What Pregnant Women Should Eat—According To Doctors From Around The World

Their dietary recommendations will surprise you.

July 14, 2017
pregnant eating
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Just moments after seeing that little plus sign in the window of a pregnancy test, a woman is faced with modifying her lifestyle and diet to support a growing baby.

“Pregnant women should realize that they are building from scratch a completely new human being,” explains Dr. Steven Gundry, New York Times Best Selling Author of The Plant Paradox and Founder/Director of the Center for Restorative Medicine. “Not to put too much pressure on the mother-to-be, but your baby is what you eat.”

The odd thing? While doctors around the world agree that there are certain dos and don’ts for moms-to-be, they don’t all agree on what those things are.

In Nigeria, women believe that eating snails will make their babies sluggish; in Japan, women are told that spicy food will make their baby hot-tempered. In China, eating crab is said to give babies extra appendages, while in Indonesia, squid is said to make delivery difficult.

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While pregnant women should always check with their doctors before consuming or eliminating any new foods, here is just a bit of food for thought from around the world.

raw veggies
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Raw foods

In the U.S., most doctors recommend against raw foods for pregnant women, whether they be plants, meats, or fish.

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This is firstly because of bacteria and microbes that are killed by the cooking process—particularly in the cases of raw meat, eggs, fish, and dairy. The presence of these microbes in raw food can make the mother ill and, therefore, have consequences on the baby, particularly in the early stages of pregnancy.

Gundry notes that there’s another reason why pregnant women should avoid raw foods, particularly raw plants, and especially during the first six to eight weeks of pregnancy.

“(They) contain lectins and other anti-nutrients that can interfere with the early development of the fetus,” he explains.

Related: 8 Bizarre Things That Happen To Your Body When You’re Pregnant

While many foods contain these common proteins, overconsumption of lectins has been linked to both leaky gut, which makes the digestive tract less able to extract nutrients from foods, as well as to some autoimmune diseases. Lectins are found in many raw veggies, but also in legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds, so it’s a good idea to go easy on these foods, too, especially early in your pregnancy.

Naturopathic Doctor Serena Goldstein also notes that raw cruciferous vegetables, like kale, can disrupt thyroid function (particularly for pregnant women, who may be at an increased risk for hyperthyroidism, and the body’s ability to utilize iron).

Related: 6 Ingredients Your Smoothies Should Contain When You’re Pregnant

However convincing it may seem, this interdiction against raw foods is not the case in all countries.

In France, for example, pregnant women are not discouraged from eating raw milk cheeses such as Brie or Camembert—a major no-no in the U.S. But consider this: raw milk cheeses aged past 60 days have been proven not to support the growth of listeria, the dangerous bacterium that could (but usually isn’t) present in these products.

Related: 6 Surprising Foods You Should Never Eat Raw

What’s more, in Japan, women can and do eat raw fish in the form of traditional sushi and sashimi (which even figure in a new mom’s traditional first meal post-partum). Which brings us to…

salmon
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Fish

Fish is a complicated item for moms-to-be, even if you’re just looking at American recommendations.

While experts agree that it’s definitely important to consume fish while pregnant, they often contradict one another when it comes to the right amount and right kind—to the extent that the EPA and FDA announced that they would be revising their official advice on the issue early last year since some moms weren’t getting enough omega 3 fatty acids when pregnant. Goldstein notes that these essential fats benefit baby's neurological health and keep mom's moods fairly stable, even post-partum. Studies have even shown that emotional stability from omega 3s can extend to babies themselves.

One recommendation that’s true everywhere is that moms-to-be would do well to avoid high-level predators like tuna and swordfish, as these fish have a tendency to accumulate large quantities of mercury, which can damage the DNA of the developing fetus.

Related: 12 Fish You Should Never Eat—And What To Eat Instead

Japanese authorities, however, still recommend about a meal a week of fish like swordfish, Bluefin tuna, and some kinds of whale, and about two meals a week of fish like marlin and shark. (To be clear, we do not recommend these fish—because of their high mercury content, and their endangered status.)

Eating ample amounts of fish also ensures that future moms get enough iodine, which can help nourish the thyroid and thus regulate metabolism.

“Deficiency has been linked to increased incidence of miscarriage and birth defects,” explains Goldstein.

You can get plenty of iodine without eating risky fish by doing as they do in Korea, where women eat quite a bit of iodine-rich seaweed soup during pregnancy. (Seaweed is also one of the foods you should eat if you’re breastfeeding.)

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"Cold" Or "Hot" Foods

This has nothing to do with the actual temperature of foods, but rather the idea common to several different international schools of medicine that certain bodily states—such as illness or pregnancy— are either “hot” or “cold.” As foods are also attributed one of these temperatures, deciding what to eat and what not to eat is a question of balance.

Related: 5 Yoga Poses That Can Help Relieve Pregnancy Aches And Pains

In traditional Chinese medicine, for example, qi (vital energy) must be balanced between yin and yang. Pregnancy is seen to be a marriage of yin and yang energies, though yin dominates, followed by yang during birthing and post-partum.

Pregnant women are told to avoid yin (cool) foods, which include watermelon, bananas, and mung beans, but also to avoid foods that are too “wet-hot,” including shrimp, mango, pineapple, and lychee. Foods that are said to afford qi balance during pregnancy include sweet potato, walnuts, lamb, and garlic.

Indian Ayurvedic medicine has a similar philosophy. In India, many pregnant women are told to avoid foods at either end of the spectrum: both those that are too “hot,” such as papaya and pumpkin and those that are too “cold,” such as milk, yogurt, and bananas.

wine
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Beer and wine

The CDC advises against all alcohol consumption during pregnancy. That said, women around the world consume alcohol when pregnant, and some evidence shows that it’s not just a matter of them giving into a craving.

In beer-producing nations such as Ireland and Belgium, new moms drink beer to help with milk production, a tradition that has been proven effective thanks to barley’s ability to affect the secretion of prolactin, one of the two hormones responsible for milk production.

Related: The Best And Worst Teas For Pregnancy

But while this is mainly a concern for new moms, not moms to be, pregnant women in other nations can and do continue to consume alcohol – in moderation – throughout their pregnancies.

A 2008 study showed that over half of French moms continue drinking throughout their pregnancy, and what’s more, a recent Danish study suggests that about a glass a day of wine is dandy.

pregnant woman
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Listen To Your Body

While every country has its old wives’ tales, one thing that most experts can agree on around the globe is that moms-to-be should listen to their bodies – and to common sense.

Choosing whole, healthy foods is a major plus; an Australian study showed that moms who ate a Mediterranean diet had fewer pregnancy complications including hypertension and preeclampsia. Some studies have shown that babies may develop predisposed likings to things that their mothers ate while they were in the womb, thus making it easier for them to learn to eat healthy as an adult.

Gundry notes that one theory amongst medical professionals is that so-called “morning sickness,” or nausea in early pregnancy, may have developed to keep a mother-to-be from eating foods that could harm the developing fetus.

“The nausea of pregnancy usually occurs only during the first six to eight weeks, which is when all the ‘parts’ of the new baby are formed and assembled,” he explains. “Once developed, the fetus is less likely to suffer harm from the mother's food choices.”

In other words, the best thing for a mother-to-be may be simply to listen to her own body’s signals about what sounds good. As long as you’re choosing a balanced diet filled with high-quality foods, your body will do most of the work for you.