If you’ve ever consulted Dr. Google for a rundown of the fertility-boosting benefits of certain foods, you’ve likely encountered a list of confusing headlines. “Top Foods That Can Help You Get Pregnant” and “15 Fertility Foods to Boost Fertility Chances” are among the umpteen results — with many giving conflicting advice. You may wonder: are these claims based on science or not?
Trying to sort out accurate advice from pure speculation can be frustrating when you and your partner are trying to conceive. Here, we’ll tell you what you need to know about foods that help with female and male fertility, according to science.
Researchers from Harvard Medical School and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health examined this question last year with the publication of an extensive review of past studies looking at the link between diet and fertility. And while they noted that some research into certain food groups is too scanty to be helpful — the role of dairy in fertility, for example — the review did yield useful takeaways (1).
Among the findings: eating more foods rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (which we’re calling by the shorter term “fats” from here on out) increased fertility. Foods high in omega-3 fats include fish, leafy vegetables, nuts (especially walnuts), flax seeds, and flaxseed oil, while foods rich in omega-6 fats include a range of vegetable oils (safflower, sunflower, corn, soybean), along with sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and walnuts.
When researchers followed the pregnancy outcomes of 259 women, they found a diet rich in omega-3 fats was associated with a lower risk of anovulation — a condition when you don’t ovulate (2). The women who ate more foods with omega-3s also had higher levels of progesterone, a hormone that prepares the uterus for pregnancy.
Another study, which looked at the benefits of omega-3 and omega-6 fats, found higher levels of both fats in women who became pregnant compared to women who did not (3). Although the study was limited only to overweight and obese women undergoing IVF, the findings were in keeping with other research illustrating the benefit of foods containing omega-3 and omega-6 fats.
Seafood is a great source of omega-3s. Given this, a research team recently investigated whether eating more servings of seafood would boost the fertility of around 500 American couples who were trying to get pregnant.
Researchers found that the couples who ate more servings of lower-mercury fish conceived sooner than those who rarely ate seafood (4). The couples who conceived more quickly ate eight or more seafood servings per menstrual cycle, while the couples who didn’t get pregnant quickly consumed only one serving of seafood or less per cycle.
The Harvard-led research review noted that “‘healthy’ diets have been consistently related to better fertility and higher live birth rates in [assisted reproductive technology] across multiple studies. ‘Unhealthy’ diets have consistently had the opposite relation.” A major caveat in this research, however, is that the subjects of the studies were going through IVF and the like, and the foods considered “healthy” weren’t consistent across the studies.
Still, the findings may offer you useful pointers. For example, around 160 women undergoing IVF or intracytoplasmic sperm injection had higher odds of pregnancy when they followed a Mediterranean diet. Their diet included a high intake of vegetable oils, vegetables, fish, and legumes, and very few snacks (5).
Meanwhile, when researchers tracked the diet and lifestyle habits of more than 17,000 women over eight years as they tried to conceive, they found that changes in diet and lifestyle prevented infertility caused by ovulatory disorders (6). The women’s diets relied on plant-based protein rather than animal sources, and included higher amounts of monounsaturated fats (olive oil, avocados, certain nuts), low glycemic carbohydrates, high-fat dairy, multivitamins, and iron from plants and supplements.
Research in men also has linked a Mediterranean diet to better sperm motility, or movement (7). When researchers tracked around 180 men, some of whom ate a “Western” diet (lots of red and processed meats, refined grains, pizza, snacks, energy drinks, and sweets) and some of whom ate a diet rich in fish, chicken, fruit, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, they found the healthier diet was associated with higher sperm motility (8).
A diet that favors fish over processed meats also affects sperm quality, according to a study of 155 men at a fertility clinic that analyzed meat intake and semen quality (total sperm count, sperm concentration, movement, morphology, and semen volume) (9). Men who ate more fish had higher sperm counts and larger percentages of normal sperm than men who ate more processed meats.