Evidence Based

11 Foods to Avoid During Pregnancy – What Not to Eat?

Kathy Shattler, MS, RDN

Published at 01:34

Avoid unsafe foods while pregnant. Photo: SNeG17/shutterstock

Pregnant women may be more likely to get ill from some germs than others. Bacteria can also adversely affect fetal health in sometimes deadly ways. So, while eating a balanced diet with foods from all the food groups is essential, there are certain foods to avoid or limit during pregnancy.

Bacteria from contaminated food is not the only concern. Heavy metals, some herbs, and alcohol are also concerns. Some foods consumed commonly before pregnancy may now be harmful. 

One question often asked is if elderberry is safe during pregnancy. This herb is used in alternative medicine for various conditions. As you read further, we have included it in the foods to avoid list.

So, let’s take a look at why you should limit or avoid foods during pregnancy and what those foods are.

Foods to Avoid During Pregnancy

  • Pregnant women should avoid foods that are risky for food-borne illnesses.
  • Women have weaker immune systems during pregnancy, which makes them more susceptible to food poisoning.
  • Some foods may contain neurotoxins that the fetal metabolism cannot detoxify, leading to such problems as fetal alcohol syndrome.
  • Foods such as fish may be contaminated with mercury, which is obesogenic and an endocrine disruptor. When consumed maternally, mercury may also contribute to neurodevelopmental disorders.
  • Some food choices contain too much sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, like soda.
  • Recent scientific literature has shown that artificial sweeteners are a rising concern for pregnant women and their offspring.

Why You Should Avoid Certain Foods During Pregnancy

Why You Should Avoid Certain Foods During Pregnancy
Why You Should Avoid Certain Foods During Pregnancy. Photo: SNeG17/shutterstock

Why is pregnancy different than at other times in your life? Immune system changes[1] during this period in your life can place you, your unborn child, and even your newborn at higher risk for foodborne illnesses. A variety of harmful bacteria in risky foods can cause food poisoning.

The baby’s immune system is not developed enough to fight off most foreign invaders, so the mother must protect her unborn baby from them. Hormonal changes in the mother allow for immune compatibility, which compromises its function and increases vulnerability to foodborne illness. 
Some foods, such as alcohol, are natural neurotoxins that a healthy adult body could detoxify in moderate amounts. A fetus lacks the enzymes[2] necessary for detoxification, so neurotoxins, for example, could harm it. Others may contain heavy metals, potentially causing developmental delays or neurotoxicity.

11 Foods & Beverages to Avoid During Pregnancy


The consumption of the sugar and high-fructose corn syrup present in soda may cause obstetrical complications and fetal harm[3] that may last well into the offspring’s adulthood.

The sugar content in just one serving of soda often meets or exceeds the total sugar recommendations for an uncomplicated pregnancy. The American Heart Association advises that 6% of your calories[4]. about 25-30 grams daily, be consumed as added sugar. This limit does not refer to the natural sugar found in foods but to added sugar in processed food.

One 12-ounce[5] regular cola has about 37 grams of sugar and 156 kcals, which is too much for a day and will likely contribute to excess weight gain. Soda also contains high-fructose corn syrup, which is particularly harmful[6] in pregnancy. 

High-Mercury Fish

Mercury may cause obesity[7] in your unborn child. Other associations include metabolic syndrome and neurodevelopmental issues[8]. High mercury fish include the following:

  • Shark.
  • Swordfish.
  • Mackerel.
  • Tile Fish.

Fish may also contain[9] polychlorinated biphenyls and dioxins, impairing fetal neurological development. 

Raw Flour

When would you ever eat raw (uncooked) flour? A good example is cookie dough, something we all love to taste! Most people think of raw eggs when they think of cookie dough, but the flour is also a risk[10] for E. coli and Salmonella infection.

Raw Or Undercooked Eggs

Eggs may contain Salmonella, which can transfer from mom to baby. Salmonella food poisoning may cause miscarriage.

Examples of where you would find these potential bacterial sources are:

  • Caesar salad dressing.
  • Eggnog made at home.
  • Raw cookie batter.
  • Soft poached eggs. Eggs should be cooked until the yolks and whites are firm.

 Soft Cheeses Made From Raw Milk

Pregnant women should avoid soft cheeses or sliced deli cheeses.

Examples of soft cheeses that may have Salmonella, E. Coli, Listeria, Staphylococcus, or other bacteria include:

  • Queso fresco.
  • Brie.
  • Camembert.
  • Blue-veined cheese.

Unpasteurized Juice Or Cider

You can find unpasteurized juice and cider at Farmer’s Markets and local orchards. However, some grocery stores carry it. Pasteurization destroys the E. coli and Salmonella commonly found in the beverage.

Unwashed Fruits Or Vegetables

Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria are the bacterial strains frequently found on unwashed produce. Using a vegetable scrubber is the most effective way to wash the skins of fresh vegetables and fruits before slicing, preparing, or eating them.

