Why You Should Avoid Sushi During Pregnancy

Pregnancy can be one of life's greatest joys. But it is also one of life's biggest changes. And the changes don't just start when the baby is born. As soon as most people find out they're pregnant, they have a whole new rulebook to master. No alcohol, cold cuts, hot tubs, or sleeping on your back. And that's just during the pregnancy!

All of these rules have good reasons behind them, of course. And some, like the rule against eating sushi, actually have two: listeria and mercury.

Listeria is an infection caused by bacteria in contaminated food. Pregnant people are generally 10 times more likely to contract listeria. The risk is higher for those that are Hispanic and Latinx, who are 24 times more likely to contract listeria than their non-pregnant counterparts (via CDC).

Listeria causes flu-like symptoms in expectant mothers and can seem mild. The bigger risk is to the fetus and the pregnancy in general. A listeria infection during pregnancy can cause stillbirth, miscarriage, and push the mother into an early labor. Worse yet, the infection can pass to the baby before its birth. Newborns infected with listeria can become seriously ill and may not survive.

The best way to avoid listeria is to avoid unwashed and certain uncooked foods. Any sushi with raw fish, for example, presents a much higher risk of listeria than cooked fish (specifically to 145 degrees or more, via FoodSafety.gov). Raw fish is not the only possible source of listeria, however. There are several foods that could be harmful during pregnancy.

Raw fish isn't the only problem

Listeria is a deadly risk for a developing fetus and newborn babies, and avoiding raw fish is a good way to reduce the risk of infection. But even cooked fish carries a risk during pregnancy, since all fish now contains some amount of mercury.

Some fish — like tile fish and certain forms of tuna — actually carry risk for everyone. These large fish contain high levels of mercury as a result of eating smaller fish. As they feed, these larger fish concentrate the mercury from their food into their own bodies. When they end up on a person's plate, the mercury contamination passes on to the human.

Fish is still wildly beneficial, however, especially for pregnant women. The American Pregnancy Association stresses the importance of eating fish when pregnant as it contains healthy omega-3 fatty acids. These are essential building blocks for a baby's brain, eyes, and nervous system. But those omega-3s have to come from safe sources. The FDA has a handy PDF chart available. It lists the foods that are safest to eat and gives serving size suggestions to ensure people get enough vital nutrients without consuming too much mercury.

Sushi is delicious and can be a fantastically healthy meal. But unless you're partial to veggie rolls, it might be best to wait until after the baby is born — and if you're breastfeeding, until the baby is on a bottle. Then you can celebrate with a sushi splurge.