We’ve all been told that you need to avoid unpasteurized dairy, deli meat, high-mercury fish, caffeine, and raw animal products while pregnant. Okay, you have that covered and are in the clear right? While I highly suggest avoiding all of these, my research indicates that the “DON’T EAT” list is far more expansive. Below are my top 20 food and food additives to avoid for fertility, pregnancy, and breastfeeding.
Common foods and additives to avoid:
- Hydrogenated Oils/Trans Fats
- Toxic oils (Canola, Corn, Cottonseed, Soybean, Vegetable)
- Improper Cooking Oils
- GMO’s (Corn, Soy, Sugar, Cotton, Canola, Papaya, Zucchini and Yellow Squash)
- Sugar and High-Fructose Corn Syrup
- Artificial Sweeteners
- Caffeine and Non-Organic Coffee
- Conventional Dairy and Beef
- Conventional Poultry
- Farm Raised Fish and High-Mercury Fish
- Deli Meat
- Soy Products
- Pesticides/Non-organic produce
- MSG and HVP (monosodium glutamate and hydrolyzed vegetable protein)
- Soy Lecithin
- Artificial Colors
- Other food additives: BHA, BHT, Potassium Bromate, Sodium Nitrate/Nitrite, Propyl Gallate, Sodium Benzoate.
“ A baby and child’s growing brain is more vulnerable to neurotoxic effects of chemical food additives. The protective blood/brain barrier is not fully developed until late childhood, so at a stage when the brain is growing most rapidly, it is at it’s most vulnerable. There is a critical period from birth to around 10 years of age when the brain is most vulnerable to the effects of junk food.” … Dr. William Sears
1. Hydrogenated Oils or Trans Fats: These are unsaturated fats that go through a process of hydrogenation to make them more stable and have a longer shelf life. Their chemical composition is altered and your body doesn’t know how to break them down properly. Trans-fats have been shown to lead to a low birth weight, increased blood sugar, and increased bad LDL cholesterol. They are linked to cancer, MS, CVD, diabetes, and other degenerative conditions. They are in many processed foods such as cake mixes, donuts, fried food, crackers, frozen pizzas, and cereals. The more trans fat in a diet the greater the chances of ovulatory infertility. One study found that if 2% of calories are from trans fat, it can increase your risk of ovulatory infertility by up to 95%. When reading the labels it’s important to look at the ingredients list. You can spot them by looking for ingredients referred to as “partially hydrogenated oils.” Pay attention to serving size too! Manufacturers have a loophole and can state that there is 0 trans fat as along as there is less than 1/2 a gram per serving. For example, Crisco is loaded with trans fat but makes the serving size so small that it is able to say the product has 0 trans fat.
2. Toxic Oils: These oils are high in unstable polyunsaturated Omega 6’s, genetically modified, highly refined and/or chemically treated. Canola oil (which is mostly GMO and high in unstable polyunsaturated fats) goes through a process of refining, bleaching, and degumming, all of which involve high temperatures or chemicals. Because this oil becomes rancid at high temperatures, it undergoes an additional deodorization process that removes the omega 3’s and turns them into trans fats. Trans fat levels as high as 4.6% have been found in canola oil and consumers have no idea because trans fatty acids are not listed on the label. 88% of corn oil in the U.S. is a GMO crop so stay away from it. Same with cottonseed and soybean oil which are approximately 90% and 94% GMO. Vegetable oil is typically a combination of canola, corn, cotton, safflower, soy, and sunflower and should be avoided.
3. Improper Cooking Oils: Avoid cooking with oils that are polyunsaturated fats or have a low smoke point. We’ve all heard extra virgin olive oil is good for us but did you know that it becomes toxic when it is heated too high and starts to smoke? Never heat an oil past its smoke point or it will become carcinogenic. The best high-heat cooking oils to use if you are cooking anything above medium heat are avocado oil and refined coconut oil, which both have a smoke point over 400 F and are more stable fats. Never cook with polyunsaturated fats (such as grapeseed, canola, vegetable, or sesame oil), as their abundance of double bonds make them unstable when heated.
