Fertility and Diet: What’s the Link? (Plus, What to Eat)
Research has revealed that there could be a significant link. Here’s what to eat to boost your fertility.
Research has revealed that there could be a significant link. Here’s what to eat to boost your fertility.
How does the food you eat impact fertility? Well, up until about 10 years ago, we didn’t have many answers. Since then, research has revealed that there could be a significant link. Here’s what to eat to boost your fertility.
Are there really fertility super foods? Can what we eat really affect our ability to conceive? While your diet might not be the single factor contributing to infertility, what you eat can impact your fertility, and luckily, there are certain foods that can help you boost yours. Registered dietitian and wellness expert Tamsin Jordan shares how food and fertility are linked and makes fertility diet suggestions.
How are food and fertility linked?
According to the World Economic Forum, fertility rates are at an all-time low. While delayed pregnancy partially explains these figures, our lifestyle coupled with a poor diet can also contribute.
So, how are fertility and diet linked? There are a few ways:
- Hormonal balance: Having balanced hormones is crucial in making sure you’re ovulating regularly — because you can’t conceive unless you’re ovulating. Certain nutrients, like iron, zinc, and vitamin D, help hormone production and balance. If you’re not getting these nutrients, this can potentially contribute to a hormonal imbalance.
- Egg and sperm health: Nutrients like antioxidants (vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium), omega-3 fatty acids, and folate can help support healthy eggs and sperm, which are necessary to conception.
- Reproductive organ function: Having well-function ovaries, uterus, and fallopian tubes in women, and testes and prostate in men, are vital for conception. Nutrients like calcium, magnesium, and vitamin A can help development and maintain the function of these organs.
- Reproductive disorders: It is estimated that 20-30% of infertility cases could benefit from better dietary choices. Conditions that could stand to benefit include; polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), prediabetes and type 2 diabetes, celiac disease, hypothalamic amenorrhea and low sperm quality, among others. (Learn five tips for a PCOS-friendly diet.)
- Reproductive assistive technology: For patients requiring assisted reproductive technology (ART), an improved diet may result in fewer complications, better outcomes, and an easier pregnancy.
Weight and fertility diet
The connection between body fat and fertility has been a focus of much fertility research.
Some studies have shown that obese women (that is those with a BMI >30), are more likely to have ovulatory dysfunction and poorer outcomes with IVF. While the biological mechanisms underlying this remain unclear, higher levels of inflammation and altered hormone levels could play a role.
Patients with very low BMIs (<20) are also at an increased risk for reduced fertility. Having too little body fat can also be detrimental to fertility and maintaining a healthy pregnancy.
Maintaining a BMI of 20-24 has consistently been shown to promote increased pregnancy rates and healthy pregnancy outcomes.
Fertility diet: foods that boost fertility
So what should we eat for fertility diet? The fertility and nutrition field is still relatively new, however, a few foods have stood out in clinical trials.
Green leafy vegetables
One of the most well-researched nutrients in the reproductive world is folic acid, or vitamin B9. Folic acid has been proven to help reduce the risk of neural tube defects (NTD) in fetuses, and there is evidence it may boost fertility too.
Research shows that women undergoing ART can also benefit by taking folic acid at doses higher than for the prevention of NTD, around 800 μg/day. Similarly, another study showed lower risk of ovulatory infertility when consuming folic acid.
Aside from taking a prenatal supplement, eating more leafy green veggies can boost your intake. Aim for two to three servings per day, such as spinach, kale, romaine lettuce, asparagus, broccoli, or collard greens. Increasing your intake with real food has added benefits including better absorption and fiber. Try to eat your greens raw or steamed and wash thoroughly to remove pesticides.
Eating more fish, especially fatty fish, may help support fertility in men and women. The anti-inflammatory action of omega 3 fatty acids is linked to improved egg quality, maturation and embryo implantation.
Results from the Environment and Reproductive Health (EARTH) Study also found that men who consistently ate foods containing omega 3 fatty acids had a higher number of healthy sperm.
Rich sources of omega 3 fatty acids include salmon, sardines, herring, and freshwater trout. As with pregnancy, high mercury fish should be avoided such as swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel, and shark.
Not a fan of fish? You can also get a good serving of omega 3's from a daily sprinkling of walnuts and chia seeds. In contrast, trans fats (those found mostly in highly processed, sugar-laden foods) are associated with impaired fertility.
Eating a diet rich in whole grains provides a range of health benefits, including supporting improved fertility. Aside from vitamin and minerals, wholegrains contain lignin. This plant-based compound has a similar structure to the hormones involved in reproduction.
One study found that women that consumed a diet high in lignin had a shorter time to pregnancy. Another study showed that women undergoing ART who consumed high quantities of whole grains had a higher number of live births compared to women who consumed smaller amounts. Other lignin-rich foods include flaxseeds, sesame seeds, beans, berries, and nuts.
