Taboo Foods in Pregnancy and Beyond

by Forager on August 1, 2014

What a long and unexpected hiatus from blogging I’ve had. Let’s call it an extended sabbatical – from work and normal life as I knew it before motherhood.

In mid December last year the Co-pilot and I welcomed our little boy, The Master, into our lives and quite frankly it’s been a constant murky sleep deprived haze since then. I certainly wasn’t entirely naive and had expected a newborn would be a dramatic disruption to our lives but still expected to be able to find some time to blog a post here or there. Oh silly me. Blog? Ha! I could barely tell what day it was, and in extreme examples even what week or month it was. My every waking moment was sucked into the black hole vortex that is new parenthood, and though we might be myopically biased, The Master seemed to us a particularly trying, active, colicky bub. At the height of my sleep deprivation he was waking almost every hour at night and over the course of 3 days I’d cobbled together about 8 hours sleep in total, stitched over several nights. There wasn’t any opportunity to catch a nap during the day either as he’d only sleep if strapped to me in a carrier, and then, only if I was actively walking. So I found myself sleep deprived but constantly on the move – doing an Oscar-worthy impression of the walking dead. This I was still happy to do since if The Master slept well, he was slightly easier to handle and there was a better chance that he’d sleep better at night. Thus sleep became an all encompassing fixation and as my efforts to coax him to sleep were so draining, any threat to his sleep (and ultimately mine) immediately unleashed my inner crazy dragon lady and undisguised skull-withering scowls and primal angry growls ensued. These were directed at both animate and inanimate objects and I’ve developed a healthy dislike of Sulfur Crested Cockatoos, Noisy Miners, barking dogs, lawn mowers, leaf blowers, compression braking in vehicles and any person(s) who half attempted to try to poke or meddle with the sleeping baby…

Thankfully we got a mothercraft nurse sleep saviour in a few months ago and the sad state of sleep affairs have been improving in leaps and bounds ever since. The Master now reliably sleeps in his cot during the day and recently started sleeping better at night, and on a few glorious occasions now, blissfully sleeping through the night. It’s funny how much of a difference sleep can make to a person. I’ve gone from barely functioning to, well, rested and contented and considering blogging again! A luxury that for a long time I couldn’t fathom how to integrate back into my life.

So with more time on my hands I’m able to finally reflect on the many months that have passed – in both the lead up to and since the arrival of The Master. And it will be no surprise to many of you that this period of one’s life is filled with advice – both solicited advice and much more unsolicited advice that touched on every single aspect. You see, despite what you think, it seems pregnancy and parenthood is not your own personal experience – it belongs to the wider public. Once you decide to embark on this journey, everyone – family, friends, distant family friends and even strangers have their 2 cents to add from on everything like work – when you should take maternity leave, how much you should be or should not be working; baby preparations; post natal preparations and care; maternity/paternity and childcare arrangements; how to feed/settle/hold/dress/raise the child; and pretty much constantly second guessing your every other move. As a fiercely stubborn and independent person, this came as confronting and intrusive. It might be an extreme statement, it’s as though society equates having a child with a frontal lobotomy. When you were previously considered rather capable of independent thought; suddenly once with child you’re suddenly considered more an imbecile incapable of even deciding how much social interaction you need and whether you should “get out more”.

And of course, the advice touched on a subject very close to my heart – this advice extended extensively to food also (and here I promise that The Gourmet Forager will still remain a food blog. The Master may be mentioned or even make appearances, but it’s not transforming into a mummy blog. No need to fear reading about pureed baby food recipes here).

The advice came came thick and fast from a myriad of sources ranging from the professionals like GPs; other mothers; well meaning but perpetuated myths via friends and forums; to completely unfounded superstitious advice from family (read: my mother). You see, I had to pleasure of being advised by both Western medicine health principles and Chinese medicine and cultural principles. The wisdom of Western Medicine will advise that listeria, salmonella or toxoplasmosis harbouring foods like soft cheese, raw meats and raw fish should be avoided. Whereas Chinese principles appear to be based on the balance of yin and yang within the body. Females are considered yin (cool) and males, yang (hot), so ingredients considered too “cooling” should be religiously avoided by women during pregnancy and immediately after birth lest the precious yin yang balance be disrupted. If you’re Australian Chinese as I am, you’re expected to abide by both codes, leaving diddly squat left that isn’t going to “harm” you or your child. A small sample of those taboo foods are listed below.

Western Medicine taboo foods (a comprehensive list is here).

