Pregnancy comes with a lot of dos and don’ts. When it comes to diet, there are foods to avoid, such as raw meat, smoked seafood, partially cooked eggs, raw shellfish, and certain types of dairy products.
While the list of what to eat and what not to eat may appear restrictive and at times confusing, observing a healthy pregnancy diet is vital for both the mother and her unborn child. Pregnant women have a lowered immunity which increases their risk of contracting food-borne illnesses. Also, what a pregnant woman eats is a major source of nutrients for her unborn baby.
Dairy, particularly cheese, is one of the most perplexing food topics for pregnant women. Are your favorite dairy foods among the list of foods to avoid when pregnant?
Read on to find out which dairy foods and cheeses to avoid during pregnancy, which dairy products are safe, and why.
Guidelines for Eating Dairy Foods While Pregnant
Dairy products, for example, cheese and yogurt, are high in essential nutrients—such as calcium, phosphorus, proteins, and vitamin D. These nutrients support your baby’s developing nervous system and bones.
However, some dairy products like most soft cheeses could harbor harmful bacteria which can be dangerous for your health or that of your baby. Raw or unpasteurized milk, in particular, can contain bacteria such as E. coli, Campylobacter, Salmonella, and Listeria. Such bacteria can cause foodborne illnesses, such as Listeria infection and Toxoplasma gondii.
Remember you’re more vulnerable to foodborne illnesses when pregnant. Most infections are mild but they can sometimes lead to life-threatening complications. In some rare cases, you may develop a blood infection, brain infection, or meningitis. Worryingly, your baby may become ill even if you don’t appear sick yourself. Such extreme cases can result in miscarriage, stillbirth, death of a newborn, or premature birth.
You should therefore consume pasteurized or ultra-heat treated (UHT) milk and pasteurized milk products. Stay away from any dairy products, including cheese, that is made with unpasteurized milk. Pasteurization is the process of heating milk at high temperatures to kill harmful bacteria.
Listeria Infection in Pregnant Women
The hormonal changes pregnant women go through weaken their immune system and increase the risk of developing foodborne illnesses. One of the well-known foodborne illnesses is Listeriosis. This infection is caused by the listeria bacteria commonly found in contaminated food, raw foods, uncooked seafood, and unpasteurized dairy foods.
Listeria infection can infect the baby even if the mother doesn’t feel unwell. That is why you should follow a healthy pregnancy diet religiously.
In fact, pregnant women are 10 times more at risk of developing Listeriosis than other adults. And, out of every six people with Listeriosis, one is a pregnant woman.
Some of the symptoms of Listeriosis are:
- Muscle aches and joint pain
- Diarrhea and vomiting
- High body temperatures (104F or 38oC or more)
What Cheese To Avoid When Pregnant
When you’re shopping at the grocery store or a farmer’s market, be careful with soft cheeses, blue-veined cheeses, and bacteria-ripened cheeses. Check the labels to see if the cheese is made using pasteurized milk. If it’s not clear from the labels, you can ask the store attendants or opt for something else.
Some of the potentially unsafe cheese to avoid when pregnant include:
- Queso fresco
- Danish blue cheese
- Queso Blanco
- Soft Mexican style cheeses unless pasteurized
- Any other soft cheeses with a white coating
In some states, it’s illegal to sell raw milk and products made with unpasteurized milk. One of the exceptions is if the cheese in question has been aged for more than 60 days.
What Cheeses Are Safe To Eat During Pregnancy?
If you love cheese, you’ll be happy to know that you don’t have to put it off completely. Just ensure that you read the labels carefully to check for the term “pasteurized” and consume the cheese in moderation.
An extra caution you can take is to ensure you select pasteurized cheese varieties that are low in moisture, high in salt content, and high in acidity. Double-check from the product label.
Some of the cheese varieties that are considered safe for pregnant women include:
- Monterey Jack
- Pepper jack
- Colby Jack
- Cottage cheese
- Cream cheese
- Any other soft or hard cheeses made using pasteurized milk or cooked until steaming hot
Most of these are hard cheeses. Hard cheeses are usually considered safe even when made with unpasteurized milk because they have a low moisture content which makes the growth of bacteria difficult. Soft cheeses on the other hand are high in moisture which makes it easy for bacteria to grow.
What About Other Dairy Foods?
For other dairy products like cream, ice cream, and yogurt, opt for those with the word “pasteurized” on the label. It’s also important to ensure you handle dairy food safely. One of the ways to do that is to store milk and other dairy foods refrigerated at 39.2° F. Such low temperatures prevent the multiplication of bacteria.
What To Do if You’ve Consumed Unsafe Cheese or Dairy Products
If you accidentally consume dairy products or cheese that is potentially unsafe, don’t worry too much. The chances of listeriosis are low. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that of the 1,600 people who develop Listeriosis every year, about 260 die as a result of the infection.
Pay attention to yourself for symptoms of illnesses, such as diarrhea, stomach upset, fever, muscle aches, etc. It can take anywhere between one to four weeks for symptoms to develop. Sometimes it can take up to 70 days from the time of exposure for symptoms to show.
If you do see symptoms of listeriosis or another food-borne illness, it’s important to contact your doctor right away.
It’s also a good idea to contact a health care professional if you’re worried about the potential risks. They will be able to conduct the necessary tests early enough and give you the best recommendations.
What Other Foods Should You Avoid When Pregnant?
Besides dairy, there are other food safety measures to take for the sake of your unborn child. Here are some of the foods to avoid or limit your intake when you’re pregnant:
- Partially cooked or raw eggs—Some are contaminated with bacteria which make them unsafe. Instead, opt for pasteurized eggs. You can find pasteurized eggs on a supermarket fridge
- Caffeine—You should limit your daily caffeine intake to 300mg because high levels can increase the risk of a difficult birth or even a miscarriage. Keep in mind that many foods contain caffeine, for example, dark chocolate, energy drinks, tea, and coffee
- Fish with too much mercury—Avoid fish that have high levels of mercury, such as king mackerel, swordfish, and tilefish as it can be harmful to your baby’s nervous system
- Refrigerated meat spreads and pâté—They are safe to eat during pregnancy when they’re not refrigerated since they are shelf-stable. Avoid refrigerating foods that have are shelf-stable or are canned
- Raw or undercooked meat—It may contain harmful bacteria which can cause food poisoning. Always ensure the meat is well cooked and wash your hands and utensils well after handling raw meat
- Unwashed fruits and vegetables—Green vegetables and fruits are important for a balanced diet and are usually safe. Wash them well though as they may be contaminated with pathogens
- Alcohol—Drinking alcohol when pregnant can cause premature delivery or result in low birth weight for your newborn baby
- Unpasteurized juice—Fresh-squeezed juice may be contaminated with bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli. Instead, go for pasteurized juice
- Cold cured meats and smoked fish—They have a risk of containing the harmful listeria bacteria
- Raw Sprouts—Avoid raw sprouts like alfalfa and clover as the seeds could be contaminated before the sprouts grow, making it hard to wash away the germs
A healthy pregnancy diet is important for your health and that of your unborn baby. The best part is that you don’t have to cut cheese out from your diet. Just read the labels carefully to ensure you select pasteurized cheese varieties that are high in salt, high in acidity, and low in moisture.
If your favorite cheese is made from unpasteurized milk, you’ll need to make the sacrifice and choose other varieties. When your healthy baby is born, you’ll be able to eat all of your favorite foods again.