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George Doyle

The question

I'm pregnant, and I eat just about everything. I'm wondering if there are foods I should avoid during pregnancy?

The answer

There are a number of foods that should be avoided and others that should be limited if you are pregnant. For starters, alcohol should be avoided. Period. There is no safe level of alcohol during pregnancy.

It's well established that alcohol can cause birth defects by affecting the growth and proper formation of a baby's body and brain. Even light or moderate drinking during pregnancy can lead to learning and behavioural problems in children born to women who drink.

Caffeine also should be limited since some studies have linked high intakes with an increased risk of miscarriage. That's why Health Canada advises all women of reproductive age to consume no more than 300 milligrams of caffeine per day. One small (6 ounce) cup of coffee has 75 to 145 milligrams; the same serving size of weakly brewed tea has 18 to 25 milligrams. (Strongly brewed tea has 78 to 108 milligrams of caffeine per 6 ounces. Other sources of caffeine include cola drinks, dark chocolate and energy drinks.

Be careful if you're planning to switch from coffee to herbal tea. Not all herbal teas are safe during pregnancy. Avoid chamomile teas and teas with Aloe, Coltsfoot, Juniper Berries, Pennyroyal, Buckthorn Bark, Comfrey, Labrador Tea, Sassafras, Duck Roots, Lobelia and Senna Leaves. Other herbal teas are considered safe; drink no more than 2 to 3 cups per day.

Fish high in mercury are also on the list of foods to avoid. The concern is that mercury can accumulate in the body and affect the developing nervous system, especially the brain, of infants and young children.

If women consume too much mercury before and during their pregnancy, it may increase the risk of birth defects and learning disabilities in children. Some, but not all, studies have found associations between a women's mercury exposure during pregnancy and neurologic test scores during childhood. High mercury fish include tuna steaks (fresh and frozen), sushi grade tuna, canned white (albacore) tuna, swordfish, shark, marlin, escolar, and orange roughy.

When you're pregnant it's also important to be vigilant about safe food handling practices. The hormonal changes of pregnancy affect a woman's immune system, making her more susceptible to food poisoning, especially listeriosis. Foodbourne illness caused by listeria-contaminated food can result in premature delivery, miscarriage, fetal death, and severe illness of a newborn.

To minimize your risk, avoid hot dogs, deli meats (non-dried), semi and soft cheeses (e.g. feta, Brie, Camembert), refrigerated pate and smoked seafood, and undercooked meat, poultry and fish.

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