  • raw meat, fish or shellfish including oysters
  • raw or unpasteurized milk
  • soft cheese or any raw milk cheeses
  • processed meats and cold cuts like ham, prosciutto
  • pate
  • raw egg or food stuffs containing raw egg like mayonnaise
  • pre-prepared fruits or salads
  • raw sprouts including bean and alfalfa

Chinese Medicine taboo foods

Within Chinese Medicine, the taboo foods list is much longer and not so neatly compartmentalised to the untrained eye. Below is a small selection of the taboo foods

Vegetables:

  • Aloe
  • Pak choi
  • Chrysanthemum flowers
  • Tong ho (or Garland chrysanthemum, an edible chrysanthemum plant)
  • Seaweed
  • Radish
  • Celery
  • Day lily buds
  • Barley
  • Bitter melon
  • Lotus root
  • Green beans
  • Gourd
  • Winter melon
  • Sugar cane
  • Preserved vegetable
  • Bamboo shoots (thought to be toxic)

Fruit/Nuts:

  • Dragon fruit
  • Grapefruit
  • Pears
  • Starfruit
  • Mango
  • Papaya
  • Pineapple
  • Watermelon
  • Cucumber
  • Coconut
  • Gingko nuts
  • Hawthorn (haw)

Meat:

  • Raw meat
  • Sushi
  • Raw egg
  • Seafood, particularly crustaceans (thought to promote allergy)
Chinese foods taboo in pregnancy

A small selection of foods considered by Chinese to be taboo during pregnancy and post birth (L to R from top): garland chrysanthemum or tong ho; dried day lily buds; bamboo shoots; watermelon; gingko nuts; haw (shown here as haw flakes).
Note: the images shown are publicly sourced and are not my own.

For those unfamiliar with Chinese food philosophies, the list above might appear to be cobbled together without rhyme or reason. But they’re mostly foods considered yang (cooling), raw, or in the case of seafood, a foodstuff that’s viewed as allergenic for many people so should be avoided in case consumption leads to future seafood allergies in the unborn child. From a western immunological perspective, I’d imagine that unless there is a familial history of food allergies, normal consumption and not avoidance might aid in promoting tolerance towards those potentially allergenic foods.

So if I’d asked my mother (which I didn’t bother) on what foods I should or shouldn’t be consuming for a healthy pregnancy, in addition to the list above she might have also prescribed copious amounts of rice, plenty of boiled hot water and piping hot yang foods (but not too much). Definite no nos in her books were raw foods, yin foods and anything chilled in temperature (including cold water). I didn’t tell her that I developed a very healthy appetite for watermelon during the warm summer months when I was pregnant and probably ate my body weight in watermelon. Some of my more traditional Chinese cousins and friends would admonish me when they heard of my watermelon cravings and appeared to truly believe that their own experience of adhering to or alternatively, ignoring the Chinese principles contributed to their own child’s lack of, or abundance of health afflictions respectively.

At least though there appear to be some overlap between the Chinese and Western lists. Raw food like sushi and bean sprouts for example are condemned by both cultures so we can be fairly sure they’re true taboo foods right? Not exactly.

Enter associate professor of economics, Emily Oster. Not content with simply swallowing the advice doled out by her GP and accepting that all the taboo foods on the western list were equal in their risk to unborn foetuses, she wanted to delve further and both understand and compare the risk profiles of each of those foods. What’s the risk in eating sushi vs soft cheese for example? Or having a cup of coffee? What’s the risk when you increase that to 2 cups of coffee? Crunching the numbers of actual infections or complications caused by specific foodstuffs, her findings are published in her book Expecting Better: Why The Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong. The long and the short of it is that the numbers fly in the face of most pregnancy taboo foods and turned those popularly held beliefs on their head. Turns out that if fresh and properly prepared, the risk of listeria infection from sushi is low, but the risk of infection is much higher in cold cuts with turkey being particularly risky. Interestingly she deduced soft cheese was still a no no as it was associated with a few listeria infections in North America. But do Europeans have the same reservations about eating soft cheese whilst pregnant? I have heard that Japanese doctors don’t advise their pregnant patients to avoid sushi and raw fish so do European doctors disregard our Western notions of risk when it comes to soft cheese and beloved processed cold cuts like salami, jamon and prosciutto? When I told our Italian Nonno that I wasn’t allowed to eat prosciutto during pregnancy there was certainly a dubiously raised eyebrow (this was followed by some very mild pressure to have a shot of grappa for health). Come to think of it, my mother was also applying some pressure to get into the habit of having a small shot of port after dinner after the arrival of The Master. This I must confess I didn’t resist as much, but I digress…

I steadfastly ignored the Chinese principles, but by and large adhered to the Western ones throughout my pregnancy. I faithfully eschewed my beloved sushi and sashimi, oysters, pate and soft cheese; dutifully packed away our electronic deli meat slicer and banned prosciutto and jamon from the house; refrained from ordering poached eggs at cafes and all the while made a meticulous mental list of all the taboo foods I would devour post delivery.

