Food to Avoid During Pregnancy. A pregnant woman and her partner in the kitchen having a snack.

Foods to Avoid During Pregnancy (and What to Eat Instead)

By Beth W. Orenstein
Reviewed by Alyssa Quimby, M.D.
November 07, 2023
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When you’re expecting, it’s important to make smart choices about your diet, including knowing what foods to avoid during pregnancy and which alternatives are safe and healthy.

“Eating a healthy, balanced diet when you’re pregnant helps ensure that you and your baby get the nutrients you need,” says Libby Mills, R.D.N., a registered and licensed dietitian-nutritionist in Philadelphia and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

A healthy, balanced diet during pregnancy consists of nutrient-rich, whole foods, including:

  • Lean meats and/or other proteins
  • Certain types of fish and seafood
  • Legumes
  • Low-fat dairy products
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Whole-grain breads and cereals
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Healthy oils, like avocado or olive oil

“These foods support the growth and development needs of [both you and your baby,]” Mills says.

In a review of studies published in 2021 in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, researchers wrote that women who report “health-conscious” eating patterns before and during pregnancy may have fewer complications, and their babies may experience fewer health problems.

An overall healthy diet (with some indulgences here and there) is a good general rule to follow. But there are also some specific dos and don’ts for food safety that promotes a healthy pregnancy and optimal fetal development.

Top Foods to Avoid During Pregnancy

Now that you’re pregnant, your immune system can’t fight off infection as well as it could when you weren’t carrying a baby, Mills says. There are also some foods and drinks to steer clear of because they can be dangerous for a growing baby. So it’s best to avoid or limit certain foods, food preparations, and drinks.

Here are five foods pregnant people shouldn’t eat—and one more to limit.

1. Don’t Eat Raw and Undercooked Seafood While Pregnant

The first food to avoid when pregnant is raw and undercooked fish and seafood. That’s because it can carry parasites and bacteria, including a harmful type called listeria, says Anita P. Somani, M.D., a board-certified ob-gyn at OhioHealth in Columbus.

Eating food contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes can make pregnant people pretty sick with an infection called listeriosis.

“It’s rare, but listeriosis can cause stillbirth, preterm labor, sepsis, meningitis, and even death,” Somani says. And a 2013 study found that pregnant people have a listeria infection risk 20 times higher than other healthy adults.

Fish and other seafood needs to be cooked to at least 145 degrees Fahrenheit, Mills says. It should be opaque and should flake easily with a fork.

Why shouldn’t pregnant people eat sushi?

Sushi is a type of seafood to avoid when pregnant because it’s usually served raw. According to the study mentioned above, raw and undercooked seafood like sushi, sashimi, and lox (smoked salmon) are considered high-risk foods for listeria infection.

Be careful of California-style rolls or cooked sushi during pregnancy. These versions don’t contain raw fish but may sometimes be prepared on the same surface as other sushi, where they could pick up bacteria.

What about smoked salmon or lox?

Smoked fishes are pretty much a no, too, says Shao-Chun Rose Chang-Jackson, M.D., a board-certified ob-gyn at Austin Regional Clinic in Texas. The problem with them is the low-temperature cooking process. “It invites parasites,” she says. “You need high enough heat to kill parasites.”

Consider switching out that tasty lox bagel for an everything bagel with plain cream cheese as a safe alternative.

2. Don’t Eat High-Mercury Seafood While Pregnant

While fully cooked fish can be a healthy source of lean protein and other nutrients, there are some types of seafood to avoid while pregnant.

Certain fish have high levels of mercury, a poisonous metallic element that has been associated with birth defects, Chang-Jackson says.

Seafood to Avoid When Pregnant

The following are fish to avoid while pregnant because they can have high levels of mercury:

  • Bigeye tuna
  • King mackerel
  • Marlin
  • Orange roughy
  • Shark
  • Swordfish

You don’t have to avoid fish altogether, though. In fact, low-mercury fish and seafood provide nutrients like iron, iodine, choline, and omega-3 and omega-6 fats, which are beneficial to brain development.

The Food and Drug Administration recommends eating two to three 4-ounce servings of low-mercury fish per week during pregnancy.

Seafood You Can Eat While Pregnant

Low-mercury fish and seafood approved for pregnancy by the FDA include the following:

  • Anchovies
  • Catfish
  • Clams
  • Cod
  • Crab
  • Flounder
  • Haddock
  • Salmon
  • Shrimp
  • Sole
  • Tilapia
  • Trout
  • Canned light tuna

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) recommends limiting albacore tuna while pregnant to no more than 6 ounces a week. Also, check for advisories before you eat seafood caught locally, ACOG advises, since there could be mercury or other contaminations.

3. Don’t Eat Unpasteurized Dairy Products While Pregnant

While dairy is a great source of nutrients like calcium, there are some forms of dairy to avoid during pregnancy, like unpasteurized cheeses or milk.

The issue is the same as with raw or undercooked seafood, Somani says. “These foods are at high risk for contamination with listeria,” she says.

So, Chang-Jackson says, “If you’re going to eat cheese, make sure it’s pasteurized.” The label on the packaging should specify that it’s pasteurized.

Nearly all fresh cheese is pasteurized, including:

  • Mozzarella
  • Fresh goat cheese
  • Ricotta
  • Cottage cheese

But some types of cheese can sometimes be unpasteurized, especially when they’re imported from other countries. Always check labels before eating these:

  • Queso fresco
  • Brie
  • Camembert
  • Blue cheese

As for milk, most that’s sold in grocery stores is pasteurized. But be careful when buying from farmers’ markets, food co-ops, or organic food stores, as they often sell raw milk, which hasn't been pasteurized to kill harmful bacteria.

