What Chinese tradition gets wrong about pregnancy diet restrictions


18th June 2024 – (Hong Kong) In the realm of pregnancy, diet takes on a heightened importance, serving not just as sustenance but as the building blocks for the health and development of both the mother and her unborn child. The old wives’ tales and cultural myths surrounding pregnancy diets, especially those prevalent in Chinese tradition that paint a broad brush across numerous fruits and herbs as potentially harmful, warrant a closer examination grounded in scientific scrutiny.

In traditional Chinese beliefs, a plethora of foods are often blanket-labelled as unsuitable for pregnancy. Durians, jackfruits, coconuts, watermelons, bananas, mangos, black fungus, bitter gourd, and various spices are just a few on the list. These foods are typically avoided due to concerns ranging from causing miscarriages to affecting the baby’s health negatively. However, these claims are largely unsubstantiated by modern scientific research.

The truth about fruits and pregnancy

Durians and jackfruits: Often avoided because of their intense smell and high calorific content, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that these fruits are harmful to pregnant women if consumed in moderation. In fact, their rich content in vitamins like vitamin C and B complex can be quite beneficial.

Coconuts and watermelons: Hydration is crucial in pregnancy, and both coconuts and watermelons are excellent at providing this. They are hydrating and replenishing, countering myths that they reduce amniotic fluid or cause colds due to their ‘cooling’ properties.

Bananas and mangos: These fruits are often thought to cause gestational diabetes due to their sugar content. Yet, they are safe when eaten as part of a balanced diet, offering essential nutrients such as potassium and vitamin C.

The role of black fungus and bitter gourd

Black fungus: Known for its health benefits, including improving circulation and being a good source of iron, black fungus is erroneously believed to increase the risk of bleeding. Proper preparation and moderate consumption can make it a healthy addition to a pregnancy diet.

Bitter gourd: Often avoided for its potential to stimulate menstrual flow and cause preterm labour, bitter gourd can actually be consumed safely during pregnancy if used in moderation and not as part of medicinal preparations aimed at inducing labour.

Herbal wisdom: Culinary uses over medicinal

The distinction needs to be made clear between culinary and medicinal uses of herbs. Culinary usage involves using herbs in cooking to enhance flavour and provide nutrients. For example, ginger, often used to alleviate morning sickness, is safe in culinary doses but may be contraindicated in medicinal doses, which are significantly higher. Common herbs like oregano, thyme, and basil are perfectly safe for use in daily cooking and can enrich a pregnant woman’s diet with flavours and nutrients without any risk.

Foods to avoid: A detailed guide

While the myths around many foods are unfounded, there are certain foods and substances that should indeed be avoided:

Raw and undercooked meats: These can harbour bacteria and parasites like Toxoplasma gondii, leading to serious infections.

Unpasteurised dairy and juices: These can contain harmful bacteria, including Listeria, which can cause listeriosis, leading to miscarriage or severe illness.

High-mercury fish: Fish such as shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish are high in mercury, which can impair an unborn baby’s brain development.

Excessive caffeine: High levels of caffeine consumption are linked to miscarriage and low birth weight. Limiting intake to 200mg a day (about one 12-ounce cup of coffee) is advised.

Alcohol: No amount of alcohol is considered safe during pregnancy as it can lead to fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

Navigating the dietary landscape during pregnancy doesn’t have to be a journey through a minefield of restrictions based on unproven claims. By understanding the scientific basis behind what should and shouldn’t be consumed, expectant mothers can enjoy a diverse and nutritious diet that supports both their health and that of their baby. It’s always essential, however, to consult with healthcare providers to tailor dietary choices to individual health needs and pregnancy conditions.