Debunking Popular Food Myths Associated with Pregnancy

By Joanne Stone, Keith Eddleman, Mary Duenwald

Many of the foods that have at one time or another been thought dangerous for pregnant women aren’t likely to harm you or your baby. Although you don’t have to avoid the following foods, they should be eaten in moderation, especially those that are manufactured (as opposed to natural) products:

  • Aspartame (Equal or NutraSweet): Aspartame (a common component of low-calorie foods and beverages) is a type of amino acid, and the body is accustomed to amino acids because they’re what all proteins are made of. No medical evidence shows that aspartame causes any problems for the growing baby.

  • Sucralose (Splenda): Sucralose is a low-calorie sweetener, with less than 2 calories per teaspoon. It is actually a type of sugar, but it’s much more potent than regular table sugar, so you only need small amounts to sweeten things up (and therefore you get fewer calories). Because it’s a type of sugar, it should have no harmful effects on your developing baby.

  • Stevia leaf extract sweeteners (Truvia or Stevia): The most recent additions to non-sugar based sweeteners are derived from the stevia leaf. While the data is somewhat limited, they appear to be completely safe to use in pregnancy.

  • Cheeses: Not only do most people believe that processed and pasteurized cheeses are safe, but these cheeses are also a great source of both protein and calcium.

  • Fish: Fish is a great source of protein and vitamins, and is also low in fat. In fact, the high levels of protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and other nutrients make fish an excellent food for pregnant mothers and their developing babies.

    However, certain fish — shark, mackerel, swordfish, and tilefish — contain high levels of mercury. The jury’s still out on whether mercury may lead to certain childhood developmental delays or problems with fine motor skills (probably not), but the FDA currently recommends you avoid fish with high levels of mercury when you’re pregnant.

    The USDA guidelines say you can still enjoy up to 12 ounces (two average meals) per week of fish and shellfish lower in mercury, like salmon, haddock, tilapia, cod, sole, and shrimp, or up to 6 ounces of albacore tuna per week. (The limitations are due to the fact that even fish that is low in mercury isn’t mercury-free, so mercury consumption could add up to a significant amount if fish were eaten in large quantities.)

    Don’t let your concern for mercury make you give up fish altogether, because two recent studies looking at fish consumption in pregnant women showed that women who eat fish may actually have lower rates of preterm delivery, and their children may have higher IQs than those who do not eat fish.

    • Sushi: Raw fish (except raw shellfish) actually carries a very small risk of a parasitic infection (about one infection in two million servings), whether you’re pregnant or not (this is less than the risk of getting sick from eating chicken!).

      Pregnancy doesn’t increase the danger, and your fetus is unlikely to suffer any harm from such an infection. Most important is to make sure that the fish comes from a reliable source and that it is stored properly.

    • Smoked meats or fish: Many pregnant women worry about eating smoked meats and fish because they’ve heard that these foods are high in nitrites or nitrates. Although these foods do contain these substances, they won’t hurt your baby if eaten in moderation.