A policy statement published in 2014 in the journal Pediatrics reviewed the risk of consuming raw milk products for pregnant women and young children and found the risk of infection to far outweigh any benefits.

What about unpasteurized juice during pregnancy?

“Unpasteurized juice is fine as long as the fruit was washed before juicing,” Somani says.

It’s a good idea to avoid it if you didn’t make it yourself to see that it was prepared safely. Always wash the skin of fruit and vegetables in running tap water even if you’ll peel it before eating or juicing it, Somani notes.

4. Don’t Eat Processed Meats While Pregnant

Protein is a key nutrient, but there are some meats to avoid during pregnancy: Processed meats including bacon, sausage, many hot dogs, and many deli meats.

Processed meats contain nitrites, which are added to help preserve freshness as part of the curing process. But they can be toxic to you and your baby, Chang-Jackson says.

Pregnant people may be most sensitive to nitrites’ toxicity when they’re 30 weeks or further along, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Because of this, it’s best to stay away from processed meats during pregnancy, especially late pregnancy.

Another reason that processed meats are among the foods to avoid during pregnancy: hot dogs and cold cuts are at high risk for contamination with listeria, Somani says.

5. Don’t Consume Any Alcohol While Pregnant

We used to believe that a drink here and there isn’t harmful during pregnancy. But recent guidance from ACOG clearly states, “There is no safe amount or type of alcohol use during pregnancy.” The organization goes on to say that, “even moderate drinking (one drink a day) can cause lifelong problems for your baby.” Drinking while pregnant has been linked to birth defects and developmental delays.

Mocktails, sparkling grape juice, and alcohol-free beer are safe alternatives if you’d like to enjoy a festive beverage.

Can you cook with alcohol when pregnant?

It’s best to avoid eating foods prepared with alcohol too. According to research published by the USDA, it would take more than three hours of cooking in order to fully remove any traces of alcohol from food. And certain food ingredients can slow down the evaporation of the alcohol further.

“Even when alcohol is added early in the cooking process, it contains trace amounts of alcohol, which should not be consumed during pregnancy,” Emily Maus, R.D., a registered dietitian in Idaho Falls, says.

6. Limit Caffeine While Pregnant

ACOG says that less than 200 milligrams of caffeine per day is considered safe in pregnancy. Don’t have any more caffeine while pregnant than that.

Caffeine is a stimulant, which means it can raise your blood pressure and heart rate. It’s also a diuretic, which means it can leave you dehydrated and make you need to go to the bathroom more often than you already are!

In addition, caffeine can affect your ability to sleep and also your baby’s, leading to more of those middle-of-the-night kick sessions.

Can pregnant people drink coffee?

Pregnant people can drink coffee, but should be careful not to have too much. 200 milligrams of caffeine is the equivalent to 1 to 2 cups of coffee (depending on its strength). Stay under that amount daily.

And remember that some other foods (chocolate) and drinks (tea) contain caffeine too. So if you’re going to have coffee, be very careful of how much you’re having and what other caffeine you’re consuming.

3 Foods That Are Okay to Eat While Pregnant

If it seems like nothing’s safe, think again. There are many foods you can and should eat for a healthy pregnancy and healthy outcomes.

1. Eat Iron-Rich Foods While Pregnant

Because your blood volume is increased to support your developing fetus, the daily iron requirement during pregnancy is 150% of the iron intake of people who aren’t pregnant, ACOG says. Take a prenatal vitamin with iron—most contain the extra 9 milligrams you’ll need daily—and eat iron-rich foods, such as:

  • Lentils and beans
  • Iron-fortified cereals
  • Beef, turkey, liver, and/or shrimp

It’s also important that you eat vitamin-C-rich foods because they help your body absorb iron. These include:

  • Oranges or orange juice
  • Grapefruit
  • Strawberries
  • Broccoli
  • Peppers

2. Eat Foods with Folate While Pregnant

When shopping for good foods to eat while pregnant, make sure to stock up on those with folate. From the very beginning of your pregnancy, this B vitamin helps prevent brain and spine birth defects and is important in making red blood cells, Mills says.

Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to get the folate you and your baby need. Dark leafy greens and legumes are some great high folic acid foods for pregnancy.

The synthetic form of folate is called folic acid. It’s included in most prenatal vitamins, too.

3. Eat Calcium-Rich Foods While Pregnant

You and your baby need calcium, a mineral, to build bones and teeth. Calcium also helps nerves communicate with the brain. The best way to get calcium is by eating and drinking calcium-rich foods and beverages, Mills says.

The most well-known sources of calcium are milk and dairy products, such as cheese and yogurt, but they’re not the only sources. You can also eat the following calcium-rich foods for pregnancy:

  • Calcium-fortified cereal, bread, and juice
  • Sardines or anchovies with bones
  • Fortified tofu
  • Almonds and sesame seeds
  • Dark green leafy vegetables

How to Prepare Meals Safely for You and Your Baby

Mills also offers these tips to be sure what you’re eating is safe for you and your baby during pregnancy:

  • Practice safe food handling. Wash your hands often using warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds before preparing foods. Dry your hands on a clean, dry towel.
  • Refrigerate raw meat, poultry, fish and seafood, and eggs until you’re ready to cook them.
  • Keep kitchen surfaces clean. Use a separate cutting board and utensils for raw proteins than you use for any other food you need to cut. And be sure to wash your cutting boards and knives between uses.
  • Refrigerate any leftovers. Don’t let food sit out for more than two hours so it doesn’t develop bacteria.

Eating safe and healthy foods when you’re pregnant is one of the best things you can do for you and your baby. A healthy diet helps your body with the extra demands on it during this special time. And it helps your baby to get the nutrients they need to start out healthy and happy.

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