4. GMO’s: It has been found that toxins used in Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) may affect your fertility, pregnancy, and unborn baby. In some cases, these toxic agricultural chemicals are able to survive a woman’s digestive system, move from there into the pregnant woman’s bloodstream, and from there be passed on to the developing infant. About 88% of corn (which is used as feed for livestock), 94% of soy, 90% of cotton, 90% of canola, 75% of papaya, and 90% of sugar beets grown in the US are genetically modified. Yellow squash and zucchini are also genetically modified but in smaller percentages. I recommend avoiding all of these GMO crops and their derivatives such as: Amino Acids, Aspartame, Ascorbic Acid, Sodium Ascorbate, Vitamin C, Citric Acid, Sodium Citrate, Ethanol, Flavorings (“natural” and “artificial”), High-Fructose Corn Syrup, Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, Lactic Acid, Maltodextrins, Molasses, Monosodium Glutamate, Soy Lecithin, Sucrose, Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP), Xanthan Gum, and Yeast Products. I encourage you to thoroughly read the ingredients labels and look out for these while purchasing processed foods.
5. Sugar and High-Fructose Corn Syrup: Eating too much refined sugar during pregnancy can be harmful. It can lead to occasional vomiting, heartburn, increased mood swings, lack of energy, weight gain, and even gestational diabetes. Simple sugars cause food cravings, age your tissues, and disrupt hormone function. The best thing to do is avoid eating any refined or added sugar. If you have a sweet tooth, enjoy a piece of fruit or a dried date with natural sugars plus extra fiber and nutrients that will help regulate your blood sugar. If you must have sugar, limit yourself to only 1 dessert a week that’s made with organic raw honey or maple syrup (which at least have some additional nutrients). Sugar is hidden under more than 60 different names and is in about 75% of all packaged food so always look at what you’re truly eating. Find more information on how to spot sugar on ingredients lists here.
6. Artificial Sweeteners: This includes Aspartame, Splenda, Equal, Sweet’N Low, and others. Artificial sugars may cause weight gain, headaches, increased risk of diabetes, cancer, alter brain chemistry, and alter digestive juices in the gut which ultimately make you more hungry. Though the FDA regards many artificial sweeteners as safe, I am still quite skeptical because they haven’t been around long enough for us to fully understand the long term results. I personally avoid all artificial sweeteners, especially diet soda- don’t even think about it!
7. Gluten: Gluten containing grains like wheat, barley and rye can be particularly damaging to your health, even those who do not suffer from Celiac disease. Gluten causes gut inflammation in at least 80% of the population and has been found to potentially be a cause of leaky gut syndrome, hypothyroidism, and type 1 diabetes. Leaky gut syndrome might allow bacterial proteins and other toxic compounds to get into the bloodstream (and your baby’s blood), which can also lead to autoimmune attacks on the body. A leaky gut also means that food has not been digested properly and nutrients are not absorbed fully, which can lead to nutrient deficiencies in both you and your baby.
8. Caffeine and Non-Organic Decaf Coffee: Caffeine is a stimulant and a diuretic that increases your blood pressure and heart rate, both of which are not recommended during pregnancy. Caffeine can lead to dehydration and cause changes in your baby’s sleep pattern or normal movement pattern in the later stages of pregnancy. Studies have shown that caffeine may cause birth defects, pre-term labor, reduced fertility, prevent you from ovulating, and increase your chances of miscarriage. It’s helpful to avoid caffeinated substances such as coffee, soda, chocolate, and tea. Did you know that coffee is one of the most chemically treated crops in the world? Conventional coffee is loaded with pesticide residues, which may contribute to many health problems including cancer and miscarriages in pregnant women. Conventional decaf coffee is even worse for you! It is typically soaked in several toxic chemical solvents such as methylene chloride, a base for paint strippers, and ethyl acetate, also known as dry cleaning fluid, to remove the caffeine. If you’re like me and must have your coffee in the morning, I recommend drinking organic Swiss water treated decaf coffee, which is free of chemicals and low in caffeine.
9. Conventional Dairy and Beef: Meat and dairy that come from animals fed non-organic (and often genetically modified) feed and are given hormones and antibiotics to fatten them up and produce more, contain hormones that can disrupt your own internal hormone production. This imbalance can impede ovulation and even weaken egg health and sperm, making it difficult to get pregnant. Some of these growth hormones act very similarly to endocrine disruptors in the body, skewing hormones and increasing the risk of certain cancers and infertility. If you must consume dairy products or beef, choose organic grass-fed cows. Grass-fed and grass-finished meat and milk products come from cattle that have not been given growth hormones or antibiotics. These cattle are allowed to roam and eat grass, their natural diet, and are not finished with corn at the end to fatten them up. As a result, their meat and milk is more nutritionally dense and contains higher levels of vitamins A and E, as well as more heart-healthy and baby-brain-building omega-3 fatty acids. Remember to always eat whole foods, which means whole milk and whole milk yogurt. Your body needs that saturated fat to help absorb the calcium.
