Many pregnant women adhere religiously to all the pregnancy don’ts flung at them. I certainly did my first time around! Don’t eat sushi or soft cheese! Don’t ever lie on your back! And so on. But are there really legitimate reasons behind all of these commandments? Now that I’m pregnant again (sorry kiddo, everyone knows mama doesn’t care as much about #2), I decided to apply a healthy dose of skepticism and look into the underlying facts.
It turns out there are indeed good reasons behind many of the limitations of pregnancy (no shocker there), however, there are also a number of don’ts that aren’t ironclad. Here’s the run-down on 8 pregnancy don’ts that aren’t actually as restrictive as you might have thought.
NOTE: I am not a physician; I am just sharing the results of my research (and note that I’ve made a strong effort to consult only reliable, fact-based sources). As always, please consult your doctor for medical advice.
1) No seafood (mercury)
Methylmercury — a metal found in certain fish which can impair the developing brain and nervous system — is a legitimate concern, but one that doesn’t mean you should eliminate fish from your diet entirely. (On the contrary, many women actually don’t eat enough fish, which offers excellent nutritional value including high quality protein, vitamins and minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids — great for your baby’s development.) Just make sure you avoid fish that are high in mercury (such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish), and limit other fish in your diet. The FDA/EPA suggests eating 8 to 12 ounces (2 to 3 servings) of low-mercury fish per week, and limiting “solid white” (albacore) tuna to 6 ounces per week.
2) No sushi or other raw seafood
A non-negligible risk of parasitic infection does exist with fresh raw seafood. However, many people are not aware that restaurants are actually required to flash-freeze almost all types of fish before serving it raw — a process which kills any parasites. Additionally (a nice surprise I didn’t realize), some types of “sushi” actually contain no raw fish — for example, California Rolls contain only cooked crab or imitation crab — and thus have already had any bugs zapped.
Additionally, viral or bacterial infections can also be a concern with raw seafood and sushi. However, an estimated 85% of seafood-related illness is actually associated with mollusks (such as oysters and clams) — not the types of fish typically used in sushi, or many other forms of seafood.
Thus, as long as you avoid shellfish and high-mercury fish, and you don’t have particular reason to be concerned about viral or bacterial infection (for example, if an establishment looks unclean or you witness unsafe food handling practices), your risk of contracting foodborne illness from sushi or raw seafood is actually quite low.
3) No soft cheese
It’s true that pregnant women should avoid raw and unpasteurized dairy products, and eggs, due to risk of listeriosis, salmonellosis, and other foodborne illnesses.
As a result, many expecting moms cross all soft cheeses — such as Brie, feta, Camembert, Danish blue, Roquefort, gorgonzola, and Mexican-style cheeses such as queso blanco, queso fresco, and panela — off of their shopping lists. But did you know that most cheese sold in the US is made from pasteurized milk, and thus is safe to eat? Woohoo! Just check the label to make sure it’s marked “pasteurized” first.
4) No deli meat or hot dogs
Pregnant women are also warned to avoid all deli-style/refrigerated meats (such as ham, turkey, roast beef, bologna, salami, and proscuitto) as well as hot dogs, due to risk of listeriosis. However, many don’t realize that thoroughly heating any of these to the point of being steaming hot will kill any present Listeria bacteria. So, while we wouldn’t necessarily recommend eating these every day, if you have a real craving you can zap it and eat to your heart’s content. If you want to play it safe, consider avoiding turkey, which is apparently more frequently the culprit in listeria outbreaks than other deli meats.
5) No caffeine
Studies have linked high caffeine intake with miscarriage, stillbirth, and pre-term birth. However, moderate levels of caffeine have not been proven to have any negative impact on pregnancy. The definition of “moderate” varies depending on what study you look at, but the threshold is believed to be somewhere between 150-300mg per day. Until more conclusive research is conducted, most experts agree that expecting moms can safely consume up to 200mg per day (that’s about one 12-ounce cup of coffee).
6) No alcohol
The conventional wisdom goes something like this: “Nobody knows how much alcohol is safe to consume during pregnancy, so it’s best to avoid it entirely.” But flip that statement on its head, and you also have the fact that no credible studies have ever shown any negative impact from light drinking during pregnancy, either. Frequent heavy drinking and binge drinking have unquestionably bad repercussions (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, behavior issues, lower IQ, etc.), but a survey of all the studies done to date suggests that light drinking (up to 6 drinks a week) is perfectly safe. Ask your doctor and get her view.
7) No sleeping/lying on your back
Another pregnancy no-no is thought to be sleeping or lying on your back (e.g. while exercising) after 16-20 weeks of pregnancy. The conventional wisdom is that this position reduces blood flow to the fetus, causing it to get less oxygen and fewer nutrients. Pregnant women are told that the preferred position for sleeping on their lefthand side.
Although this is generally true, it’s not life or death to do this around the clock, or freak out if you wake up lying on your back. Many doctors advise that your body will let you know (e.g. nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath) long before any harm will come to your baby. So if you don’t feel any discomfort, rotating in and out of the various positions— whatever is most comfortable for you — is probably fine.
8) No hot baths/jacuzzis
It’s true that you shouldn’t raise your body temperature above 101-102º F — especially during the first trimester, when doing so can cause birth defects. But water temperatures up to 100º F are perfectly safe. So hot baths are fine — as long as you can step in comfortably, rather than needing to gingerly ease yourself in. As for hot tubs, most are factory programmed to maintain a water temperature of 104º F. So, while we wouldn’t necessarily advise it, you may be able to sit in them for up to 10-20 minutes (the amount of time it takes to raise your body temperature to 102º F or higher) without any ill effects. Alternatively, see if you can find a way to adjust the temperature down to 100°F.
Well, expecting mamas, hope that helped to debunk at least one pregnancy myth for you, and will help to make the nine months of your pregnancy at least a little more tolerable. Personally I’m off to sip some (low-caffeine) green tea and enjoy a salad containing some beautiful (pasteurized) gorgonzola!