Ask the health expert: Which foods are safe (and unsafe) to consume during pregnancy?

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Q: Which foods are safe (and unsafe) to consume during pregnancy?

A: Good nutrition is important during pregnancy because it safeguards the expectant mum's health and promotes good fetal development.

Protein is essential in the repair of the body's tissues and in the formation of the foetus' organs.

Good sources of protein include lean meat, poultry, fish, seafood, egg, dairy, and soya bean products. 

When consuming these foods, it is important to ensure they are thoroughly cooked. Raw foods (sashimi), undercooked meat and eggs, or soft cheese (brie, camembert and feta) may be contaminated with a bacteria called Listeria. It can cause food poisoning and also lead to miscarriages and stillbirths.

Studies have shown that pregnant women who eat oily fish such as salmon and sardine, have babies with higher IQ and better vision. The omega-3 fatty acids found in these fish have been found to aid in the development of the baby's brain and eyes.

However, expectant mums should avoid consuming fish such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish, and albacore tuna, as they contain high levels of methyl mercury which is toxic to the foetus's brain and nervous system.

It is also best to avoid caffeine totally as it is a stimulant. Consuming excessive caffeine during pregnancy may add stress to the developing foetus by increasing its heart rate and metabolism, which in turn increases the risk of miscarriage.

Pregnant women can consider drinking decaffeinated coffee and tea which contain trace amounts of caffeine, or natural caffeine-free teas such as peppermint, chamomile, and certain types of floral tea.

In addition, alcohol should be avoided during pregnancy as it can pass from the blood through the placenta to the baby. This may lead to fetal alcohol syndrome which may result in poor growth, learning difficulties, and behavioural problems later in life.

However, a small amount of alcohol added during cooking is considered safe if the food is simmered for at least 30 minutes to allow the alcohol to vapourise.

Ms Ho Pey Ying, Dietitian, KK Women's and Children's Hospital