasmosis/ [Accessed 18th March 2018].

NHS choices. (2017c) Vitamin A. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/vitamin-a/ [Accessed 18th March 2018].

NHS choices. (2017d) Listeriosis. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/listeriosis/ [Accessed 18th March 2018].

NHS choices. (2018) Vegetarian and vegan mums-to-be: Foods to avoid when pregnant. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Vegetarianhealth/Pages/Pregnancyandchildren.aspx [Accessed 18th March 2018].

Räikkönen K, Seckl JR, Pesonen AK, Simons A, Van den Bergh BRH. (2011) Stress, glucocorticoids and liquorice in human pregnancy: programmers of the offspring brain. Stress. 14(6):590-603. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21875300 [Accessed 18th March 2018].

Rothman KJ, Moore LL, Singer MR, Nguyen USD, Mannino S, Milunsky A. (1995) Teratogenicity of high vitamin A intake. New England Journal of Medicine. 333(21):1369-1373. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7477116 [Accessed 18th March 2018].

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