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The Backed-by-Science Diet to Increase Fertility

The Backed-by-Science Diet to Increase Fertility

Jackie Vinyard, M.S. Health Sciences | February 19, 2021 | trying to conceive

The foods you eat can affect every part of your life — from heart health to mental health to, yes, even fertility (1, 2, 3). While eating healthy is a great choice for everyone, couples experiencing infertility caused by problems with ovulation or sperm health could especially benefit from sticking to a “fertility diet” (3). Here, we’ll dig into the food choices that couples should make when trying to conceive.

Dietary choices and fertility

A “fertility diet,” for the most part, simply means making healthy eating choices (3). So, what are healthy eating choices? The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans are a good place to start. Created by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, these guidelines recommend diets rich in whole grains, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated oils, vegetables, fruits, and fish (1). 

Diets that follow those general health tips have been associated with improved female fertility and higher sperm quality in men (3, 4). Diets high in saturated fats and sugar, on the other hand, have been associated with decreased fertility in both sexes (4).

One 2007 study observed 17,544 women for 8 years to explore the relationship between diet and fertility. In it, researchers found that women who followed a “fertility diet” had a 66% lower risk of infertility related to ovulatory disorders and a 27% lower risk of infertility due to other causes (5). This is great news because problems with ovulation are the number one source of female infertility in the United States (6). 

In that study, following a “fertility diet” meant getting protein and iron from vegetables over animal sources, eating more monounsaturated fats than trans fats, choosing full-fat dairy foods over low-fat or no-fat, avoiding simple carbohydrates (more on these in a bit), and taking multivitamins (5).

Pro tip: When you’re trying to conceive and you want to take a prenatal or multivitamin, look for one that includes at least 400 μg of folic acid. That’s the recommended amount associated with higher pregnancy rates and healthier pregnancies (7, 8).

The Mediterranean diet and fertility

One diet that really embraces the above recommendations is the Mediterranean diet. Put simply, this diet focuses on meals with a high proportion of vegetables, fish, and polyunsaturated oils (9). Multiple studies have found that women who followed the Mediterranean diet tended to have lower rates of seeking medical help for infertility and higher rates of healthy pregnancies (9, 10). This diet has also been found to improve sperm quality, including morphology, motility, and concentration (11). 

Making fertility-friendly food choices

Learning about fertility diets is great, but thinking of your food choices as a “diet” doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. Some people find motivation in the idea of “sticking to” a diet, but that mindset might feel restricting to others. If “diet” feels claustrophobic to you, it may help to focus on making simple switches in the foods you normally eat. This could mean choosing fish tacos over beef tacos one night or adding walnuts and chickpeas to your salad instead of croutons. Remember, the important thing is to find healthy, sustainable eating habits that you can incorporate into your everyday life. 

Let’s take a deeper look into some of the main fertility-friendly dietary choices you can make each day.

Red meat, iron, and saturated fats

There is a great deal of debate on red meat consumption and fertility. Red meat is a source of protein and iron, which are essential nutrients, however, it can also be high in saturated fat, which has been linked to lower fertility in both men and women (4, 12). Recent research, however, has found that while processed red meat causes a decrease in fertility, unprocessed red meat may actually improve fertility outcomes (13). 

If you are seeking alternative protein sources, protein can be found in more foods than you may think. Alternative protein sources, such as walnuts, beans, peas, and seafood, may improve your fertility and overall health (1). The same is true for iron, which can easily be found in whole grains, beans, peas, dark green vegetables, and seafood (1).

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Polyunsaturated fats

Polyunsaturated fats may be beneficial for fertility, unlike saturated fats. These healthy fats include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which have been found to positively affect fertility in both women and men (12, 14). You can find polyunsaturated fats in (1):

  • Sunflower, corn, soybean, and cottonseed oils 
  • Walnuts and pine nuts
  • Flax, pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower seeds 
  • Seafood, such as salmon, trout, herring, tuna, and mackerel

When adding polyunsaturated fats to your diet, you’ll get the most benefit if you use them to replace saturated fats instead of adding them on top of (processed) saturated fats (1).

If you’re thinking that a lot of the foods in this section were also listed as great sources of iron and protein, you’re right! Those simple food switches that we talked about earlier can make a huge difference in the nutrients that you give your body. For example, by choosing salmon instead of steak, you’ll get protein and iron without the high saturated fat content of beef. Plus, you’ll get added healthy polyunsaturated fats and bonus vitamin D and dietary fiber that you wouldn’t get from steak (1).

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Carbohydrates 

Contrary to what some fad diets would have you believe, carbohydrates are not all bad. Generally, carbs are split into two categories: simple and complex. Simple carbs, also known as high glycemic carbs, are the ones that you’d want to avoid as part of your “fertility diet.” They are digested quickly, so they typically provide a brief burst of energy (and a sharp spike in blood sugar) followed by a crash of fatigue. Simple carbs include processed foods, white bread, pastries, candy, soda, and syrups (15).

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Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, are digested more slowly. They provide a more steady energy source for your body and don’t have as big of an effect on your blood sugar levels. Healthy complex carbs include starchy vegetables, beans, peas, and whole grains (15).

Alcohol, caffeine, and soda

You may not always think of your drinking habits when planning your fertility diet, but research says that you probably should. While moderate alcohol and caffeine use don’t seem to have a big impact on fertility, regularly consuming them in excess (think: binge drinking or having more than 200 milligrams of caffeine a day) may negatively affect fertility for both men and women (16, 17).

Sugary drinks, like sodas, can also decrease fertility. In a study of 3,628 women planning to become pregnant, researchers found that those who had more than 3 servings of soda a day had 52% lower pregnancy rates than women who didn’t drink soda at all (18). High-sugar consumption was also shown to decrease sperm quality and increase infertility in men (19).

This post covered a lot of dietary changes, but try not to be hard on yourself if you don’t remember all of them all of the time. Think of your fertility diet as a compilation of many, many small steps. You benefit from every healthy choice you make, and splurging on an extra piece of cake every once in a while isn’t going to erase all the good decisions you made along the way. Instead of dwelling on any relapses you made with your last meal, focus on the great choices you’re going to make for your next.

References +
How Not to Waste Another Month When Trying to Conceive
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