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Reducing Foodborne Risks During Pregnancy
What you eat during your pregnancy has a direct effect on the growth and development of your baby. It is important to eat a well-balanced diet that includes lean meats or meat alternatives, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and plenty of fruits and vegetables. In addition to increasing your consumption of healthy foods, there are certain foods you need to limit or avoid. Some foods contain substances that can affect your baby’s development, while others put you at risk of developing an infection that can be passed to your baby.
Fish and Shellfish
Mercury is naturally found in the environment and is also released by industrial pollution. When mercury settles into water, it is converted into methylmercury, a more dangerous form. Methylmercury can build up in the fatty tissue of fish. Most fish contain trace amounts of methylmercury, which is unlikely to cause harm. But, large, predatory fish can contain high levels of methylmercury.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provide these recommendations for women who may become pregnant, are pregnant, or are nursing:
- Do not eat fish that contain high levels of mercury, including swordfish, shark, king mackerel, and tilefish.
- Eat up to 12 ounces (340 grams) of fish containing low levels of mercury per week. Fish containing low levels of mercury include shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish. Because white tuna and tuna steak contain higher levels of mercury, women are advised to eat no more than 6 ounces of these fish per week.
- If you usually eat locally caught fish, check advisories about the safety of the fish. If there are no advisories, limit your intake to 6 ounces (170 grams) per week. If you eat local fish, do not eat any other fish during that week.
Pregnant women should also avoid raw and undercooked fish, especially shellfish, such as oysters or clams, because they can contain disease-causing organisms. Cook fish until it is opaque and flakes easily with a fork.
Ready-to-Eat Meats and Soft Cheeses
Unpasteurized soft cheeses and ready-to-eat meats should be avoided during pregnancy because they may contain bacteria that causes listeriosis, a form of food poisoning that is especially harmful to unborn babies. Listeriosis is associated with miscarriage , premature delivery or stillbirth, and serious illnesses in newborn babies.
To avoid listeriosis, take these steps:
- Avoid eating hot dogs or luncheon meats that have not been reheated until steaming hot, or 160°F.
- Do not eat soft cheeses, such as feta, brie, Camembert, Roquefort, or Mexican soft cheeses, unless they are made with pasteurized milk.
- Avoid refrigerated pâtés or meat spreads.
- Avoid refrigerated smoked seafood unless it has been cooked.
- Do not consume unpasteurized milk or foods made from it, such as eggnog or Hollandaise sauce.
Undercooked Meat and Eggs
Undercooked meat, including poultry and eggs, should be avoided during pregnancy. These foods can increase your risk of a number of foodborne illnesses, including listeriosis, E. coli, Campylobacter infections, salmonellosis, and toxoplasmosis.
To ensure your meat is well-cooked, use a meat thermometer. Follow these temperature guidelines when cooking food:
|Type of Food||Proper Cooking Temperature|
|Egg dishes||160°F (71°C)|
|Ground meat||160°F-165°F (71°C-74°C)|
|Beef (medium well)||160°F (71°C)|
|Beef (well done)||170°F (76.7°C)|
|Ham (raw)||160°F (71°C)|
|Ham (precooked)||140°F (60°C)|
Pregnant women should also avoid eating raw vegetable sprouts, such as alfalfa, clover, or radish, and unpasteurized fruit or vegetable juices. These can carry disease-causing bacteria.
In addition, pregnant women should limit their consumption of liver, since it contains high levels of vitamin A, which could potentially cause harm to a developing baby.
Food Preparation Tips
When preparing and handling foods, the March of Dimes recommends you take the following precautions to avoid foodborne illnesses:
- Before and after handling food, wash your hands with soap and hot water.
- Wash any item or area that comes in contract with raw meat, poultry, or fish.
- Separate ready-to-eat food from raw meat, poultry, or fish.
- Before eating raw fruits and veggies, rinse them and use a scrub brush to remove dirt.
- Take the outermost leaves off of lettuce and cabbage.
- Refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours after eating. Also, avoid eating cooked food that has been out of the refrigerator for more than 2 hours.
- Keep your refrigerator temperature below 40ºF (4ºC) and your freezer at 0ºF (-18ºC) or below. Buy a thermometer to check the temperature.
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada
Women's Health Matters
Athearn PN, Kendall PA, Hillers VV, et al. Awareness and acceptance of current food safety recommendations during pregnancy. Matern Child Health J. 2004;8:149-162.
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Listeria and pregnancy. American Pregnancy Association website. Available at: http://www.americanpregnancy.org/pregnancycomplications/listeria.html. Updated June 2011. Accessed April 16, 2015.
Morales S, Kendall PA, Medeiros LC, et al. Healthcare providers’ attitudes toward current food safety recommendations for pregnant women. Appl Nurs Res. 2004;17:178-186.
Nutrition in pregnancy. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated April 6, 2015. Accessed April 16, 2015.
Raw produce: selecting and serving it safely. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/BuyStoreServeSafeFood/ucm114299.htm. Updated April 7, 2015. Accessed April 16, 2015.
What you need to know about mercury in fish and shellfish. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodborneIllnessContaminants/BuyStoreServeSafeFood/ucm110591.htm. Updated June 10, 2014. Accessed April 16, 2015.
Why should I avoid some foods during pregnancy? NHS Choices website. Available at: http://www.nhs.uk/chq/Pages/917.aspx?CategoryID=54#close. Updated January 4, 2015. Accessed April 16, 2015.
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Review Date: 04/2015
- Update Date: 04/16/2015