Eat This, Not That: Taboos and Pregnancy

Food taboos are as universal as food. It stands to reason then that they have helped us through the years in our efforts to avoid killing ourselves. As it turns out, some of the most fascinating food taboos dovetail with another basic human desire–reproduction.

All around the world, there are all kinds of rules about what pregnant woman can and cannot eat. (As if it weren’t hard enough being pregnant without everyone offering their well-intended advice.) “Declaring certain foods taboo because they are thought to make a person sick is also the basis for the many food taboos affecting pregnant women,” according to ethnobiologist Victor Benno Meyer-Rochow of Finland, who studies folk wisdom.

Some of these taboos are myths and some of them have a modicum of grounding in science. And many of them are still practiced today. When adhered to, they help make a group feel connected, says Meyer-Rochow.

Most of us are already fairly familiar with some common religious food taboos: No meat on Fridays during Lent for Christians, Halal and Kosher laws for Muslims and Jews, prohibitions against consuming beef for Hindus, a taboo on all meat for Buddhists. There are other, non-religious taboos too–horses and guinea pigs are kept as pets in the United States, but fine for food in France and Peru. But there’s so many more, particularly aimed at protecting pregnant women.

Some Nigerians believe eating yams might make a baby too big to deliver, and eating fish can cause late delivery in Tanzania.  Speaking of fish, it may cause a woman to have graceful children (in ancient Jerusalem lore), or an upside down fetus and extra long delivery (in Indonesian tales).

In rural Laos, eating rats is verboten for a woman in the family way, but in western Malaysia, rats, frogs, and other “small” spirits are fine to eat, so long as a husband or close relative does the killing (the baby’s spirit is too weak for larger grub like turtles and anteaters).

Here are some other food (and drink) taboos for pregnant women:

Eggs

Eggs have long been associated with sexuality, reproduction, and new life in general.  Despite the obvious symbolism with pregnancy, eating eggs (and often chickens and other birds that lay them) is a fairly common taboo for pregnant women.  In Indonesia, chicken eggs are off limits, lest the baby be “chicken” about making an appearance and thus lengthening delivery for mom. Like peanuts, eggs are one of the top eight food allergens but also like peanuts, studies now suggest that egg consumption during pregnancy is fine.  Consuming raw eggs, however, is discouraged in the U.S. because of concerns about salmonella contamination

Alcohol

I will tread carefully here and keep it simple: many doctors advise against all alcohol consumption for pregnant women.  And yet, a recent Danish study suggests moderate drinking (about 5 glasses of wine a week) is fine for the expecting mama. One study even suggests that actual alcohol consumption might not matter as much as the social implications of said consumption for pregnant women–proof (excuse the pun) that whatever side you fall on, alcohol is definitely a taboo during pregnancy.

Cold Foods… and Hot Ones

Traditional Chinese medicine  dictates that qi (vital energy) must be balanced between yin (negative) and yang (positive) forces.  Since diet is an important source of qi, avoiding certain foods is thought to be key to preventing miscarriages or problems with the baby.  And reports suggest many Chinese women still follow these “rules” today.

Pregnant women must avoid eating or even preparing cooling foods, like ice cream, watermelon, bananas and mung beans.  Such foods have too many yin qualities, and might cause a miscarriage.  But “wet-hot” foods, like shrimp, mangoes, pineapples and lychees, are also to be avoided, because they might cause allergies or skin problems for the baby.  Spicy, cold, or oily foods can also weaken qi and cause infertility.

Food taboos offer  an important window into our development as a species.  It’s no mistake that many taboos, for men and women, center around major life events–pregnancy and birth, death, coming-of-age ceremonies and illness.  According to Meyer-Rochow, “one of the aims of food taboos is to highlight particular happenings, making them memorable.”

Pregnancy itself is pretty memorable.  Trying to sort through all the rules about what you should and shouldn’t eat with a baby on board? That’s a little harder.