If you’re hoping to do everything right for your baby’s health but confused by what seems like a growing list of pregnancy myths, you’re not alone. Most mothers-to-be share similar concerns -- and equal amounts of confusion.
Some of that confusion is the result of new information that is continually coming to the forefront, but a lot of it is due to pregnancy myths that were popularized by certain books cautioning mothers to expect the worst, and that frightened a lot of women unnecessarily.
But there are a few areas where we can help your pregnant body to do its job better, more efficiently, maybe more healthfully. And that is where separating the pregnancy myths from the facts can make a huge difference.
PREGNANCY DIET MYTHS
Among the most popular -- and for some, the most daunting -- of all pregnancy myths are those related to daily diet. While it’s vital to maintain a healthy diet, that’s not always easy, particularly when we’re unsure of exactly which foods we can and cannot have.
The good news: Whatever foods are healthy for mum are healthy for baby. Virtually all fruits and vegetables, whole grains, some diary, and most protein sources are good choices for mum and good choices for baby. There are really very few foods you need to avoid.
Fish is among the foods that cause concern because of mercury, a metal that can be toxic to babies, children, and even adults. The FDA suggests pregnant women not eat more than 12 ounces (two average-size servings) of fish per week. Allowable fish include canned light tuna, shrimp, salmon, pollack, or catfish. For albacore tuna (also known as “white” tuna), which has higher mercury content than canned light tuna, consumption should be limited to 6 ounces per week.
Fish to avoid include swordfish, shark, king mackerel, and tilefish, which contain high levels of mercury.
A report in the journal Science showed that when compared to wild salmon, farmed salmon contained significantly higher levels of contaminants linked to birth defects and developmental problems, including PCBs.
Though the report set off a panic alarm for many pregnant women, the PCB levels found in the farmed salmon were still lower than levels the FDA considers acceptable. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists recommends following the FDA guidelines.
The bottom line is that there does not appear to be enough evidence to suggest that there is any more risk to eating farmed compared to wild salmon. And the benefits to eating at least some fish on a regular basis probably outweigh any risk.
Also, a large study published in the British medical journal Lancet showed that fish is an important food to include in the pregnancy diet. After looking at nearly 12,000 children, researchers found those whose mothers ate the most fish during pregnancy had a “higher intelligence quotient” than those whose mothers abstained from fish. The children of the fish-eating moms also appeared to have better motor and communication skills as well as social skills.
The key component of fish is omega-3 fatty acids, which are critical to foetal neural development. And although fish contains high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, there are other good sources, including flaxseed, nuts (particularly walnuts), soybeans, and eggs. There are also many foods fortified with omega-3s, including breads, juices, margarines, and oils, as well as omega-3 supplements. However, be aware that many of the sources of this omega-3 are from fish oil.
Other foods you should try to avoid during pregnancy include those with a link to listeria, a bacterium that may increase the risk of miscarriage, premature birth, stillbirth, or foetal illness.
According to the FDA, foods more likely to contain listeria include:
- Unpasteurized milk and soft cheeses such as feta, Brie, Camembert, Roquefort, queso blanco, and Panela, unless the label says “made with pasteurized milk”
- Refrigerated meat spreads or pates
- Refrigerated smoked seafood (unless it is cooked in a casserole or other dish)
- Hot dogs and deli meats, unless they are heated until steaming
Experts also warn against eating undercooked eggs, raw eggs, or eggnog made with uncooked eggs, which can be contaminated with salmonella. Problems can ensue due to vomiting and dehydration that can occur if you contract salmonella during pregnancy.
PREGNANCY WEIGHT GAIN MYTHS
One huge pregnancy myth involves how much additional food is really necessary to encourage the development of a healthy baby. While the old saying “eating for two” still applies, we’re not feeding two adults.
The latest information tells us that the average woman needs only about 300 extra calories a day if they are of normal weight when they conceive. But the real news that’s been gradually emerging in studies is that food intake, and particularly weight gain during pregnancy, is now viewed on a much more personalized basis.
If you’re very overweight when you get pregnant, then it’s possible you should not add any additional calories to your diet, and it might even be OK if you lose a little bit of weight during pregnancy, particularly if this occurs because you have cut out all the junk food and switched to a healthier diet.
One study published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynaecology showed that overweight women who gained less than the recommended 15 pounds during pregnancy actually had better pregnancy outcomes, with a lower risk of preeclampsia, caesarean delivery, and abnormal-sized babies -- large or small.
At the same time, if you are underweight at conception, then you may have to add more than 300 calories a day and increase weight gain, just to get you up to speed to what your baby needs to grow strong and healthy.
While the old saying “eating for two” still applies, we’re not feeding two adults.
PREGNANCY AND CAFFEINE MYTHS
Although the relative safety of caffeine consumption during pregnancy has remained a point of debate in many medical circles, recently a small but significant new study reinforced the idea that reducing caffeine intake during pregnancy below even conservative recommended intakes may have merit.
In research published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in February 2008, epidemiologists from the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in California found that women who consumed 200 milligrams or more of caffeine a day -- equal to about 12 ounces of coffee or about 30 ounces of tea -- may double their risk of miscarriage.
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, “moderate caffeine consumption doesn’t appear to cause miscarriage or preterm birth.” Moderate caffeine consists of less than 200 milligrams of caffeine a day (about 12 ounces of coffee). The March of Dimes also recommends no more than 200 milligrams caffeine per day for women who are pregnant.
Other personal risk factors should be taken into consideration. “If you are at increased risk for miscarriage, if you have a history of pregnancy loss, if you are exposed to other factors that might increase the risk of miscarriage, then it’s probably a good idea to avoid caffeine, or at least restrict intake under what the latest research suggests.
At the same time, if you are young and healthy and your pregnancy is not at any great risk, you can probably safely consume a little more than that. And certainly, going overboard once or twice during your pregnancy is not likely to cause you any great harm.