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Foods to avoid during pregnancy

You need to be aware of what not to eat when you’re pregnant. This article covers some of the foods to avoid during pregnancy as well as the things you can eat and drink.

There are several foods to avoid when you are pregnant. You may find yourself confused about what you can and can’t eat during pregnancy and why certain foods suddenly become off limits. The main reasoning behind many of the guidelines about what not to eat in pregnancy is to minimise any chance of food poisoning in pregnancy.

During pregnancy parts of your immune system are suppressed, which results in both you and your baby being more vulnerable to bacteria, viruses and parasites that can cause foodborne illness. Even if you don’t feel sick, some bacteria, such as listeria and toxoplasma, can still affect your baby and cause health and development problems.

Here we look at the latest guidelines around eating and drinking when pregnant, including information about cheese, eggs, meat, fish, alcohol, caffeine, medicine and nuts.

Cheese

Most cheese is fine in pregnancy including hard cheeses and soft processed cheeses made from pasteurised milk, such as cottage cheese, feta, ricotta, mascarpone, cream cheese. Processed cheese is also fine.

Soft cheeses with white rinds, such as brie, camembert and soft goats’ cheese, should be avoided along with blue veined cheeses such as Danish blue, Gorgonzola, and Roquefort. The manufacturing process of these types of cheese encourages moulds to grow and so provide an ideal environment for harmful bacteria, such as listeria.

You can eat any of these cheeses if they are cooked all the way through though, such as cheeses in a fondue, deep fried or baked.

Eggs

Eggs are nutritious and a cheap source of protein. In July 2016, the FSA updated its guidance about eating runny eggs. It now advises that pregnant women can eat raw, soft-boiled hen eggs or foods containing lightly cooked hen eggs provided that they are produced under the Lion code quality assurance scheme.

In recent years, the presence of salmonella in UK hen shell eggs has been reduced greatly and so the guidance has been updated. This is particularly the case for those eggs produced under the Lion coded quality assurance scheme which has additional control measures.

When eating raw or lightly cooked eggs also bear in mind the importance of:

  • storing eggs safely such as in the refrigerator, 
  • following good hygiene practices in the kitchen and 
  • observing best before dates.

Non hen eggs, such as duck and quail eggs, should always be cooked thoroughly.

Meat

Meat contains protein which is important for growth and it is safe to eat all types of meat including chicken and other poultry during pregnancy.

Raw or undercooked meat is not recommended in pregnancy because of the potential risk of toxoplasmosis. Meat should be cooked all the way through until there are no traces of blood or any pink. Cured cold meats, such as Parma ham, chorizo, salami and pepperoni, which have not been cooked, could also contain toxoplasmosis-causing parasites, so are best avoided or, you can freeze them for four days before eating, as freezing will kill most parasites.

Take care to prepare meat hygienically though and make sure it is thoroughly cooked, i.e. steaming hot all the way through and no longer pink. Undercooked meat, especially poultry and products made from minced meat, such as sausages and burgers, could transmit toxoplasmosis and bacteria that can cause food poisoning.

Liver

Liver and foods with liver in them, such as liver pâté, liver sausage or haggis, are not recommended as they may contain a lot of vitamin A, which has been associated with birth defects though very rarely. The same applies to supplements or fish oils containing high levels of vitamin A.

Pate

Fresh pate, including vegetable, can contain listeria so it’s best to avoid it.

Fish

Fish is generally a healthy food that is good for you and your baby. However, shark, swordfish or marlin can contain high levels of mercury which could affect a baby’s nervous system. Tuna can also contain mercury so the recommendation is to limit the amount you eat to two steaks a week or four medium sized cans.

You should also avoid having more than two portions of oily fish a week, such as salmon, trout, mackerel and herring, because they can contain pollutants such as dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Note that fresh tuna is counted as an oily fish but tinned tuna isn’t.

You can have any amount of white fish. Cooked shellfish and smoked fish are also considered OK to eat in pregnancy.

Shellfish

Avoid raw shellfish, such as oysters, mussels, scallops and clams, as they could be contaminated with harmful bacteria, viruses or toxins – although cooking them thoroughly will make them safer.

Sushi

Sushi is fine when you’re pregnant, as long as any raw wild fish used to make it has been frozen first. This is because, occasionally, wild fish contains small parasitic worms that could make you ill. Freezing kills the worms and makes raw fish safe to eat. Cooking will also kill them. If you’re in any doubt about the origins of your sushi, you might want to avoid eating the kinds that contain raw fish, such as tuna.

Alcohol

Experts are still unsure exactly how much, if any, alcohol is safe for you to have while you’re pregnant. All recommendations therefore agree that the safest approach is not to drink at all while you’re expecting. Alcohol can reach the bloodstream of an unborn baby and affect growth and development at all stages.

Current guidance to women who choose not to avoid alcohol is to limit it themselves to one or two units once or twice a week. A unit is half a pint of ordinary beer/lager or one pub measure of spirits; a small [125 ml] glass of wine is 1.5 units. See our article ‘Drinking in pregnancy’ for further information.

If you feel unable to cut out alcohol, or that your drinking is out of control, it’s important to get help and support – try talking to your midwife or doctor, who should be understanding, not judgemental.

Caffeine

Too much caffeine can increase the chance of a miscarriage slightly, with recent research suggesting that when trying for a baby, both women and men should limit their caffeine intake. It is recommended that you have no more than 200mg of caffeine a day during pregnancy. The amount of caffeine in food and drink will vary, but as a guide:

  • 1 mug of instant coffee (100mg)
  • 1 mug brewed coffee (140mg)
  • 1 mug of tea  (67mg)
  • 1 can of cola (40mg)
  • 1 can of energy drink (up to 80mg)
  • 50g bar of dark chocolate (up to 50mg)
  • 50g bar milk chocolate (up to 25mg)

The caffeine content of coffee varies in different coffee chains. A recent survey found that the strongest coffee selling on the high street had a caffeine content six-times higher than the lowest. However, the risks of going over the recommended limit on an occasional basis are very small.

Medicine

A number of medicines such as cold and flu remedies also contain caffeine. Apart from reading the labels, you can check with your pharmacist when buying any medication and ask for their advice.

Nuts

There is no need to avoid nuts, or peanuts, in pregnancy, unless you yourself have an allergy and are, of course, avoiding them anyway.

The majority of foods are safe to eat in pregnancy and, for most women, the risks associated with eating or drinking anything on the above list are very small indeed (apart from the possible effects of frequent heavy drinking).

If you find you have inadvertently eaten something you would have avoided if you had known about it, or eaten something you would have avoided if you’d known you were pregnant, then it’s highly unlikely you have done yourself or your unborn baby any harm at all.

Share your worries with your midwife; it’s very likely you will find reassurance and understanding.

Page last updated: July 2016

Further information

NCT's helpline offers practical and emotional support in all areas of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood: 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.

The Department of health publishes ‘The Pregnancy Book’ online, containing useful information and tips about your pregnancy. Check out ‘your health in pregnancy’ which has more in depth information on nutrition in pregnancy.

Visit Healthy Start for recipes, healthy eating and how you can claim the vouchers.

NHS Choices has a number of articles on food safety.

FDA answers common questions on listeria.

Read more about fish and current recommendations.