During an interview with one of Hong Kong’s most revered and well-educated businessmen, something terrible happens. I order a peppermint tea.
“No!!” He cries, stopping the waiter in his tracks. “Not peppermint tea! Get her a hot water. With… honey.”
“What’s wrong with peppermint tea?” I ask in surprise.
“It’s the oils,” he says darkly. “Bad for baby.”
A few days later, a friend who is organising a sit-down dinner calls to ask if I have any dietary requirements. “No, not really,” I say.
“Are you quite sure?” she asks. “I know a lot of pregnant women don’t eat red meat, or seafood. Or potatoes.”
“Yes, it’s one I’ve heard before,” she informs me. “But,” (with barely a hint of judgement,) “I’ll let you decide on the night.”
“You’re not allowed to drink that,” she announces, hands on hips. “Cold water shocks the baby,” she explained.
The final straw came this week, when I was pouring cold water into a tumbler. I was aware of the junior writer, two thirds my age and apparently an expert in paediatrics, sidling up.
As far as Old Wives Tales go, the pregnancy food-and-beverage list has it all. From alfalfa sprouts to smoked salmon to ice-cream to bacon, pretty much any food you can think of – apparently even the humble spud – should be “treated with caution” during pregnancy.
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The reasons are diverse and ambiguous, but most of them are founded on the basis that, when pregnant, women become morons.
“Before eating custard, check the best before date,” the Australian government sagely advises pregnant women on its website. “Store in the fridge.
Fresh fruit? “Wash well before eating”, advises the government, and frozen vegetables “shouldn’t be eaten uncooked.” Ice-cream, meanwhile, should always be “eaten frozen.”
Sure, all of this “advice” has stemmed from someone, somewhere, being affected during their pregnancy by eating out-of-date custard or unwashed fruit. The main concern is listeria – which occasionally occurs in ready-to-eat foods like pate, deli meats, soft cheeses, and toxoplasmosis or salmonella found in undercooked or raw meat and eggs.
Salmonella is basically food poisoning, and unlikely to harm your unborn child. Toxoplasmosis affects 1 or 2 in 10,000 pregnancies, according to the Global Library of Women’s Medicine, and can be treated with antibiotics. There is definitely a risk, albeit a small one.
To find out more, I ask my doctor. “In my 30-year career I’ve seen two cases of listeria in pregnant women,” she says. “And one was in a Korean woman, who I doubt would have been eating deli meats or cheese anyway.”
Caffeine and alcohol are two well-known villains of pregnancy with clear causes and affects. But one or two cups of coffee a day, says my doctor, and two units of booze per week, is acceptable.
She adds that there is a guideline of government-approved foods and drinks which caters for those who want to be “extremely careful”, but otherwise, just to have a healthy balanced diet and use common sense.
At last, those two precious words. Common Sense. Gold dust for preached-at pregnant women.
Nealy Fischer, a health guru, mother-of-four and founder of wellness site Mayya Movement is also an advocate of common sense. “When I fancy sushi, I don’t buy it from the supermarket but I’ll happily eat it at a good restaurant like Zuma.”
“I still drink a coffee in the morning,” she continues. “And when I fancy a glass of wine, I’ll have it, but cap it at two units a week rather than two a night.”
And after all, she points out, a nation of French women don’t stop eating soft cheese (nor drinking wine, for that matter) and Japanese doctors don’t ban sushi.
I can’t imagine Italian women give up their morning cappuccino, either.
“You’ve just got to think if it feels OK for you, it’s probably OK for your baby. If two glasses of wine doesn’t feel good then it won’t feel good for your baby,” says Fischer.
The problem is, pregnant women are increasingly the targets of a compulsively alarmist culture. A nervous first-time mother trying to decipher your average restaurant menu, or over at a friends’ for dinner, could easily end up raising her blood pressure with all the “advice” out there.
What has been proved is the affects of stress on a foetus. Findings have shown that maternal stress hormones can affect brain function and behaviour in offspring, and it makes sense. We’re all a product of our developmental history, and sustained higher levels of cortisol in us will result in greater stress in our unborn children.
While no one wants to take unnecessary risks, I’m a proponent of doing the research and drawing your own conclusions. If you feel more relaxed cutting out all risky foods, that’s your choice. But others shouldn’t be condemned for eating soft-scoop ice cream and parma ham, or having the odd glass of wine if it helps them relax.
Personally, if someone tells me I shouldn’t be eating or drinking something, I’ll Google it or ask my doctor and then make my own decision. And then I focus on what’s important – enjoying my pregnancy.