Which Foods and Ingredients Should I Avoid while Pregnant?

AngelaRD, LDN, CBS

Read time: 4 minutes

What should I know about what foods to avoid or limit while pregnant?

  • Why pregnant women are more susceptible to foodborne illness

  • Which foods and ingredients should be avoided or limited during pregnancy?

Pregnant women need to be pay close attention to food safety since they are more vulnerable to food poisoning. This is because during pregnancy the immune system’s ability to fight foodborne infections is reduced.1 Additionally, unborn babies do not yet have strong enough immunity to help protect them.2

Pregnancy is an important time to eat a healthful balanced diet, but there are certain foods and ingredients that are best to be avoided until after you give birth.

Read more: Key Nutrients to Support a Healthy Pregnancy

Wondering what foods to eat to support a healthy pregnancy? Come chat with our team of registered dietitians, fellow moms, and lactation specialists, available from Monday – Friday 8 am – 6 pm (ET) and Saturday – Sunday 8 am – 2 pm (ET). Chat now!

What foods should I avoid or limit while pregnant?

Mercury & Raw seafood

Fish and shellfish have vitamins, minerals, protein, and healthy fats that support you and your baby’s health and development during pregnancy.3,4 But some fish, particularly larger fish, are high in mercury, a metal that is unsafe for a developing baby.

High mercury seafood to avoid:

  • Bigeye (Ahi) tuna

  • King mackerel

  • Marlin

  • Orange roughy

  • Shark

  • Swordfish

  • Tilefish5

Choose 8-12 ounces of seafood each week that are low in mercury.6 You can safely enjoy canned light tuna, cod, catfish, clams, crawfish, haddock, herring, oysters, salmon, shrimp, tilapia, trout, shad, sardines, and Pacific or Atlantic mackerel.5

Avoid eating raw or undercooked fish or shellfish (including sushi, oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops).5

Learn more: Can I Eat Seafood While Pregnant or Breastfeeding?

Caffeine

Feeling sleep deprived? Not to worry, some caffeine is considered safe during pregnancy. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends limiting your caffeine intake to no more than 200 milligrams per day.7

In addition to coffee (both regular and decaf), caffeine is also present in non-herbal teas (like green, matcha, yerba maté, chai, black, and oolong), medications (like certain headache and migraine medications), chocolate, soda, certain herbal products, and supplements and certain energy drinks.8

Caffeine amounts in foods for reference:

  • 8oz Starbucks coffee has between 150 - 250mg caffeine

  • 8oz cup of coffee brewed at home has about 95-180mg

  • 8oz cup of black tea has 40 - 60mg

  • 12 oz cola soda has between 40 – 70mg9,10

Watch out for caffeine in certain bottled waters, workout supplements, water flavorings, and coffee-flavored ice creams.10 These caffeine sources may add up quickly and some have additional ingredients that may not be recommended during pregnancy.

Did you know: Pregnancy actually slows down how quickly the body breaks down and gets rid of caffeine. In fact, during the third trimester caffeine may stay in the body for up to 15 hours!11

Read more: Do’s and Don’ts of Caffeine in Beverages and Foods

Tea

Not only do some teas contain some caffeine, but others also contain an antioxidant that can reduce how much folic acid your body can absorb. Folic acid is a critical nutrient that promotes the proper development of an unborn baby’s neural tube, which later becomes the brain and spinal cord.12,13 Teas with this antioxidant include green, black, and red teas.

Because of this potential risk, it is best to limit your tea consumption to 1-2 cups per day.14

Herbal supplements

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not check herbal products for safety and effectiveness before they are sold in stores or online. This means very few herbal products have scientific proof that they work or are safe.18

Many herbal supplements have not been evaluated for use in pregnancy or breastfeeding, so their effect on your unborn baby is not known.20 Be sure to talk to your healthcare provider about the safety of herbal supplements and teas before taking them.19

Learn about: The Risks of Taking too many Supplements

Artificial sweeteners

While there is no nutritional benefit to consuming artificial sweeteners, some women may enjoy them in foods and drinks such as soda, or added to coffee and tea. Non-nutritive sweeteners include Splenda™/sucralose, Stevia™, Nutrasweet™/aspartame, and Acesulfame-K, saccharin (Sweet-n-low), and sugar alcohols. 

Currently there are no specific guidelines for non-nutritive sweetener consumption available for pregnant women as there is no long-term evidence on their safety during pregnancy.15 Studies have found that many artificial sweeteners are able to cross the placenta, exposing the fetus to these substances.16,17

Alcohol

Women who are pregnant should not drink alcohol. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy is dangerous to the fetus and may cause long term physical and behavioral disabilities.21 No safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy has been established.22

Note that Kombucha tea also contains small amounts of alcohol (and caffeine).23,24 Due to the lack of research on the safety, benefits, and potential risks associated with Kombucha, it is best to avoid it while pregnant.

Read more: What’s the Deal with Kombucha?

Unpasteurized, undercooked, and raw foods

Certain foods are more likely to have bacteria in them that can be dangerous for your baby.2

It is best to avoid these foods while pregnant:

  • Raw (uncooked) or rare (undercooked) fish or shellfish, like sushi or raw oysters

  • Soft cheeses (like feta, Brie, goat cheese, camambert, queso blanco), unless they are pasteurized

  • Raw or rare meats, poultry, or undercooked eggs

  • Unpasteurized juices or milk

  • Lunch or deli meats, smoked seafood, and hot dogs - unless they are heated until steaming hot

  • Prepared salads like ham salad, chicken salad, or seafood salad

  • Raw sprouts, including alfalfa, clover, radish, and mung bean sprouts12

While it may seem like a daunting list of foods you should avoid while pregnant, the good news is that there are many foods you can safely enjoy!

Do your best to minimize risky foods, practice good food safety techniques, ask questions about the food when dining out, and contact your healthcare provider with any questions or if you’re having symptoms of a foodborne illness such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or fever after consuming questionable foods.

Lear more: Food Safety During Pregnancy

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For more on this topic, check out the following articles:

Key Nutrients to Support a Healthy Pregnancy

Can I Eat Seafood While Pregnant or Breastfeeding?

Do’s and Don’ts of Caffeine in Beverages and Foods

Why Omega-3s Matter for Babies, Tots and Mama

Juicing and Food Safety

Healthy Snack Ideas for Pregnant Women