The first meal I had demanded post delivery was sushi <insert photo of tired, dishevelled, half naked woman lying in a hospital bed hungrily wolfing down copious amounts of raw fish here>. I wanted sushi from Makoto, my favourite sushi train restaurant but at that stage I settled for any sushi involving raw fish. In the immediate weeks and months afterwards I systematically went through my post pregnancy wish list, devouring all the dishes I lusted after and salivated over for nine long months and dragging the patient Co-pilot and a blissfully unaware Master along for the ride. The most highly anticipated dishes in my wishlist include some of those pictured below:

  • Sushi from Makoto, Sydney
  • Som tum (green papaya) and larb salads from Lao Village Fairfield
  • The Co-pilot’s Rockpool Bar and Grill inspired steak tartare
  • Kaisen don (seasoned raw tuna and salmon on rice) from Ramen Kan, Haymarket
  • Eggs benedict with a generous dollop of hollandaise sauce
  • Beef pho (rare beef noodle soup) with a mountain of fresh bean sprouts from Pho Phung, Cabramatta
  • Pork roll complete with unidentified pork cold cuts and slathered with pate and mayonnaise from Marrickville Pork Roll
Post pregnancy food wishlist, kaisen don, Marrickville pork roll, Makoto sushi, steak tartare, Lao village som tum, eggs benedict, pho

Systematically devouring the dishes on my post pregnancy food wishlist (top-bottom, L-R): sushi at Makoto, Sydney; som tum and larb at Lao Village, Fairlfield; homemade steak tartare; kaisen don at Ramen Kan, Haymarket; eggs benedict; pho noodle soup at Pho Phung, Cabramatta; pork roll from Marrickville pork roll

And of course there was the cheese. Specifically soft cheese. For the occasion, we procured some luciously oozy, stinky ripe cheeses direct from Paris which included a burrata, a goat’s milk, a Normandy camembert, a cheddar and a few interesting raw milk cheeses to round out the selection. Sadly, the Master suffers from a (hopefully temporary) milk protein allergy so my dairy binge was very short lived..

cheeses, Paris, French, France, burrata, goats, camembert

A selection of delectable cheeses to break the soft cheese fast

There’s still one question that intrigues me: what are the foods considered taboo in pregnancy within other cultures? I’m sure my Western readers might scoff at the thought of things like watermelon being a taboo food during pregnancy, but then there are close to 1 billion Chinese who might think otherwise and would in turn scoff heartily at any suggestion that the high GI, gestational diabetes promoting white rice would be anything less than welcomed with open arms. If I were to collate and overlay the taboo foods of some other main cultures, would there be a selection of universally “safe” foods? Or would we find that all the foods we’d consider safe in our own cultures, taboo in others thus in effect rendering everything taboo?

Do you know of any unusual pregnancy taboo foods in your culture?

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Rita (mademoiselle délicieuse) August 1, 2014 at 4:59 pm

Unsurprisingly, as I am also Australian Chinese, I was met with similar “advice”, which continued with things like what I should eat to make my breastmilk more “nutritious” and now what temperature Mini-human’s food and formula should be. There were so many suggestions about him having wind that one day I lost it and exclaimed, “So say he does have wind, what practical suggestions do you have to fix it?!” Also, my motto was: You wake my child, you die! *scowl*

As for food, well… My waters broke at 7:30am. After being told by the hospital to go home, relax and wait, I had banh mi thit for lunch followed by sushi for dinner before rocking back up to the hospital to do my thing!
Rita (mademoiselle délicieuse) recently posted..Marukame Udon (& a yarn about motherhood)My Profile

2 Richard Elliot August 2, 2014 at 7:44 am

I was going to leave a comment, but am a bit scared that I might get told off for giving advice! ;)

It’s good to have you back blogging Trina
Richard Elliot recently posted..East Sussex Weekend: Part 1My Profile

3 Lewis K August 2, 2014 at 9:18 am

Great to have you back in the blogosphere! You’ve been missed but I completely understand why!
Lewis K recently posted..Taboo Foods in Pregnancy and BeyondMy Profile

4 Helen | Grab Your Fork August 4, 2014 at 1:03 am

Raising a child is definitely a full-time job so I applaud anyone who still has the time to write a blog post or two! My mum (Chinese) would scoff at all the Western banned foods saying there was no thing such in her time. I don’t know if I could endure 9 months without all of my favourite foods! lol
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5 Miss D August 4, 2014 at 10:47 am

Love this. Interesting to read what others ban during pregnancy. My family is from Sri Lanka and we love our chillies! The hotter the better! My mum said we try to eat milder chillies when pregnant but that’s it (but we’re not very trad).

6 Forager August 10, 2014 at 3:23 pm

Hey Rita – Ah yes, this is all sounding very very familiar! Same same, different family!

Hey Richard – hehe, you’re a fast learner! *roar*

Hey Lewis – good to be back!

Hey Helen – the 9 month diet was tough! Tougher still when you have a partner who doesn’t have a sympathetic ban on those foods for himself!

Hey Miss D – how interesting! I’m not sure we have any bans on chillies, but I imagine the Chinese from the Western provinces like Sichuan wouldn’t dream of banning chilli!

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