Can’t touch this? Foods to avoid when you're pregnant

Pregnant women bring out the interfering worrymongers in people.

If you so much as lift a ham sandwich or a boiled egg or a tuna salad to your lips, someone is ready to snatch it away, shouting about mercury, salmonella or listeria.

Sure, you must keep yourself and your baby safe, and that means you should avoid some foods, and eat others in moderation.

But there's also a lot of misinformation. Here's the real low-down on dietary no-nos while you're incubating a little person.

Danger: All unwashed and undercooked foods

Food-borne bacteria and parasites are a worry for pregnant women. They (as well as older or sick people and newborns) are most at risk of infection because their immune systems are weakest.

However, additionally, infections from bacteria such as salmonella and listeria, and parasites such as toxoplasma, can cross the placenta and harm the foetus too.

To avoid all kinds of bad bugs, "make sure all your fruit and vegetables are well washed or peeled before eating them," says registered dietician Nicqui Grant.

Raw and undercooked meat is a no-no while you are pregnant, so order your steaks well done and, yes, unfortunately this means you should also avoid sushi and biltong. Sorry!

Steer clear of sprouts (mung beans, alfalfa) completely as they are harder to wash and may carry germs. Don't eat food past its sell-by date, and keep your fridge, utensils and kitchen counters extra clean while you're pregnant.

Myth buster: I'm safe from toxoplasmosis if I don't have a cat

No, you're not.

Cat faeces are dangerous to pregnant women because they can carry toxoplasmosis, which can cause brain damage or blindness in the foetus. So make sure you farm out the cat litter tray chore. (No problem!)

However, you must be extra careful if you like to garden or have a vegetable patch. Neighbourhood cats might have contaminated that soil. Another reason to wash and cook all those fruits and veggies extra carefully, and only garden while wearing gardening gloves.

Danger: Salmonellosis

Eggs are very often a carrier of the salmonella bacteria, which can cause severe diarrhoea in humans and can also cause meningitis in newborns.

According to the World Health Organisation, 40% of food poisoning cases are thought to be caused by salmonella from infected eggs.

In South Africa, some of our eggs are purified using a locally developed technology which kills the germs without cooking the eggs. Check the labels. At home, as an extra safety measure, eat well-cooked, pasteurised eggs only.

Mythbuster: Where has the Easter bunny hidden all those eggs?

Eggs lurk in places we can easily forget.

No, you can't lick the cake batter bowl or eat bits of cookie dough during pregnancy – they usually contain raw eggs! Chocolate mousse is out – it's made from the raw egg white.

Wave bye-bye, too, to certain smoothies and health shakes, tiramisu, home-made ice cream, mayonnaise and nougat from the tuisnywerheid (as opposed to the factory-made variety, which is probably safe).

Danger: Listeriosis

Listeriosis is a serious infection caused by the bacteria in the listeria family, which you can get by eating contaminated food. The infection can cross the placenta and harm your baby.

A listeria infection can manifest in sepsis and meningitis, which are both dangerous, and up to 25% of people who contract listeriosis die, making it more deadly than salmonella. Listeria bugs have been found in raw fruit and veg, raw meat, and in milk products, especially unpasteurised milk and cheeses.

It can even survive in your fridge or freezer! Pasteurising milk products involves heating the milk so that many (but not all) the bacteria are killed (as opposed to sterilisation, which kills all germs).

Most of the milk we consume, certainly at supermarkets, has been pasteurised; the practice has been common since the late 1800s. Check the labels on all your dairy products.

Soft cheeses that are not pasteurised include Brie, Camembert and Roquefort or Gorgonzola (and other blue cheeses), as well as feta and other goats' milk cheeses. Stick to hard cheeses such as Gouda or Cheddar while you're pregnant.

And if you are going to have that blue cheese pasta sauce, make sure the cheese has cooked and bubbled for at least three minutes, so that the germs have been killed. Processed cheeses and cream and cottage cheeses are fine, but if you have ice cream, choose the frozen kind over soft serve.

Mythbuster: Surely, I can have a ham sandwich?

Yes and no.

Processed meats such as ham, salami and Vienna sausages are prepared in factories where there are stringent precautions against listeria infestations. Still, the bug can grow on the deli counter in your supermarket.

This is why pregnant women are advised to reheat "deli meat" thoroughly before eating it. (Boil or microwave until it's very hot.) As you would probably prefer your ham cold, best you leave it till after your baby's here.

Danger: Mercury in fish

Fish is great brain-building food because especially the oily varieties contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are also great for the development of foetuses. So you want some fish in your diet while you're pregnant.

But there have been some concerns about the levels of mercury (as well as other toxins such as PCBs, DDT and dioxins) in some fish. These pollutants bioaccumulate in marine life, especially in larger, longer-living fish (that eat smaller fish, who've eaten algae and plankton, all containing mercury, and whose mercury concentration, therefore, keeps rising).

However, the highest mercury concentrations are found in the fish we don't often eat in South Africa: tilefish, swordfish, king mackerel and shark.

Lower-mercury seafood include canned tuna (not fresh), shrimp, salmon, hake, kingklip, snoek, sea bream and catfish, and the smaller fish such as sardines, pilchards and anchovies, so choose your portions from that list.

Internationally pregnant women are being advised to stick to two to four portions of fish a week, of which no more than two portions should be oily fish. That adds up to about four tins of tuna (or the equivalent) a week, and few South Africans' diets exceed that amount anyway.

Mythbuster: Sob! No sushi!

As you've just seen, raw salmon and tuna are out on all counts (salmonella, listeria, and mercury concerns), so harden up, princess. Your next serving of sashimi will be in the delivery room, at the earliest.

If you're desperate, stick to avo and cucumber sushi only, although, says Nicqui, "there is also a question mark over seaweed and its mercury potential".

Danger: Vitamin A in the liver

You need to make sure you consume less than 10 000 IUs (international units) of vitamin A per day, especially early on in your pregnancy or while you are trying to conceive because extremely high doses of vitamin A are dangerous for your foetus.

For that reason, some doctors caution you not to eat liver or liver pâtés – a standard serving of beef or chicken liver contains more than 10 000 IUs. Make sure any vitamin supplement you take is especially for pregnancy and contains 5 000 IUs or less.

And don't take fish liver oil supplements while pregnant. Because vitamin A is stored in the body, carrots, broccoli, eggs, dairy and other sources will provide you with all the dietary vitamin A you need.

Mythbuster: Can I use acne treatments?

Acne treatments are made from vitamin A derivatives and are known to cause serious foetal conditions. Your doctor wouldn't prescribe Accutane to you if you wanted to fall pregnant.

But remember, also don't use natural vitamin A alternative remedies for a skin condition, and don't forget that some suntan enhancers are rich in vitamin A too.

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