Expecting my first baby last year, I learned yet another reason to wait until the second trimester to tell everyone the news: You get at least three months of peace before everyone starts telling you what you should and shouldn’t be eating. “I sure hope that’s decaf,” barked a colleague one morning, eyeing my cup of joe. But you know what? It wasn’t. And yes, that was me, drinking an occasional glass of wine with dinner. And me, eating rare steak, runny eggs, and soft cheeses. That was even me enjoying (gasp!) sushi. That’s right, I was one of those pregnant women—one who, according to conventional wisdom, cared more about her hedonistic ways than the life of her unborn child. But as someone who, I admit, cares very much about her hedonistic ways, I did a lot of research into what might truly be unsafe to eat during pregnancy, and what I concluded is this: A lot of the conventional wisdom just doesn’t add up. From what I could gather, it seems that the health people have not been talking to the food people.
Take the “avoid soft cheeses” recommendation. Dig a little deeper, and you find that it’s not really soft cheese, but unaged cheese made from unpasteurized milk that worries health experts, mostly for the risk of Listeria, one of the few foodborne bacteria that can actually harm a fetus. But wait: Hasn’t anyone told them that the FDA prohibits the sale of that kind of cheese in this country? Your basic supermarket soft cheeses (like, say, those good old discs of brie) are made from pasteurized milk, and thus pose no more theoretical threat than a brick of orange cheddar. Besides, many of the recent Listeria outbreaks were caused by foods your ob/gyn would never warn you about, including raw vegetables and prepackaged chicken burritos. Granted, a pregnant woman might travel to a place where young raw-milk cheeses are more widely available, and even in this country, there are those high-end grocery stores and restaurants that carry the delicious contraband. But given how unlikely it would be for a pregnant woman in the States to consume one of the offending cheeses without knowing it, it seems like overkill to tell her to eliminate an entire category of foods from her diet.
Then there’s sushi. Sure, it’s probably a good idea to stay away from high-mercury fish like tuna (it’s debatable whether the thumb-size piece on your average sushi plate could really pose a significant risk, but let’s set that aside); other than that, does anyone even know what the supposed threat is? I discovered, in a state of paranoia following a delightful raw-fish appetizer in my first trimester, that there are Internet rumors linking raw fish to all sorts of nasty bugs; but the ones you actually can pick up from sushi (like Hepatitis A or Salmonella from cross-contamination) would not injure a fetus, according to Dr. Michael S. Broder’s fantastic book The Panic-Free Pregnancy. And these are things that you can get from any raw food—yet somehow no one is recommending that you shun the crudité platter. Is it parasites that people are worried about? The reality is that getting a parasite from sushi is very unlikely (just make sure your salmon sushi has been flash-frozen); and besides (Panic-Free again), a parasite wouldn’t necessarily pose harm to a fetus, either. But take your pregnant self to a sushi bar and you’ll feel the dirty looks as surely as if you were teaching a four-year-old to shoot craps.
As for caffeine and alcohol, the recommendations to abstain from both clearly come from a very American fear of moderation: Medical experts say that one or two cups of coffee and a glass of wine a day should cause no harm whatsoever to an unborn child. But try telling that to the waiter who skips right over you when taking everyone’s drink order.
It’s difficult for me, with my decidedly unscientific background, to advise that pregnant women go ahead and eat whatever they want with abandon—as I know firsthand, the fear that can creep in after eating something “risky” is more nagging than any case of heartburn. But personally, keeping up a widely varied diet ultimately felt like the best possible way to nourish my developing baby. And striking my own balance regarding risk and reward seemed like a pretty good way to prepare for motherhood, too.