Everyone wants a healthy start for their unborn baby. There is plenty of advice out there advocating a healthy diet and avoiding excessive weight gain. There is also plenty of noise about what you can and can’t eat. But how much of the advice for pregnant mothers out there is correct? And how many are just old wives tales filtered down through generations? Could we be risking better pregnancy outcomes by trading important nutritional benefits to satisfy over cautiousness? Here we take a look at some of the most common pregnancy food myths.
Pregnancy Food Myth #1 – Pregnant women can’t drink coffee
Growing babies is exhausting. Giving up a ‘pick me up’ coffee after a restless nights sleep sounds punishing.
Whats the big deal about caffeine? Caffeine, its main source being coffee, is known to cross the placenta, limit blood flow to the placenta and potentially trigger miscarriage. However to be clear this is based on studies on rats consuming the human equivalent of around 60 cups per day (Emily Oster Expecting Better) I am yet to meet anyone with the time or appetite for 60 cups a day.
We have little concrete evidence in humans with more realistic caffeine intake. This is because most women experiencing healthy pregnancy experience nausea/morning sickness and an aversion to drinking coffee. Therefore the majority of data taken by women drinking coffee in early pregnancy because they are not nauseous is skewed as many of these mums will be pre destined for early miscarriage already.
The NHS recommends limiting intake to 200 milligrams of caffeine per day (an average cup of coffee) which seems to err on the side of excessive caution. One to two cups of coffee per day is largely considered safe and there is no stand up scientific evidence to say otherwise. However if you are also consuming, black tea, green tea or energy drinks these all contain caffeine and need to be factored in to your daily allowance.
Pregnancy Food Myth #2 – Soy will cause gender disorientation
I craved salty soy products in most of my pregnancies miso soups and sushi dripping in soy sauce. I also love grabbing a handful of edename beans as healthy snack between meals.Soy is also one of the most nutrient dense protein sources although ‘it may not be the superfood you think it is’ (Lily Nichols, ‘Real Food for Pregnancy’)
For all its nutrients, consuming soy in pregnancy is apparently quite contentious. This is primarily because soy products contain a compound called isoflavones. These are essentially plant estrogens similar to the estrogen found in humans. These hormones are crucial to the female sex organs and reproductive system.
Experts don’t really understand what this means in terms of the effects on a foetus although fears about breast cancer, thyroid not working and over feminized males are touted over the internet.
In her exceptional book ‘Real food for Pregnancy’ Lily Nichols also raises other issues with Soy such as a high prevalence of pesticide contamination and also limiting affects of mineral absorption. She advises against soy before and during pregnancy.
Without real evidence its probably best not to go overboard on soy products for now. Soy clearly impacts hormones. However the idea that it could sway sexual or gender orientation is yet to be proven.
Pregnancy Food Myth #3 – Sushi is off the menu
There are a couple of factors that make Raw fish a questionable pregnancy food.
Firstly fish in itself comes with a caveat if you are expecting. Fish is super healthy for your baby and omega 3 fatty acids are great for brain development and linked to higher IQs in offspring.
At the same time certain types of fish should be avoided. Tuna, Swordfish, King mackerel shark and marlin are all high in mercury. Ironically high levels of mercury when passed to the foetus is detrimental to brain development and can result in a lower IQ and learning difficulties. There is also a potential risk to hearing and sight.
So eating the correct types of fish and in moderation is key. But what about the ‘raw’ part? Is a salmon nigiri any worse than a cooked salmon fillet?
Raw fish like many other foods carries a risk of food borne bacteria – in the case of raw fish, salmonella and campylobacter. Contracting these can result in diarrhoea, vomitting and nausea. Not what you want anytime particularly in pregnancy. But these food-borne illnesses do not pass to the foetus. Everyone, pregnant or not, would do well to avoid this type of food poisoning. Think about where your sushi is sourced and how fresh it is before consuming. How often have you got sick from sushi in the past? For most it will be very rare if at all.
There is no reason to omit raw fish sushi from your diet when pregnant. And if you can’t or choose not to eat fish when pregnant make sure your prenatal supplements include omega 3 fatty acids.
Pregnancy Food Myth #4 – No amount of alcohol is safe
Drinking alcohol during pregnancy is another eyebrow raising and guilt inducing topic. However this largely depends where you are in the world. Whilst we know that a large amount of alcohol or ‘binge drinking’ is harmful to growing babies, the odd glass of wine is considered safe. In more permissive countries of Europe, where responsible drinking with food is commonplace, it is the norm.
Heavy drinking in pregnancy is linked to behavioural problems, developmental issues and low IQ. In the first trimester it has been linked to miscarriage. The NHS and CDC warn against all use of alcohol in pregnancy although they concede that if unknowing drunkeness occurred early in an undiscovered pregnancy, the risks are low. In practice most GPs will advise that the odd glass of wine with a meal is also fine.
