A great deal of thought should go into what you eat when you are pregnant. After all, the food you eat will decide what allergies your child will have, the diseases it will be prone to, even its mental and physical abilities. Because your immune system is suppressed during pregnancy (which helps your body not attack your growing baby), you’re more susceptible to foodborne illnesses.
Associations of nutritionists and medical centres like the Mayo Clinic usually agree on what foods should be avoided during pregnancy:
There is a great deal of research on why red meat should not be eaten during pregnancy. A study done by Harvard School of Public Health found that one additional daily serving of red meat in participants’ diets raised the risk of total mortality by 13 per cent – 20 per cent. Another study has shown why it is important for pregnant women to reduce their red meat intake to benefit the health of both themselves and their growing babies. This study looked at the pregnancies of a large group of women between 1991 and 2001. The researchers found that women with the highest intake of animal protein had a much greater risk of developing gestational diabetes (GDM) than those with the lowest intake. Findings showed that substituting 5 per cent of animal protein for vegetable protein could cut the risk of GDM in half.
Precooked meats, like ham, sausages, luncheon meat, turkey, chicken, roast beef, prosciutto, hot dogs, bacon, salami, refrigerated pâtés and meat spreads, smoked meat, and bologna, can be contaminated with the bacteria listeria. Listeria has the ability to cross the placenta to infect the baby. Refrigerated, smoked seafood often labelled as lox, nova style, kippered or jerky should be avoided for the same reason.
Listeria causes a condition called listeriosis. Most people don’t get sick when they eat food contaminated with listeria. But healthy pregnant women are more likely to become dangerously ill from it. You can pass listeriosis to your baby while you’re pregnant. This can cause miscarriage, still births, premature births, low birth weight, and lifethreatening infections, like bacteria in the blood and meningitis.
Toxoplasma is a parasite that causes toxoplasmosis. Most people don’t notice when they have it, but if you get infected during pregnancy, the infection can cause miscarriage, stillbirth or neurological damage.
Salmonella bacteria are more likely to cause serious illness when you’re pregnant. In some cases, the high fever, vomiting, diarrhoea and dehydration could cause preterm labour or even a miscarriage.
Poultry can be equally contaminated. The recommended daily protein requirement for pregnant women is around 71 grams per day. This can be averaged out over a week. Enough protein can easily be obtained by consuming legumes, beans, nuts, tofu.
Mercury is released into the air by power plants, cement plants, chemical and industrial manufacturers. It is used in thermometers, thermostats, fluorescent lights. When these items end up in a landfill, the mercury is released. When mercury settles into water, bacteria convert it into a form called methylmercury. Fish absorb methylmercury from the water they swim in and the organisms they eat. Methylmercury binds tightly to the proteins in fish muscle and remains there even after the fish is cooked. Your body easily absorbs methylmercury from fish – and when you’re pregnant, methylmercury crosses the placenta.
Many studies have shown that exposure even to low doses of methylmercury during pregnancy can impair a baby’s growing brain and nervous system. The results can range from mild to severe. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), cognitive skills, like memory and attention, language, motor skills, and vision, may be affected.
Women who are pregnant, or thinking of becoming pregnant, or nursing, need to pay particular attention. While doctors abroad differentiate between fish that cannot be eaten – shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish, tuna, striped bass, bluefish, sea bass, golden snapper, marlin, amberjack, mackerel, walleye – and that which can, I would recommend not touching fish at all because it is unlikely that one type of fish would ingest mercury at such high levels and another species not have it at all.
Many water bodies in India, specially the major rivers, are contaminated with industrial pollutants. Avoid fish from contaminated lakes and rivers that may be exposed to high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). These are long lasting poisoners of the body and you expose your unborn child to major cancer risks.
The majority of seafood-borne illness is caused by undercooked shellfish, which include oysters, clams, and mussels. Cooking helps prevent some types of infection, but it does not prevent algae-related infections. Raw shellfish and certainly, sushi, should be avoided altogether during pregnancy. Both, the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration, recommend that pregnant women only eat fish and shellfish that have been cooked to 145 degrees F.
Raw or undercooked eggs, or any foods that contain raw eggs, should be avoided because of the potential exposure to salmonella. In order to destroy the bacteria, eggs need to be cooked until the yolks and whites are firm. That means no soft-boiled, scrambled, poached, over-easy, or runny eggs. Caesar dressings, mayonnaise, homemade ice cream, custards, and Hollandaise sauces may be made with raw eggs.
Do not eat any salads with eggs outside your home and make sure you don’t eat any food which has eggs in it which have been kept for over a day.
Soft cheeses may contain listeria. Avoid soft cheeses, such as feta, Brie, Camembert, Roquefort, Gorgonzola and locally made cheeses, unless they clearly state that they are made from pasteurized milk. Unpasteurized milk may contain listeria. For the same reason do not buy or eat paneer outside the house, as it is likely not to have been pasteurized.
70 per cent of India’s antibiotics are fed to animals grown for meat. In fact, most livestock in the world are treated with antibiotics. Only meat and poultry labelled organic or "no antibiotics added" come from livestock raised without these drugs.
If you eat this meat you will pass on some antibiotics to your child. The main concern about eating antibiotic-laced meat, or poultry, is that it could contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The child will be vulnerable its entire life to bacteria that it cannot combat.
What do the doctors recommend? At least five portions of fruits and vegetables, beans, peas, nuts, lentils, flaxseed oil, whole grains, should be eaten daily; fatty, sugary foods, including crisps, fizzy drinks, biscuits and cakes, should only be eaten in small amounts or avoided altogether. Avoid caffeine during the first three months to reduce the likelihood of a miscarriage. Caffeine is a diuretic, which means it helps eliminate fluids from the body. This can result in water and calcium loss. Some research shows that large amounts of caffeine are associated with miscarriage, premature birth, low birth weight, and withdrawal symptoms in infants. There is no amount of alcohol that is known to be safe during pregnancy. Prenatal exposure to alcohol can interfere with the healthy development of the baby. I would recommend giving up milk during this period and while nursing. Studies done in Oxford show that the children of mothers who did not drink milk during their pregnancies had no allergies at all – as compared to the myriad allergies which children who had been exposed to pre-natal cow/buffalo milk. All studies show a link between milk and cancer, reproductive disorders, early puberty, even acne. A pregnant woman is particularly vulnerable to hormonal changes caused by milk. I would replace milk with green vegetables.
The world ahead is tough. Give your child a fighting chance by eating healthy while you have custody of them in your womb.
(To join the animal welfare movement contact [email protected],www.peopleforanimalsindia.org)