Choose unrefined, fibrous whole grains such as brown rice, buckwheat, oatmeal and farro. The fiber helps to slow down breakdown and digestion, releasing glucose into the bloodstream slowly. This action is particularly helpful for women with PCOS and diabetes who can struggle to maintain healthy blood glucose control.
Full fat dairy
One prominent fertility study found that consuming high-fat dairy foods, such as whole milk, decreased the risk of infertility linked to a lack of ovulation. In contrast, consuming low-fat dairy products, such as yogurt and sherbet/frozen yogurt, around 2 servings per day, increased the risk of infertility.
Dairy has vitamin D, which has shown to support fertilization. In one study, women undergoing IVF who had normal Vitamin D levels had pregnancy rates 4-fold higher than those who were deficient in the nutrient.
I recommend one to two servings of full-fat, low added sugar dairy per day. Good choices include plain whole fat milk, full fat greek yogurt, kefir and cheese.
What foods should I avoid in my fertility diet?
Know that you know what foods to include in your fertility diet, what are some of the ones you should avoid?
- Trans fats, including fried and processed foods, margarine, and packaged foods, can increase the risk of ovulatory infertility. Try monounsaturated fats (found in olive oil and avocados) or polyunsaturated fats (found in fatty fish and nuts).
- High glycemic index (GI) foods, including sugary snacks, white bread, white rice, and sugary beverages, can cause spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels. Try whole grains, legumes, and fruits with lower GI values.
- Excessive caffeine can lead to potential hormonal imbalances and lengthened time to conception. Instead, decrease caffeine consumption to about one to two cups of coffee a day (or equivalent).
- Alcohol can lead to irregular cycles and ovulatory issues. Try to avoid or limit alcohol consumption (under seven drinks a week).
- High-mercury fish, including shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish can impair fetal development. Opt for low-mercury fish, including salmon, trout, and sardines.
The fertility diet: sample menu
Want to include some ‘fertility’ foods in your diet? Give this sample menu a try!
- 3/4 cup plain greek yogurt
- ½ cup unsweetened granola
- ½ cup mixed red berries
- 1 cup decaf tea with whole milk
- Small handful of almonds
- Piece of fruit
- Hard-boiled egg
- 1 slice wholegrain toast
- Mediterranean salad: 1 head of shredded romaine lettuce, 3oz organic chicken breast, ½ cup chopped cherry tomatoes, cucumber, olives, crumbled feta, ½ can of no-salt-added chickpeas, 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 slice of wholegrain baguette with butter or toasted wholegrain pita bread
- Celery, cucumber, zucchini + ½ cup hummus
- Protein smoothie: ¼ cup berries, ½ cup plain greek yogurt, 1 cup unsweetened almond/ soy/ skim milk, 1 scoop protein powder, 1 tbsp chia seeds
- 3 oz cooked wild salmon, 1 tbsp melted butter and tartar sauce
- ½ cup seasoned brown rice,
- 1 cup steamed broccoli and asparagus
- 1 oz dark chocolate (75% cocoa or more) or homemade berry sorbet
Fertility and diet: Takeaway
While your diet likely won’t make or break your ability to conceive, it can be an important part of your fertility journey, and eating the right fertility diet can help boost your chances of conceiving and a healthy pregnancy. If you’re interested in trying to eat a fertility diet, start by incorporating more fertility-friendly foods in your diet, and decreasing the number of foods that can negatively impact fertility.
Tamsin Jordan is a registered dietitian, wellness expert, and mom living in NYC.
Jordan provides one to one nutritional counseling to people of all ages, with a specialty in women’s health, bariatrics, diabetes and digestive health. She writes about nutrition and wellness topics on her blog. you can also find her on Instagram: @nutritionbytamsin.
About the author
- Chavarro J, et al. (2007). A prospective study of dairy foods intake and anovulatory infertility.
- Chavarro J, et al. (2008). Use of multivitamins, intake of B vitamins, and risk of ovulatory infertility.
- Gaskins A, et al. (2014). Dietary folate and reproductive success among women undergoing assisted reproduction.
- Messerlian C, et al. (2018). The Environment and Reproductive Health (EARTH) Study: a prospective preconception cohort.
- Mumford S, et al. (2014). Higher urinary lignan concentrations in women but not men are positively associated with shorter time to pregnancy.
- Ozkan S, et al. (2010). Replete vitamin D stores predict reproductive success following in vitro fertilization.
- Norwitz E, et al. (2001). Implantation and the survival of early pregnancy.
- Sturmey R, et al. (2009). Role of fatty acids in energy provision during oocyte maturation and early embryo development.
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