Other fruits or vegetables you should specifically avoid are:

  • Cut melon left out for 2 hours or 1 hour if the temperature is 90 degrees or above.
  • Unwashed bean or alfalfa sprouts.
  • Unwashed lettuce leaves.

Deli Meats And Salads

Listeria is the most common contaminant here. Pregnant women are ten times more likely[11] to get a Listeria infection. Pregnant Hispanic women are 24 times more likely to get this infection. 

Examples include: 

  • Coleslaw.
  • Potato salad.
  • Tuna salad.
  • Chicken salad.
  • Egg salad.

Listeria may make the fetus ill[12] even if the mother feels fine.

Raw Or Undercooked Poultry Or Meat

Undercooked meat or poultry is a ripe source of Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, Staphylococcus aureus, and other bacteria.

Cook poultry to an internal temperature of 165 degrees and beef, veal, lamb, and pork to 145 degrees. Cook ground meat to an internal temperature of 160 degrees.

Avoid uncooked deli meat, hot dogs, cold cuts, and fermented or dry sausage. Yes, cold cuts, a source of Listeria, are on the avoid list.

Avoid refrigerated pate’ or meat spreads regardless of your pregnancy-related hunger pangs.


A fetal exposure to alcohol during any trimester can result in abnormalities, and continual exposure will result in fetal alcohol syndrome disorders[13] or FASD. FASD is a group of disabilities affecting the infant’s central nervous system, facial features, and growth. While any exposure is deemed unsafe, it is never too late to stop[14] drinking as fetal brain development occurs throughout pregnancy.


Cooked elderberry is an herb used for upper respiratory illnesses and the flu. The literature advises against its use[15] during pregnancy. More research is needed[16] before recommendations on its use can be made for mothers-to-be.
Along with avoiding risky foods, use good food safety guidelines, such as those found here[17].

What Foods Should You Limit During Pregnancy?

The following should be limited or avoided, depending on whether you follow the research or the government guidelines. 

Diet Soda

Because diet soda contains artificial sweeteners, the FDA recommends moderate consumption[18] during pregnancy. Moderate consumption is defined by Katherine Zerasky, RD, LD, “as one to two 12-ounce servings of diet soda/day.” But, based on recent research, it may be best to skip all soda.

Studies show that the offspring of mothers[19] who consumed diet soda daily had more health problems than those who didn’t. One 2023 study on 235 pregnant women found that one or more servings of diet soda containing aspartame increased the risk for autism in males but not females. An older 2019 study stated that preconception and gestational intake[20] of soda or diet soda were associated with preterm birth and adverse pregnancy outcomes, stressing the need for further research.

Why limit it instead of avoiding it? The FDA currently says there is not enough evidence to recommend a restriction. The FDA says moderate intake is safe. 

Caffeinated Beverages

Most government agencies recommend a daily caffeine limit[21] of 200 mg. However, a 2021 study questions the validity of allowing any caffeine at all. Associations were found between caffeine and stillbirth, miscarriage, small-for-gestational-age, and childhood acute leukemia. 

So, pregnant women should be advised that current research points to the dangers of caffeine, but the guidelines for safe intake have not yet been revised.


A balanced diet with a variety of foods is essential during pregnancy. Some foods must be limited or avoided for the best pregnancy and birth outcomes. 

Pregnant women and their unborn children are more susceptible to food poisoning due to immune system changes in the mother and undeveloped immunities in the fetus. This alteration in immunities makes the mother and her unborn baby more susceptible to food-borne illnesses. Foods containing excessive amounts of sugar, caffeine, mercury, or neurotoxins also need to be looked at carefully and limited or avoided to protect the fetus and the infant’s health as growth occurs.

Frequently Asked Questions

How many servings of diet soda is a pregnant woman allowed?

Moderate consumption of artificial sweeteners is recommended, translating into about one to two 12-ounce servings of soda. More recent research discourages artificial sweeteners and caffeine, which may be present in diet soda.

Is fish allowed?

Fish is encouraged at 8-12 ounces of low-mercury options per week. The best choices are[22] tilapia, salmon, whitefish, canned tuna, and scallops.

Can a pregnant woman get Listeria and not feel sick?

Yes, she can get a foodborne illness, not feel sick, but transfer it to her unborn baby, who will get ill.

What are some good food safety guidelines?

Cook meat to the proper internal temperature, do not cross-contaminate cooked food with uncooked food, use separate cutting boards for meat and produce, wash hands and surfaces often, and chill food quickly to proper temperatures.

What is obesogenic?

Obesogenic refers to a substance that promotes obesity, such as mercury.

Kathy Shattler, a Registered Dietitian for over 25 years, operates a Telehealth Clinic and freelances as a writer. Holding a Master’s in Human Nutrition from Michigan State University, her expertise spans clinical nutrition and public health. Recognized as a pioneer in her field, Kathy continually pursues excellence in integrative medicine public health education, and her writing endeavors.


MANA adheres to strict sourcing guidelines, avoids most tertiary sources, and uses only professional resources updated to contain accurate and current information. We majorly rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research from reputable medical associations. For more information regarding our editorial process, please refer to the provided resources.

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