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Myths, Dos, and Don'ts of Pregnancy

What's safe to eat during pregnancy? Can hair dye hurt the fetus? And what's this about not changing the litterbox?

By Star Lawrence
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte E. Grayson, MD

The national nannies and the old wives have formed an alliance to pepper the pregnant woman with directives on everything from alfalfa sprouts to Zithromycin. So what's the skinny (remember, however, what your doctor says goes)?

Food and Drink

Cheeses
The CDC says listeriosis, a food-borne illness with mild flu-like symptoms that can be overlooked, can result in premature delivery, miscarriage, severe illness, or death of the baby. Heidi Murkoff, author of What to Expect When You're Expecting, concurs with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which cautions that you not eat unpasteurized soft cheeses (and other unpasteurized dairy products), hotdogs, or lunch meat unless cooked.

Cheeses made in the U.S. must be made from pasteurized milk (this process kills the listeria organism), so they are fairly safe. Imported soft cheeses are potentially problematic. These may include Brie, Camembert, feta, goat, Montrachet, Neufchatel, and queso fresco. Listeria may also be found in unpasteurized semi-soft cheeses (slightly more solid cheeses that do not grate easily and are often coated with wax to preserve moisture and extend shelf life). Semi-soft cheeses include Asiago, blue, brick, Gorgonzola, Havarti, Muenster, and Roquefort.

Cheddar, mozzarella, cream cheese, and cottage cheese are fine. "Stay away from those yummy roadside ciders, too," Murkoff advises. "They're not pasteurized."

Diet soda
Minimal harmful effects have been shown from the use of the artificial sweetener aspartame in pregnancy, according to Siobhan M. Dolan, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, N.Y. "Like everything else, moderation is best." A daily diet pop or aspartame-sweetened yogurt is probably harmless.

Coffee
Most studies show no adverse effects from three or four cups of coffee. Still, some doctors and midwives are cautious and point to studies linking java to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and migraines. There are some data that suggest that large amounts of caffeine lead to low-birth-weight babies.

However, if you choose to drink coffee, moderation is key. "Sometimes it's harder on you to quit entirely," Dolan admits. "Pregnancy is hard enough on you."

Herbal tea
Herbal teas can be safe during pregnancy, but you should be cautious. Be sure to steer clear of teas that have unfamiliar ingredients; instead, look for those teas that are made from ingredients that are a part of your normal diet (like orange extract). Remember that "natural" doesn't always mean "safe." If you are unsure, talk to your doctor.

According to Murkoff, raw fish, which can contain parasites, is probably not advisable when cravings strike.

In March 2004, the FDA and EPA issued joint guidelines regarding eating fish during pregnancy. They advise women who are pregnant, nursing, or even considering having children to eat no more than two servings of fish each week in order to protect developing babies from high levels of potentially brain-damaging mercury.

By following their recommendations and guidelines, government officials say that women will receive the benefits of eating fish and shellfish and be confident that they have reduced their exposure to the harmful effects of mercury.

  • Do not eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or golden or white snapper (tilefish) because they contain high levels of mercury.
  • Eat up to 12 ounces (2 average meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury. Five of the most commonly eaten fish and shellfish that are low in mercury are shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish.
  • Another commonly eaten fish, albacore ("white") tuna, has more mercury than canned light tuna. So when choosing your two meals of fish and shellfish, you may eat up to 6 ounces (1 average meal) of albacore tuna per week, they say.
  • Because tuna steak generally contains higher levels of mercury than canned light tuna, when choosing your 2 meals of fish and shellfish, you may eat up to 6 ounces (one average meal) of tuna steak per week.
  • Fish sticks and fast-food sandwiches are commonly made from fish that are low in mercury.

Spinach
Gobble it up, Dolan says. Folic acid is one substance you want when you're pregnant, especially before conceiving and during the first trimester. The recommended dose is 400 micrograms a day. "Folic acid reduces the incidence of neural tube defects by 70%," she says. "It's one thing that really has a good effect."

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