Some foods and drinks may increase the risk of harm to you and your baby during pregnancy. It can feel overwhelming when it seems like there are lots of things to avoid, but there are still many things that you can eat if you are pregnant. Some foods may need to be cooked or prepared a certain way and others are best to avoid completely. Here is some information to help you understand how to have a safe diet during pregnancy.
Raw or undercooked meat
Avoid undercooked meat, especially poultry, pork, sausages and burgers. Any meat you eat should be cooked thoroughly, should not be pink or have any blood coming out of it. Be careful to cook sausages and minced meat thoroughly. This is because there is a risk of toxoplasmosis, a tiny parasite that can live in raw meat which can be harmful to you and your baby.
It is safe to eat cold, pre-packed meats such as ham and corned beef. Although the risk is low, you may also prefer to avoid raw cured meat, such as parma ham, chorizo, pepperoni and salami. Cured meats are not cooked, so they may parasites in them that cause toxoplasmosis. If you want to eat cured meat you can freeze for 4 days at home before defrosting and eating. You can also eat cured meat that has been cooked, for example on a pizza.
Avoid game meats such as goose, partridge or pheasant as these may contain lead shot.
Liver and other foods containing vitamin A
Avoid liver and liver products, such as liver pâté and liver sausage. Liver products have lots of vitamin A in them. This can be harmful to an unborn baby. It is not safe to take multivitamins containing vitamin A or fish liver oils, such as cod liver oil. It is fine to eat low levels of vitamin A found naturally in foods like carrots. But it is important to avoid any foods that have vitamin A added (they may say 'fortified with vitamin A'). It is okay to use cosmetic products, like face cream, that contain vitamin A.
Pâté (including fish and vegetable pâté)
Avoid all types of pâté, including vegetable pâté. This is because they may contain listeria. These are bacteria that can cause an infection called listeriosis. Listeriosis can harm a baby during pregnancy or cause severe illness in a newborn.
Unpasteurised milk and dairy products
Most milk sold in shops, supermarkets and restaurants in the UK is pasteurised and fine to drink. The milk is heat-treated to kill off harmful bacteria that can cause food-poisoning from toxoplasmosis, listeriosis and Campylobacter.
You should avoid unpasteurised (raw) milk and products made from it, which are sold in some farm and health food shops. These products can include cream, yoghurt, goat's and sheep's milk or dairy products. If you only have access to unpasteurised milk, boil it before using.
It is safe to eat:
- all hard cheeses such as cheddar, stilton and parmesan
- soft pasteurised cheeses such as cottage cheese, mozzarella, feta, cream cheese, paneer, ricotta and halloumi
- goats' cheese without a white coating on the outside (rind)
- processed cheese spreads.
You can eat these cheeses if they are cooked to steaming hot:
- soft unpasteurised cheeses
- soft cheeses with a white coating on the outside
- soft blue cheeses.
You should avoid certain types of cheese because they can cause an infection called listeriosis, which can be harmful to your baby. It is best to avoid:
- mould-ripened soft cheeses with a white coating on the outside, such as brie, camembert and chevre (unless cooked until steaming hot) – these cheeses have more moisture, which can make it easier for bacteria to grow
- soft blue cheeses such as danish blue, gorgonzola and roquefort (unless cooked until steaming hot)
- soft goats' cheese (unless cooked until steaming hot).
Undercooked ready meals
It is important to follow the cooking instructions on the pack of any ready meals you eat. Also, check that the meal is steaming hot all the way through before you eat it. This is especially important for meals containing poultry like chicken or turkey.
Unwashed, packaged salad
It is fine to eat pre-prepared, pre-washed salad, if you keep it in the fridge and eat before the use by date. Check the ingredients in any packaged salads you buy to make sure they do not contain other foods you should avoid.
If salad has been left out at room temperature for a long time, it is best not to eat it as bacteria can grow quickly.
If you buy pre-prepared salad that has not been pre-washed, it will say 'wash before use' on the pack. In this case, as with all vegetables and fruits that have not been pre-washed, you should wash the salad thoroughly.
Raw eggs or undercooked eggs
The safest eggs to eat are British Lion eggs (eggs with a lion stamp on them), these can be eaten raw or runny. This is because they are less likely to have salmonella in them, which can cause food poisoning.
