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Pregnancy: Eating Healthy for 2

Paying attention to a healthy diet is even more important when you're pregnant. Here are some essential foods to eat and avoid.

By Colette Bouchez
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

While healthy eating is important throughout your life, never does it make more sense than during pregnancy -- a time when you are not only taking care of your body, but also helping your baby to develop and grow.

But just as important as what you do eat, is what you skip. Also remember that certain "unhealthy" foods now can take on a new and sometimes more ominous meaning when you are pregnant.

"Foods that you might not be so worried about -- like caffeine or alcohol -- can become a worry once you are pregnant, simply because we don't have all the answers about what can and cannot affect a developing baby," cautions NYU Medical Center nutritionist Samantha Heller, MS, RD.

Diane Ashton, MD, assistant medical director of the March of Dimes agrees and adds: "I think most women are concerned about what they should and shouldn't eat, but I don't think we can repeat the information often enough -- particularly when it comes to the items that should be avoided."

To help make sure you know what you need -- and what you should avoid -- Heller and Ashton helped put together the following guide.

How much do you know about fetal development? Test your knowledge with this quick quiz.

The 5 Foods to Avoid During Pregnancy

No. 1: Alcohol

In the not-so-distant past some doctors suggested moderate drinking during pregnancy might be OK. Not anymore. In an advisory issued by the U.S. government in February 2005, U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona, MD, MPH, issued a warning that no amount of alcohol can be considered safe during pregnancy.

The reason, says Ashton is that "no one knows if there is a threshold for alcohol in pregnancy, and if there is, what it is, so it's better to just not drink any at all."

What doctors do know: Alcohol increases a baby's risk of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) -- a series of developmental problems that can affect a child's ability to learn throughout their lifetime. In its most extreme form fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) can cause varying degrees of birth defects and mental retardation.

Ashston says a rarer set of problems -- Fetal Alcohol Effects -- is also a risk.

"There's a whole spectrum of ways alcohol can affect the fetus -- it may not be a full-blown FAS but there may be low birth weight, small stature, a range of possible side effects," Ashton tells WebMD.

If your pregnancy was a surprise -- and you unknowingly consumed alcohol during the first several weeks after conception -- experts say don't panic. If you stop drinking the moment you discover you're pregnant, and meet your daily requirement of folic acid (400 micrograms) you can dramatically decrease your baby's risk of any serious consequences.

No. 2: Saccharin

While some doctors are leery about using any artificial sweetener during pregnancy, the one that is of most concern is saccharin. The reason: "It has been shown to cross the placenta and end up in your baby's bloodstream," says Heller.

This is of concern since some animal studies have shown that in high enough amounts saccharin may increase the risk of bladder cancer. Since research on monkeys has shown that a developing fetus is much less effective at clearing saccharin from the blood than an adult, at least theoretically, amounts of the artificial sweetener can build to a dangerous level.

"It's always best to err on the side of caution and avoid it," says Heller.

If you were consuming saccharin before you knew you were pregnant, don't panic. The risks are small during the early weeks of pregnancy. As long as you don't consume any more, your baby's health should not be affected.

As to other artificial sweeteners: There is no specific evidence to show harm to mother or baby.

No. 3: Seafood With High Mercury Level

Fish can be one of the healthiest foods you can eat -- particularly during pregnancy. A diet that includes a variety of fish and shellfish helps a child's growth and development. Women of childbearing age, in particular, should include fish or shellfish in their diets because of the nutritional benefits.

However, Ashton reminds us that high levels of mercury contamination could turn eating some seafood into a serious risk with the potential to harm the nervous system of your developing baby.