Eating Safely During Pregnancy: Essential Food Guidelines for Expectant Mothers

November 14, 2023

Written by Gia Eapen, MD

Medically reviewed by

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Key Points

  • Pregnant women are particularly susceptible to food-borne illnesses.
  • Listeriosis and toxoplasmosis are two food-borne diseases that can have severe consequences for the mother and unborn child.
  • Safe food habits, including proper storage, preparation, and cooking, can prevent these illnesses.
  • Certain foods carry a higher risk and should be avoided during pregnancy.

When it comes to pregnancy, there are many precautions you need to take to ensure the well-being of both you and your unborn child. Among these precautions, food safety is crucial. Pregnancy alters your immune system, making you more susceptible to food-borne illnesses that can be harmful to you and your baby.

The two food-borne illnesses pregnant women should be particularly wary of are listeriosis and toxoplasmosis.

Listeriosis: The Hidden Danger in Your Fridge

Listeriosis is a serious infection caused by eating food contaminated with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes. This bacterium can be found in refrigerated, ready-to-eat foods and unpasteurized milk and milk products. The risks associated with listeriosis are particularly high for pregnant women, as it can lead to premature delivery, miscarriage, stillbirth, or serious health problems for the newborn.

When a pregnant woman is infected with listeriosis, the bacteria can be transmitted to the fetus through the placenta, potentially leading to severe complications. The newborn might suffer from a severe form of the disease characterized by respiratory distress, fever, skin sores, and lesions on multiple organs. These complications can often result in neonatal death.

To avoid listeriosis:

  • Refrigerate perishable food at temperatures of 40°F or lower.
  • Cook food at the right temperatures (Please refer to the FDA’s Safe Minimum Internal Temperature Chart).
  • Rinse raw produce thoroughly under running tap water before eating.
  • Separate uncooked meats and poultry from vegetables, cooked foods, and ready-to-eat foods.

Dealing with food safety during pregnancy can be a lot to handle. Get personalized guidance from the experts at Fay Nutrition — one of our Registered Dietitians can work with you to create a nutrition plan that keeps you and your baby safe. 

Toxoplasmosis: The Risk Lurking in Raw and Undercooked Food

Toxoplasmosis is an illness caused by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which can be found in raw and undercooked meat, unwashed fruits and vegetables, contaminated water, soil, and places contaminated with cat feces. Infection with this parasite can cause symptoms like swollen glands, fever, headache, muscle pain, or a stiff neck. However, some women infected with the parasite may not have noticeable symptoms. That's why prevention is key.

For unborn babies, T. gondii can cause serious complications. Babies may suffer from hearing loss, intellectual disability, and blindness. Some children can develop brain or eye problems years after birth. The children born infected with T. gondii can also require years of special care, including special education and ophthalmology care. Early identification and treatment of children infected with T. gondii is essential in order to minimize the parasite's effects.

To avoid toxoplasmosis:

  • Wash your hands, cutting boards, and knives thoroughly after handling raw meat, soil, sand, or unwashed vegetables.
  • Cook meat thoroughly until the internal temperature reaches 160° F (71° C).
  • Avoid drinking untreated water, particularly in less-developed countries.
  • Practice safe and hygienic pet care, particularly with cats.

Not sure if you're protecting yourself and your baby from toxoplasmosis? A Registered Dietitian at Fay can provide advice and support tailored to your needs.

Practicing Safe Food Habits

When handling and preparing food, there are several precautions you can take to avoid these and other food-borne illnesses.

Keep Raw Meats and Ready-to-Eat Foods Separate

Prevent cross-contamination by keeping raw foods separate from ready-to-eat foods. Use two cutting boards: one strictly for raw meat, poultry, and seafood; the other for ready-to-eat foods such as breads and vegetables. Discard old cutting boards that have cracks, crevices, and knife scars.

Cook Foods to Proper Internal Temperatures

Proper cooking temperatures kill harmful bacteria present in food. Always use a food thermometer to check the doneness of meat, poultry, seafood, and other dishes. Some ready-to-eat foods require reheating before use. Always make sure to bring these foods to the proper internal temperature before eating.

Eating Out Safely During Pregnancy

When dining out, it's also important to maintain food safety measures. Before you sit down at a restaurant, assess the cleanliness of the surroundings. If it's not clean, consider eating somewhere else. Always wash your hands before eating, and if soap and water aren't available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

When ordering food, be mindful of the potential for harmful bacteria in certain types of food. Always request that your food be thoroughly cooked. Avoid raw or undercooked fish, shellfish, eggs, and sprouts. If you're unsure about the ingredients in a dish, don't hesitate to ask the server.

If you have leftovers, handle them with care. If you can't refrigerate them within 2 hours of being served, it's best to leave them behind.

Maintaining food safety is a crucial part of ensuring a healthy pregnancy. By following these guidelines, you can significantly decrease your risk of foodborne illnesses such as listeriosis and toxoplasmosis, which can have severe effects on your unborn child. If you're unsure about anything or need more guidance, don't hesitate to reach out for professional help. Registered Dietitians at Fay are available to help guide you through this crucial phase of your life.

The views expressed by authors and contributors of such content are not endorsed or approved by Fay and are intended for informational purposes only. The content is reviewed by Fay only to confirm educational value and audience interest. You are encouraged to discuss any questions that you may have about your health with a healthcare provider.


Fay Nutrition has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.

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Gia Eapen, MD

Written by Gia Eapen, MD

Dr. Gia Eapen is a skilled Obstetrics and Gynecology (OB/GYN) physician at Case Western/MetroHealth. A Northwestern University alumna, she pursued her medical degree at the University of Vermont, fostering a deep understanding of women's health and reproductive medicine. She combines her comprehensive knowledge with a dedication to patient-centered care, embodying a commitment to enhancing healthcare standards in her field.


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