As most of us are all too aware, pregnancy brings with it some pretty big lifestyle changes, especially in the realm of food and drink. Women are told to cut out alcohol and sushi, soft cheeses and coffee, but less often are they told the reasons behind those recommendations. You wind up following rules (or not) blindly, because no one ever bothers to answer the simple question, “why shouldn’t I eat _____ while I’m pregnant?”. As with all things birth, I feel that people are in the best position to make decisions for themselves when they have all of the relevant information available, rather than simply acquiescing or refusing based on what their friends did, what their doctor says or simply what feels right. Don’t get me wrong, friendly advice, medical recommendations and intuition are all super important, but they’re all also greatly improved by awareness of evidence gained from credible sources.
In this series of posts I will go over the main categories of food and drink restrictions and include common examples from each. First up: contamination.
Contamination: Food poisoning in pregnancy is a way bigger deal
Food poisoning sucks for anyone, no question. Serious cases in individuals who are not pregnant can lead to dangerous levels of dehydration, but usually even a really bad case can be treated with no long-term effects as long as medical attention is sought when symptoms are severe (though some forms of food poisoning, such as botulism poisoning can cause paralysis and death). During pregnancy though, there is not only the risk to the woman, but also to her unborn child. A case of food poisoning that might have been awfully unpleasant but ultimately survived with no permanent damage can lead to miscarriage, premature birth, a very ill baby or stillbirth. In most cases, if antibiotics are given early enough these tragic outcomes can be prevented, but it is very important that pregnant women who experience symptoms of food poisoning – fever, chills, aches, abdominal cramping, vomiting and/or diarrhoea – seek emergency medical care immediately. Even if symptoms are mild, it is important that you go to the hospital. Tell them that you suspect food poisoning and are pregnant. Obviously, even better than immediate treatment is prevention, so sticking to safe foods is a good plan.
Foods that are on the ‘do not eat list’ because they pose contamination risks include:
- Raw eggs. If you’re eating out, check with the restaurant about anything containing mayonnaise, Caesar salad dressing, etc. If the eggs were pasteurized, as in commercially prepared versions of these condiments, then you’re ok, but skip any home made varieties. The risk here is Salmonella, a harmful bacteria that is killed by high temperatures.
- Unpasteurized dairy products. Many soft cheeses fall into this category, such as brie and camembert. Check labels and skip them altogether when eating out. Pasteurization involves heating, so potential bacteria are eliminated before the milk is used to make the cheese.
- Raw sprouts. It is more common for sprouts to be contaminated with E. Coli, Salmonella and Listeriosis than other vegetables. This is because they need warm, moist environments in which to grow. Unfortunately, harmful bacteria also love those same conditions.
- Unwashed fruit and veggies. I use soap for most fruits and veggies, especially if I’m going to be eating them raw. You can use a special veggie wash for those that are harder to rinse of soapy residue. Even organic veggies need to be washed! Fruits that have peel that you don’t eat, but that you cut through (like melons) should also be washed before cutting as the knife may carry harmful bacteria through the flesh from the surface. Bacteria can come from the growing environment or from handling in transport or in the store.
- Uncooked or undercooked meats, so no rare or medium rare meat. Juices should run clear and the meat should not have any pink in the middle. Same goes for fish – nothing raw or seared. Unless high temperatures have penetrated the meat or fish all the way through, there is a risk that harmful bacteria and/or parasites could be hiding within. If you love sushi, like I do, opt for vegetarian varieties or those that contain cooked crab, shrimp or eel.
- Deli meats, patés and meat spreads, unless canned. These post a greater risk of Listeriosis contamination than other foods.
- Refrigerated smoked fish (i.e. shelf-stable smoked fish is fine). If the fish is in something that has been subsequently (well-)cooked (e.g. a casserole), it’s ok because the high temperatures will kill any harmful bacteria.
- Store-bought, pre-prepared salads that contain ham, chicken, egg, tuna or seafood.
- Untreated drinking water. Mostly a concern if you are travelling or camping.
In addition to avoiding these foods, you should also make sure to wash hands, utensils and cooking surfaces thoroughly, store and thaw foods safely and be attentive to expiry dates on packages. Be especially mindful of food storage concerns when the weather is hot. Don’t taste suspicious food – dangerous bacteria are not always detectable by taste or smell. When in doubt, throw it out.
It can be hard to change old habits. I myself have always been proud of my “stomach of steel” and have never been too worried about an expiry date that’s one or two days in the past, for example. A good way to orient yourself to these changes might be to think of them as part of trying to develop new, healthy habits for living with a newborn. For many people, it’s easier to make changes when we frame them in terms of the baby’s well-being as opposed to our own.
Check back soon for Part Two: Foods that may pose a development risk for babies.