So why so much conflicting advice? Again it all comes down to data – or lack of. We simply don’t know how much is too much when it comes to alcohol. There is also the infuriating notion that if women have one drink they might not be able to stop. This is why in many countries like the US, total abstinence has become the general rule.
One thing you need to know is that alcohol does cross the placenta and your baby’s undeveloped liver will feel the effects of any alcohol you consume. Your body will also waste important nutrients detoxifying the alcohol in your blood stream. Unlike most of the other foods on this list, alcohol has little to no nutritional value.
If you drink it is best to drink slowly and with food and never to excess.
Pregnancy Food Myth #5 – Deli meats are the devil
If you are in the UK let’s clarify – deli meats are cooked meats that have been sliced and prepared usually for sandwiches. Ham, turkey. prosciutto, salami and pastrami are all examples.
The fear associated with these innocent sounding fillers is a big one. Listeria is a fatal albeit rare food born bacteria. Pregnant women with already compromised immune systems are more susceptible and it affects around 1 in 8000 pregnancies each year. The implications are devastating – miscarriage, stillbirth and life changing complications in surviving foetuses.
The problem is Listeria can and does show up in almost any food. Recent outbreaks in the US have included celery (2010) and cantaloupes (2011).
Listeria grows well at fridge temperatures so it is best to avoid anything that has been sitting in the fridge for a while. Obviously deli meats fall in this category and a recent outbreak in Turkey meat is why we have this pregnancy warning in place.
Myth? Whilst there is a risk, Listeria could turn up in almost any food. There is no way of knowing and you can’t avoid every food. It is up to you whether you pass on ham sandwiches or not, but know your risk of contracting Listeria doesn’t stop there. Early interaction is key. If you feel unwell see a doctor asap.
Pregnancy Food Myth #6 – No cheese is safe Cheese
Unfortunately like deli meats, certain soft cheese carry the same risk of listeria. However there are lots of cheeses you can still enjoy worry free such as cheddar, parmesan, mozzarella, halloumi and gruyere. Feta, ricotta and cottage cheese are also safe, as are spreadable processed cheeses like Dairylea and Philadelphia.
According to the NHS You should avoid mould rippened soft cheeses such as Brie and camembert and blue soft cheeses such a gorgozola and roquefort.
However these cheeses can be enjoyed if served piping hot as heat kills bacteria reducing the risk of listeria. Baked Camembert anyone?
Pregnancy Food Myth #7 – No eggs in pregnancy
A dangerously ill- founded pregnancy myth.
Like Raw fish, the risk of Salmonella poisoning is associated with raw eggs. Traditionally expectant mothers have been advised against dippy eggs, lightly scrambled eggs and even fresh homemade mayo.
Like all the nay saying about Sushi, the risk of actually contracting salmonella is low and the same risk applies to someone who isn’t pregnant. No one wants food poisoning but if you do get unlucky salmonella is of no risk to your baby although you may feel slightly less able to cope with illness at this time.
If you are in the UK try to only consume stamped British Lion eggs to significantly reduce the risk of Salmonella. Raw or partially cooked duck, quail or goose eggs are best avoided.
Eggs are a rich and quality source of protein for you and your baby. The more the better.
Pregnancy Food Myth #7 – All Herbal Teas are dangerous in pregnancy
Herbal teas can be a great way to stay hydrated and onboard vital nutrients and antioxidants. Many Also provide a caffeine free alternative to coffee and black tea. Amazingly many can also anecdotally soothe common pregnancy symptoms. But as this ‘myth’ suggests not all herbal teas are safe and each needs to be looked at individually.
Ginger, Peppermint, Rooibos are all popular pregnancy safe teas.
Black Cohosh, Blue Cohosh, Dong Quai, and Echinacea should be avoided.
Pregnancy Food Myth #8 – Spicy Food will bring on miscarriage
Craving Indian curries and Tex Mex? You are not alone and indulging these cravings are probably a good thing. Capsaicin (found in peppers) holds anti inflammatory properties which are known to boost the immune system and keep your heart healthy.
Hesitation about spicy food comes from the view that it stimulates the digestive system which in turn can stimulate uterine contractions. Woman are often told to use spicy food to bring on labor. This is purely anecdotal, scientifically unproven and rarely works.
The only reason to avoid spicy foods would be if you are suffering form heartburn or indigestion. In which case limit or avoid.
Pregnancy Food Myth #9 – Low fat options are best
Many women are told to reduce their fat (and cholesterol) intake during pregnancy to avoid weight gain and the risk of gestational diabetes.
However omitting healthy fats from your diet may mean losing out on important nutrients. Growing a baby means increased demand for Choline, cholesterol, omega 3 fats and fat soluble nutrients. These are needed for baby’s brain development. Lily Nichols makes an excellent case for not leaving essential fats on the table ‘the quality of fat consumed is equally important to the quantity.
She advises going for full-cream milk, butter, cream and animal fats over less nutritious low-fat dairy products and processed vegetable oils and spreads.