10. Conventional Poultry: More than 70% of antibiotics in the US go into livestock. Chickens are often packed by the thousands into massive sheds and fed large amounts of antibiotics and drugs to keep them alive in conditions that would otherwise kill them. They are full of diseases and superbugs. Also, conventional livestock feed is frequently laced with a variety of pesticides used in growing the crops the feed is made of. We then ingest some of these pesticides and chemicals when eating the chicken. When shopping for chicken, look for the words “cage free”, “free range”, or “organic” on the label.
11. Farm Raised and High Mercury Fish: Eating too much high-mercury seafood while pregnant can potentially lead to dangerous levels of methyl mercury (a toxin that collects in streams, oceans and, ultimately, fish) in the mother’s body, raising the risk of neurological damage to her developing fetus. Avoid large deep water fish such as ahi tuna, swordfish, grouper, mackerel, and Chilean sea bass due to their high concentrations of mercury, and focus on cold water fish such as wild Alaskan salmon and sardines. Also when choosing fish, avoid farmed fish, as it often contains antibiotics, genetically modified feed, toxic food dyes, and less omega 3’s. If that’s not enough to stop you, apparently, chicken feces is one of the main ingredients that go into farm fish feed. Not only that, the transfer of pig and duck waste to fish farms is also a very common practice. The most common farm raised fish that you should avoid are salmon, catfish, tilapia, sea bass, and cod. If you do choose to eat farmed salmon, I recommend purchasing it from Skuna Bay, the first salmon farmer in the world to have multiple farms awarded with the Best Aquaculture Practices certification by the Global Aquaculture Alliance. It is still important to eat fish 2 to 3 times a week for their healthy brain-boosting omega-3’s but make sure to stick with wild low-mercury fish like wild Alaskan salmon, wild sardines, or wild shrimp.
12. Deli Meat: Deli meat could potentially carry listeria, a bacterium that can be found in processed meats. Listeriosis causes serious illness in about 2,500 Americans each year. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that pregnant women are about 20 times more likely to contract the disease than healthy non-pregnant people. The infection can lead to miscarriage, premature delivery or stillbirth, and can also spread to your baby.
13.Soy Products: Soy foods (which are almost all genetically modified) have been shown to contain estrogen mimicking properties and they are naturally hard to digest. It is best to avoid processed soy foods such as soy milk, tofu, soy burgers, soy protein powder, soy chips, soy meats, tofu, soy cheeses, and soy lecithin (which is in many processed foods) to avoid a negative impact on your hormonal balance. If you have hypothyroidism avoid soy completely (it is a goitrogen that impairs thyroid function, and ultimately your fertility and pregnancy). Fermented organic soy products such as tempeh, miso, tamari and shoyu may be okay in moderation. Fermentation makes them more digestible and also deactivates soy’s natural phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors, which can affect mineral and protein absorption.
14. Pesticides/Non-Organic Produce: Your exposure to large amounts of pesticides from crops may be harmful to your baby during pregnancy. During pregnancy, the baby’s brain, nervous system, and organs are developing rapidly and can be more sensitive to the toxic effects of pesticides. Because of this, it is important to minimize your exposure. Pesticides may lead to birth defects, learning problems later in your baby’s life, low birthweight, miscarriage, and even premature birth. Always choose organic produce when you can. Not only does it have less pesticides, but organic produce has been found to boast up to 40 percent higher levels of some nutrients (including vitamin C, zinc and iron) than its conventional counterparts. If it is not economical for you to buy all organic, the produce lowest in pesticides are: asparagus, avocados, cabbage, cantaloupe, cauliflower, eggplant, grapefruit, kiwi, mangoes, onions, pineapples, and sweet potatoes. The produce that are most important for you to buy organic because they are treated with the most pesticides are: apples, celery, tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, nectarines, peaches, potatoes, snap peas, spinach, berries, bell peppers, and leafy greens.
15. MSG and HVP (Monosodium Glutamate and Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein): MSG and HVP are flavor enhancers commonly added to Asian food, canned vegetables, soups, seasonings, and processed meats. MSG has been referred to as an excitotoxin, over stimulating our nervous system, exciting our nerves, and causing an inflammatory response. Not only do excitotoxins cause brain damage and lead to nervous disorders, but they also cause radical hormone fluctuations. Mice injected with MSG become rapidly obese, inactive, and have other hormonal issues. MSG is especially harmful to pregnant or nursing mothers because infants and young children are four times more sensitive to MSG than adults. It has been found that very high MSG intake can cause abnormal learning, addiction risk, and behavioral, emotional control, and endocrine problems later in the baby’s life. Manufacturers often use HVP in place of MSG because of the negative connotation with MSG in recent years. However, HVP is a source of MSG and should be avoided.
