Foods to Avoid during Pregnancy: Sweeteners, Caffeine and Fish Explained

So you thought a healthy pregnancy diet was just about juggling your food groups, huh? A little extra protein here, some more calcium there... But then you hear about all those food favorites you can't eat. What's a girl to do without her morning latte? And what's dinner out if you can't have the catch of the day? Don't worry, you don't have to forgo all your faves, but you should follow a few guidelines when it comes to eating commonly questioned foods during pregnancy.

Fish and Shellfish

Fish and shellfish are good sources of high-quality protein, healthy omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients, and are low in saturated fat '- sounds like the perfect pregnancy foods. But the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advise women who may become pregnant, pregnant women and nursing mothers to eat only certain types and amounts of fish and shellfish. That's because mercury levels '- particularly methylmercury '- are so high in certain types of fish.

Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and can also be released into the air through industrial pollution. When it falls from the air and accumulates in streams and oceans, it turns into methylmercury, which is harmful to the developing brains and nervous systems of developing fetuses and young children. Fish absorb methylmercury as they feed in the water, and methylmercury builds up in their bodies. When the fish is caught and you eat it, you take in all of the methylmercury it built up.

For the average adult, this is no big deal. The body flushes out mercury eventually anyway, but it may take over a year for mercury levels to drop significantly. So if you become pregnant before these levels drop or you continue to build up too much methylmercury during your pregnancy, your baby could be affected.

You don't need to drop fish and shellfish from your diet altogether, but you will want to avoid those fish known to have the highest methylmercury levels. You'll also want to follow the FDA and EPA guidelines limiting a pregnant woman's portions of fish and shellfish each week. Follow these simple tips during your pregnancy and while you're breastfeeding to keep your mercury intake low without sacrificing the flavor and benefits of fish and shellfish.

  • Don't eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish. They contain the highest levels of mercury.
  • Eat up to 12 ounces (two to three meals) of other purchased fish and shellfish a week. Some of the most commonly eaten fish that are low in mercury are shrimp, salmon, pollock and catfish.
  • Mix up the types of fish and shellfish you eat, and don't eat the same type more than once a week.
  • Trade tuna steaks for canned light tuna. If you just can't give up your albacore tuna salad, go ahead, but cap it at six ounces per week.
  • Check local fish and water advisories before eating locally caught fish. Your local waters may have higher or much lower than average levels of mercury. These levels will determine how much fresh catch you can eat each week. Visit the EPA fish advisory Website or contact your state or local health department for more information about methylmercury levels in your area. If no advice is available, go ahead and eat up to six ounces (one meal) per week of fish you catch from local waters, but don't eat any other fish during that week.
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