Posted: Apr 04, 2014 10:00 AM
Pregnancy is an exciting time for many women as they watch their bodies change and prepare for the arrival of a new baby. However, being pregnant also comes with a seemingly long list of rules and restrictions about foods, physical activity and lifestyle choices. Knowing what foods are safe and which to avoid is critical to the healthy development of your baby.
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Contributed by: Dr. Charles Bowers

Soft cheeses

brick of soft cheese
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Cheese lovers may have to forgo some of their favorite varieties during pregnancy to protect the health and safety of their growing child. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, soft cheeses made from unpasteurized milk may contain a dangerous strain of bacteria called listeria. Unpasteurized soft cheeses often include feta, Camembert, queso fresco, Brie, Roquefort and queso blanco. Listeria infection may lead to miscarriage, infection of your newborn or even newborn death.

Fortunately, other cheeses are safe to eat during pregnancy. Feel free to indulge in hard or semi-hard cheeses such as Swiss, cheddar, Gouda, Parmesan or asiago. Furthermore, many soft cheeses sold in the U.S. come from pasteurized milk, which makes cheese safe to eat for pregnant women. Check the label to determine if a soft cheese is pasteurized and therefore acceptable to eat.

Certain varieties of fish

raw king mackerel
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In general, fish is a great source of protein and contains helpful omega-3 fatty acids that promote healthy childhood development. However, certain types of fish — especially those that are larger or older when caught — contain levels of mercury deemed dangerous for neonates. The Food and Drug Association recommends avoiding tilefish, king mackerel, shark and swordfish, which contain high levels of mercury. Eating foods high in mercury may cause your baby to develop cognitive deficits.

Avoiding shark and swordfish doesn't mean that you should go without fish entirely. Many commonly eaten types of seafood are safe for pregnant women, including canned tuna, shrimp, catfish, salmon, crab and tilapia. Eating up to 12 ounces of these foods per week (that's two average meals) is fine. If you enjoy non-canned albacore tuna, limit your consumption to just six ounces per week.

bowl of cookie dough
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Raw cookie dough or cake batter

So many of us indulge in a bite or two of cookie dough when baking, but eating raw eggs leaves your body vulnerable to bacteria such as salmonella. Salmonella infection causes diarrhea, vomiting, fever, nausea and stomach cramps. The best available treatment is a class of antibiotics called fluoroquinolones, which have been shown to cause birth defects when taken by pregnant women. To reduce your risk of salmonella infection, avoid eating any raw or undercooked eggs, including cake batter, cookie dough or soft cooked eggs.

uncooked alfalfa sprouts
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Uncooked sprouts

Sprouts are a great addition to a salad or sandwich, but they may harbor dangerous bacteria such as salmonella or E. coli. To grow sprouts, beans or seeds are placed in a warm, humid location that also promotes the growth of harmful bacteria. Although some people believe that homegrown sprouts are safer, the bacteria present in or on the seeds may cause E. coli or salmonella growth even under sanitary conditions in your home. To stay safe, cook sprouts before eating or simply avoid eating sandwiches or salads containing sprouts.

Raw or undercooked fish

sushi maki
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Certain types of seafood may contain bacteria and viruses that place your unborn baby at risk. As a result, it's important to avoid eating raw fish or shellfish such as oysters or clams. Raw fish found in sushi or sashimi may also be dangerous. In general, cooking fish and shellfish to an internal temperature of 145 degrees F ensures that harmful bacteria are killed. Although recent scientific recommendations from Canadian Family Physician state that the risk of eating raw fish and shellfish is very low, many pregnant women still decide to forgo eating sushi or sashimi to be safe. Of course, sushi rolls with vegetables, mushrooms or cooked fish items are still safe and appropriate to eat.

package of hot dogs
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Deli meat and hot dogs

Cold cuts and hot dogs are other potential culprits when it comes to Listeria infection. In fact, infectious disease specialist Larry Pickering reports that pregnant women are 20 times more likely to get listeriosis than non-pregnant women. Eating deli turkey, ham, salami, bologna, hot dogs or pâté may place you at risk. If you're craving a sandwich with deli meat, heat the cold cuts until they're steaming hot to kill any lingering listeria bacteria.

cup of black coffee
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Scientists continue to debate the safest level of caffeine for your baby's development. Caffeine can cross the placenta and cause changes in your baby's heart rate. According to Mayo Clinic, it's smart to limit your caffeine intake to less than 200 milligrams per day. This translates to two (8-ounce) cups of coffee or four cups of tea. If you're a coffee junkie, switching to decaf is a smart way to reduce your caffeine intake during pregnancy.

About the author^Dr. Charles Bowers is a retired OB/GYN with more than three decades of medical experience. He now works as a medical forensics evaluator for Philadelphia-based Ross Feller Casey, LLP.

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