16. Soy Lecithin- Soy Lecithin is a chemically derived emulsifier mostly made from genetically modified soy (GMO’s and soy are both no-go’s for fertility, pregnancy, and breastfeeding). It is found in salad dressings, chocolate, ice cream and dairy products, non-dairy milks, infant formulas, breads, margarine, and other convenience foods. In other words, you’re probably already consuming soy lecithin, whether you realize it or not. Although given the Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) distinction by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), soy lecithin may not be as safe as manufacturers make it out to be. Some common side effects associated with consuming soy lecithin, for instance, are issues like bloating, diarrhea, mild skin rashes, nausea and stomach pain. Read the ingredients lists on your food and try to avoid soy lecithin when you can.
17. Carrageenan- Carrageenan is a common thickener and stabilizer extracted from red edible seaweeds that is used in many processed foods such as organic coconut milk, almond milk, yogurt, ice-cream, deli meat, baby formula, and many others. There is a lot of controversy right now on if it is truly bad for you. There have been studies that show it causes inflammation, birth defects, and fetal toxicity, however, the accuracy of these results are not confirmed. Regardless, I urge you to minimize your risk and avoid carrageenan when possible. It is especially prevalent in non-dairy milks (even organic ones) so make sure to read the ingredients before purchasing them.
18. BPA: Bisphenol A (BPA), a common chemical in plastic, could have adverse neural and behavioral effects on fetuses, babies, and children. More than 90% of us have BPA in our bodies right now. We get most of it by eating foods that have been in containers (plastics and cans) made with BPA. Some potential effects of BPA that are areas of concern are 1. disrupting normal hormone levels and development in fetuses, babies, and children, 2. possible effects on the brain and behavior of infants and young children, 3. increased risk of cancer, and 4. heart problems. Some studies suggest that possible effects from BPA could be most pronounced in infants and young children. Their bodies are still developing and they are less efficient at eliminating substances from their systems. The good news is that the six major companies that make baby bottles and cups for infants have stopped using BPA in the products they sell in the U.S. Try to avoid canned foods, sodas in cans, and food and liquid stored in plastic when possible. Also, heating your foods in plastic containers can release dangerous xenoestrogens, which have been linked to reduced sperm counts worldwide and an increase in infertility.
19. Artificial Colors: Food dyes, a food additive used to deepen the color of hundreds of foods like macaroni and cheese, drinks, cereals, yogurts, ice cream, frosting, candy, dry mixes, soups, and even bread, are one of the most widely used and dangerous additives. Red 40 and Yellow 5 and 6 contain the chemical benzene, which is a known carcinogen. Possible health effects of artificial food dyes include cancer, ADD, ADHD, hyperactivity, rashes, asthma, and tumors. Health authorities in Austria and Norway have even banned the use of artificial food dyes. In Britain, warning labels caution that children who consume foods containing artificial food colorings are at greater risk for developing hyperactive behavior and ADHD. Unlike other countries, The United States has not placed any regulations on labeling food dyes to inform consumers of the health risks so stay away from the word “artificial colors” on ingredient labels.
20. Other Food Additives: Look out for BHA, BHT, Potassium Bromate, Sodium Nitrate/Nitrite, Propyl Gallate, and Sodium Benzoate when purchasing processed foods. They have all sorts of harmful effects on your fertility, pregnancy, and baby such as nausea, vomiting, increased risk of cancer, damages to DNA, infertility, anaphylaxis, and many others.
**** Please note that I also highly advise all pregnant women to avoid any raw/undercooked seafood, meat, poultry, or eggs because of the risk of contamination with coliform bacteria, toxoplasmosis, and salmonella. The FDA also advises not to eat raw sprouts — including alfalfa, clover, radish, and mung bean sprouts, since bacteria can get into sprout seeds. Avoid licorice as well. “It decreases the strength of the placenta allowing harmful hormones into your baby’s system during fetal development. These hormones can impair vocabulary, spatial, and memory functions later in life by interfering with the development of your baby’s brain. Since the placenta should act as a barrier against harmful hormones, the compounds in licorice work against the natural protective processes of your pregnancy.”