What not to eat when you’re expecting

by Jennifer Crosby

The night I told my husband we were going to be parents was also the first time he had to eat my dinner.

preggers1We were celebrating our news at the just-opened Hart’s Table restaurant in Terwillegar, scanning a menu of favourites like duck confit poutine, tuna tataki, moules frites, antipasto and croque monsieur.

I knew pregnancy would change what and how I ate, but never could I have predicted how much. Of course it would mean a dry spell for this wine-lover. But what caught me off-guard was the long and diverse list I soon dubbed the ‘What Not to Eat When You’re Expecting’ list.

This list stretches into the far reaches of the kitchen pantry and across the broadest menu. And those recommendations vary between different health professionals, authorities, common practice and ‘what everyone says is OK.’

However, during this celebratory dinner I was just beginning to discover the depth of the conflict. An apology is owed to that night’s server for the endless questions and delays. We eventually ordered an appetizer kale and cheese dip that was both delicious and pregnancy-safe. We knew this because we insisted she find out exactly what kind of cheeses it contained and I quickly Googled ‘safe cheeses for pregnant women’ when we were alone with our menus again.

When our mains came, I excitedly cut into my croque monsieur. The first cut foreshadowed months of food-related struggle. I had forgotten to ask about the ham.

Some meats are off-limits to expectant mothers. Where did this ham — described as gammon ham on the menu — fit on the safety spectrum? Still in the secrecy zone, we couldn’t exactly ask. So I watched my husband enjoy what he reported to be a delicious sandwich, and my adventures in pregnancy eating began in earnest.

Because pregnant women have more delicate immune systems, foodborne illnesses like listeriosis or salmonella can have serious consequences — for mother and baby. I carry around a mental list of stuff I can’t have, maybe. Different sources dictate no cold cuts, no raw sprouts, no organ meats and no unpasteurized honey or apple cider. I’m told I should avoid smoked salmon, any meat that’s not fully cooked, most herbal tea, Caesar salad dressing, mussels, clams, cold pizza and limit canned tuna and ground flax. That’s in addition to the most widely cited limitations: soft or blue-veined cheeses, sushi and raw eggs.

Cheese and charcuterie pose two of the largest hurdles. If you only wanted to eat mass-produced cheddar and well-done meatloaf you’d be in the clear. Beyond that, Health Canada’s online resources are far from useful for foodies. One overview prescribes avoiding ‘non-dried deli meats’ in favour of ‘dried and salted deli meats.’ Safe examples are salami and pepperoni – but what about mortadella? Capricolla? Capricciosa? And most importantly, prosciutto?

Contradictions are everywhere. While Health Canada steers me toward dried and salted meats, the popular website Baby Center says to curtail cured meat, which it says is ‘also known as dried or salted meat.’

Cheese constitutes a similar conundrum. Pregnant women are told to avoid soft, raw cheeses. But what if the cheese is soft yet pasteurized, like the Brie and blue varieties at our local grocery store? Or hard yet unpasteurized?

A federal government website advocates avoiding soft cheeses like Brie even when pasteurized. The Mayo Clinic wants me to skip the Brie and blue unless pasteurized or made with pasteurized milk. A third recommended source, the Motherrisk tool through Toronto’s SickKids Hospital, endorses soft cheeses. My number one wish becomes discovering a definitive guide to cheese — a flow chart for expectant mothers.

When dining out we err on the side of caution, even when it means committing restaurant faux pas. At RGE RD, we repeatedly confess we’re not ready to order — then turn back to our smartphones. A dish including cheese from The Cheesiry catches my eye. The website text on my smartphone’s small screen shows the company produces both raw milk and pasteurized cheeses. It’s an inexact science. I look for an option I can be sure of.

preggers2At home, cooking methods can solve some dilemmas. Health Canada approves of certain meats if they are heated until steaming. It is a generally unappetizing thought until I realize this means crispy prosciutto should be safe. I broil up several strips to garnish a baked pasta — and eat most of it before the pasta makes it to the oven. I relate my victory to a doctor who asks, “Prosciutto, isn’t that cured?” Foiled again, maybe.

The same is said for certain cheeses — they are considered safe if heated until bubbling. Still, I choose to opt out of some beloved food events. No one wants to be the person at Indulgence or What The Truck pestering participants with, “I know it’s hot — but did you actually personally see that meat steam and that cheese bubble?”

I’m aware I sound paranoid and frankly, a little nuts. Pregnant women around the world eat all manners of food under all kinds of safety standards — or lack thereof. I could have done more research, been more persistent in tracking down answers. But growing a human turns out to be exhausting. And I’m hungry all the time.

My logical, analytical side wants simple, clear answers and can’t understand why there is not more agreement among authorities. Perhaps with the weight gain and cankles and insomnia, this is the thing I can control — the level of caution with which I’ll approach eating for nine months.

Midway through pregnancy and dreaming nightly of Italian Centre signature sandwiches, it’s time to meet my OB. Before I can even ask about conflicting food advice, he tells me with a smile, “don’t believe Dr. Google.” He points out our health systems have come a long way. And large companies have volume, which means product turnover. And no one — especially them — wants another listeria scare.

Perhaps not surprisingly his advice on eating is in line with most general health recommendations: moderation.

But since my doctor can’t be on call for menu-specific questions 24/7, Google does become a voice among many. My iPhone only needs the letters “can p-r-e…” typed into the Google app and the suggested searches come up: Can pregnant women eat sushi; eat shrimp; eat feta cheese; drink coffee…. the list goes on.

It gets easier once I can point to my growing belly as the reason for my many detailed queries. And eventually I come to a happy medium between my cravings, conflicting warnings and fulfilling food experiences. I keep my eye on the prize — our healthy, beautiful baby. And all of the things I’m going to eat as soon as she’s born. I can’t wait to introduce her to a wonderful world of Brie, prosciutto and adventures in food.

Jennifer Crosby is on maternity leave from co-anchoring the Morning News on Global Edmonton. After the birth of their baby girl, her husband ducked out to retrieve another special delivery — an Italian Centre sandwich.