For Pregnant Women, Some 'Hazards' Are Part Myth
Expecting moms don't need to panic about coffee, X-rays, or other overblown no-no's
From albacore to X-rays, there's no shortage of supposed dangers that pregnant women are often warned to avoid. But not everything is as dangerous as people might think. "There is a lot of mythology surrounding pregnancy," says Michael Katz, acting director of the March of Dimes. He and other experts share proven tips for minimizing the risk of birth defects and other pregnancy-related problems. Here, however, are some things women are commonly warned against—and the reassuring facts behind the conventional wisdom.
Caffeine: Coffee was long considered taboo during pregnancy, but most doctors now say that it's not so bad if consumed in reasonable quantities. Up to 300 milligrams of caffeine a day is OK, and it's not even clear that more than that is dangerous, says Michael Greene, a Harvard professor and spokesperson for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. A 16-ounce latte from Starbucks contains 150mg of caffeine, and a can of Coca-Cola has 23mg.
Fish: Some species contain contaminants such as mercury and PCBs that can affect a growing fetus. But fish also contains healthful fats that aid in brain development. "Women should not be afraid to consume fish, but, just like everything else, they should do it in moderation," says Karen Filkins, a retired obstetrician-gynecologist and clinical geneticist whose expertise is on birth defects. Experts recommend that women choose types of fish that tend to be low in mercury, like salmon, and avoid eating large species like shark and swordfish that can harbor higher levels of the toxic metal. The FDA recommends that women limit fish consumption to 12 ounces a week during pregnancy.
Raw Fish: Although the FDA recommends that women avoid raw fish because it may contain parasites and bacteria, some experts maintain that pregnant women don't have to give it up. "Food poisoning can occur anywhere, with any type of food," says Filkins, noting a recent E. coli outbreak linked to spinach. Furthermore, "there's a mistaken notion that eating raw fish is dangerous because it causes toxoplasmosis," says Katz. "It definitely does not." The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that women avoid raw shellfish, however. And Filkins says that pregnancy is probably not the time to be trying new foods. "If you've been consuming sashimi, and you've had no problems," she says, it's probably OK to keep it in your diet.
Soft Cheese: Many women have heard that soft cheeses such as goat cheese and brie can be sources of a dangerous microbe called Listeria. But a soft cheese is safe to eat as long as it has been pasteurized, according to the FDA. And although unpasteurized dairy products have surged in popularity recently, most cheeses produced in the United States, including domestic brie, are still pasteurized. Listeria can also grow in packaged lunch meats and hot dogs, so experts recommend that women avoid those foods—or heat them until they're steaming.
Exercise: It used to be that doctors cautioned women against working out during pregnancy, but now it's agreed that moderate exercise is an important part of maintaining maternal—and fetal—health. The CDC recommends that expecting mothers stick to moderate forms of exercise, like swimming and yoga, and it advises checking with a doctor first.
Cats: Exposure to cats has been linked to toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection that in infants can cause cerebral palsy, deafness, and blindness. But pregnant women don't have to get rid of their housecat, experts say. Instead, they should avoid contact with cat feces—let another family member clean the litter box—and wash their hands after petting a cat. Cats that never venture outdoors aren't likely to pick up the parasite, adds Filkins. And since toxoplasmosis is treatable, if a woman thinks she might have been exposed, she can get tested and, if necessary, treated.
X-rays: Although medical radiation can be dangerous to a fetus, doctors say the concern has been overblown. Greene says: "In truth, there is no diagnostic X-ray that will damage a pregnancy.&" The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American College of Radiology agree that no single diagnostic X-ray procedure presents a significant risk to a developing fetus. Radiation treatments for cancer are another story, however, and should be discussed with a doctor.