If you eat eggs that are not British Lion, or that are not hens’ eggs, make sure they are cooked thoroughly.
Using eggs in cooked recipes is safe. Try to avoid foods that have raw egg in them, such as homemade mayonnaise or mousse, unless you have made them with British Lion eggs.
Find out more about eating eggs during pregnancy.
Certain kinds of fish
Fish is a good source of many vitamins and minerals. If fish is part of your diet, you should aim to eat at least 2 portions of fish a week. You should also aim to eat one portion of oily fish a week, such as salmon, trout, mackerel or herring. Oily fish helps your baby's nervous system to develop. However, you should not eat more than 2 portions of oily fish a week as they may contain pollutants that can harm your baby.
You should also limit how much tuna you eat, because it has more mercury in it than other fish. If you eat too much mercury, it can be harmful to your unborn baby. You should eat no more than 2 tuna steaks (about 140g cooked or 170g raw) or 4 medium-size cans of tuna (about 140g when drained) per week.
There are some other types of fish you should limit. Don't eat more than 2 portions a week of:
- dogfish (rock salmon)
- sea bass
- sea bream
You do not need to limit or avoid other types of white and non-oily fish.
Avoid shark, swordfish and marlin as they have high levels of mercury, which could affect your baby’s nervous system.
Can I eat smoked fish in pregnancy?
Avoid cold-smoked fish such as smoked salmon or trout, and cured fish such as gravlax, which have not been fully cooked during the production process to kill any listeria that may be present.
‘Cold-smoked’ fish is normally labelled as ‘smoked’ fish on packaging. Ready-to-eat cold-smoked fish typically comes in thin slices, and it can be eaten cold. It may also be found in sushi.
Listeriosis in pregnancy can cause miscarriages and severe sepsis or meningitis in newborn babies.
Can I eat shellfish in pregnancy?
Cooked shellfish is safe to eat but raw shellfish can cause food poisoning and you should avoid eating it during your pregnancy.
Can I eat sushi in pregnancy?
Yes, as long as the fish has been cooked thoroughly. Make sure you avoid any sushi with raw fish, such as shellfish because they can have harmful bacteria, viruses or toxins in them.
Can I eat peanuts during my pregnancy?
It is safe to eat peanuts during pregnancy unless you have been advised not to by a healthcare professional or you have a nut allergy.
It is safest to avoid alcohol completely during pregnancy. Alcohol can harm you and your baby, and experts cannot be sure that any amount of alcohol is safe.
Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can affect the way your baby develops and their long-term health. Drinking heavily during pregnancy can result in your baby developing a condition called foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).
If you are finding it difficult to stop drinking, it is important to ask for support from your midwife or GP.
Cooking with alcohol is unlikely to affect your baby if the alcohol is added early in the cooking process and the food is cooked thoroughly. This will ensure most of the alcohol will be burnt off. The longer the cooking time, the more the alcohol evaporates.
If you add alcohol to a dish later in the cooking process, however, the alcohol content may be higher. For example, baked foods that are made by stirring alcohol into the mixture, such as cakes, hold on to more of the alcohol content.
It is best not to eat any food that’s been prepared with spirits or liqueurs. This is because these drinks have a higher alcohol content than wine, cider or beer.
If you have any concerns, you could try using non-alcoholic wines or beers instead.
It is best to limit your caffeine intake as much as possible during pregnancy, as high levels have been linked to pregnancy complications.
Caffeine is found in foods and drinks such as:
- tea and coffee
- cola and other energy drinks
It is recommended to reduce your caffeine intake as much as possible below 200mg a day during your pregnancy.
You can work out how much caffeine you have each day with this caffeine calculator.
Herbal and green teas
We do not have much information on the safety of herbal and green teas in pregnancy. Therefore, it is best to limit how much you drink. You should drink no more than 4 cups of herbal tea a day. It is important to remember that green tea contains caffeine, which should be limited as much as possible during pregnancy.
You should ask your GP or midwife if you are unsure about the safety of any herbal products.
What if I have already eaten or drunk something risky?
If you have already eaten or drunk something that you are advised to avoid, try not to panic. If it did not make you ill at the time, it is unlikely to have affected you or your baby. Talk to your doctor or midwife if you are worried.