Debunking myths: No sushi during pregnancy

PETALING JAYA: Jane Hong, who is expecting her first child, listened to the advice of her friends and relatives not to consume sushi when she first got pregnant.

“My older friends and relatives were the ones who told me about the dangers of eating sushi,” said Hong, who is seven months pregnant.

The 35-year-old human resource executive explained that before she got pregnant, she used to consume sashimi with sake once a week but stopped taking it after she got pregnant as she was not able to consume alcohol to supposedly “kill the bacteria” from the fish.

However, she said her Western and Chinese doctors made no mention about foods that she could not eat.

“I asked the doctors about it but they told me that I could eat anything. It is only the elderly that kept telling me that such foods contain bacteria,” she said.

Despite doctors telling her that it was safe, she still decided to stay away from it until she gives birth.

“For the sake of the baby’s health, I would rather hold out for nine months, whether there is any truth to it or otherwise,” she said.

Toh Cai Juan, who is eight months pregnant, also said doctors made no mention about sushi but she does not consume it as the elderly folks in the family had advised her against it.

Toh: ‘Since the elderly people strongly advised me against taking cold foods, I decided to stay away.’

“My doctor told me I could eat anything.

“But since they (elderly people) strongly advised me against taking ‘cold’ foods, I decided to stay away,” the 33-year-old said.

According to the UK National Health Service (UK NHS), sushi and other dishes made from raw fish are safe for consumption for pregnant women, depending on what type of fish it is.

University Malaya Medical Center senior consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist Prof Dr Jamiyah Hassan concurred with the advisory.

“It is not that you can’t consume sushi, you can, but freshness, type of fish, and the preparation methods are of the essence,” she said.

Dr Jamiyah said the utensils and surfaces when preparing sushi must have no cross-contamination.

“If you prepare raw meat, you cannot use the same utensils to cut raw fish, because the raw fish can get contaminated from it,” she said.

Dr Jamiyah urged pregnant women who want to consume sushi to eat it at a place where hygiene practices are impeccable.

“Choose properly where you eat your sushi, don’t eat your sushi at a roadside store because contamination is high; this is the same with raw meat,” she said.

Dr Jamiyah also said the selection of fish was also important as certain fish contain high levels of mercury.

“There are some guidelines, but essentially salmon has very low mercury levels,” she added.

With regard to shellfish, Dr Jamiyah said it was not recommended, but it again came down to how the food was prepared.

“Fresh lobsters and shellfish sashimi have to be taken with caution; it boils down to the preparation method and the person preparing it,” she said.

Meanwhile, Pantai Hospital Kuala Lumpur consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Premitha Damodaran said sushi, which is made from salmon, if it is not frozen in advance, may be contaminated with anisakis, a parasitic nematode.

“These are the ones, whether pregnant or not, that will give you problems.

Dr Premitha also advised pregnant women to completely avoid shark meat as it contained toxins.

She also said the sushi and bacteria myth probably started many generations ago and was passed down from one person to another, hence, the information got diluted as time passed.

“It is our perception that if you cook something, you destroy the bacteria and toxins in it, but if it is raw, then the bacteria remains,” she said.

Dr Premitha said that if pregnant women are not careful with consuming raw foods, listeriosis from food poisoning can lead to miscarriages or the baby dying in the womb.

The US Food and Drug Administration (US FDA) reported that during pregnancy, a pregnant woman’s immune system is weakened, which makes it harder for the body to fight off harmful food-borne microorganisms that cause food-borne illnesses.

Dr Premitha explained that a pregnant woman’s stomach is much more sensitive compared to a normal person’s as the intestines and acidity levels are functioning at a different level.

“When you get a stomachache, you may vomit or get diarrhoea, and we don’t want to instigate premature labour,” she said.

“We want things to stay quiet in the stomach because incidents like this would irritate the uterus and may lead to premature labour, and we don’t want that to happen.”

However, she said normal food poisoning is considered quite common for pregnant women, and major food poisoning caused by listeriosis where the mother loses the baby is “very rare”.

She also said pregnant women are free to eat anything and everything provided it is done in moderation.

“You don’t have to eat for two; you eat for one person.

“If you have one baby, and are of a healthy normal weight of 50 to 60kg in the beginning of your pregnancy, then in your second trimester, you just eat 200 to 250 calories more, and in the third trimester, you eat an additional 350 calories extra. That’s all,” she said.

Therefore, the myth that eating sushi should be avoided by pregnant women has been debunked, as Dr Premitha has advised that the rule of thumb for eating sushi is to go to a decent restaurant.