It makes sense that everything you put in your body—be it food, water, smoke or alcohol– could play a role in your fertility. In this post, we’ll be focusing on diet. (See my other post about specific foods to eat here.) There has actually been a lot of research about diet to improve fertility. I’ve translated the science into practical advice here. My first tip may be surprising.
Say No to Paleo.
Wait, what?! Paleo may be the hottest thing on the diet horizon right now, and some aspects of the diet are actually good for fertility. For example, getting much of your carbs from fruits and veggies is a great idea, so is eating nuts and seeds and putting a stop to processed foods.
But paleo emphasizes eating more animal protein. Doctors at Harvard found that replacing carbs with animal protein was linked to a 32% higher risk of infertility in women. The saturated fat that often comes from animal protein isn’t good for fertility either. A Danish study showed that men with the highest saturated fat intake had a 38% lower sperm concentration and a 41% lower total sperm count compared to men with the lowest intake of saturated fat.
Grains are also a no-no on paleo. A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reviewed 33 studies on the effects of eating whole grains and risk of cardiovascular disease mortality, cancer mortality and all cause mortality. The more whole grains eaten, the lower the risk of death from all causes, cancer and cardiovascular disease. We know that the nutrients and fiber found in whole grains are great for blood pressure, digestion and general health, so why cut them out? See “Go Dutch” below to find out how whole grains work in the preconception diet.
Paleo also recommends you cut out all dairy—which may not be a good idea for fertility for many American women who already don’t have enough calcium in their diet. Though it’s definitely possible to get your calcium from veggies or fortified foods, I just don’t see that happening with most women and we know that calcium from food is the best choice. Getting your calcium from unfortified food sources requires eating with intention and planning.#TryingToConceive? Say no to #paleo. Read why here. bit.ly/2dJTLNh #FertilityProject #TTC Click To Tweet
Say Yes to Mediterranean.
A 2010 study confirmed that eating like you’re living on the Med, meaning eating more veggies, fish, legumes and vegetable oils and fewer snacks, is good for fertility. Following this diet closely meant a 40% increased chance of pregnancy on day 15 after embryo transfer. The Mediterranean diet, with it’s focus on fruits and veggies, and legumes, is likely to increase your intake of folic acid, vitamin B6, iron and zinc, which are also important for fertility and a healthy pregnancy outcome.
A large study in the Netherlands that looked at pre-conception diet and IVF success found that following the dietary recommendations of the Netherlands Nutrition Center, had a 65% increased chance of having an ongoing pregnancy. So what were those recommendations, you ask? See them below.
This basic eating guidance from the Dutch should be pretty easy to follow:
- Whole grains: at least four servings of either whole grain bread or cereal daily
- Fruit: At least 2 pieces of whole fruit daily
- Veggies: at least 7 ounces of veggies daily—that’s about 1.5 cups of cooked veggies
- Protein: At least 3 servings of meat or meat substitute and one serving of fish weekly.
- Oils: Use monounsaturated or polyunsaturated oils (this handily brings us to our next topic.)
Though avocados are not traditionally part of the Mediterranean diet, avocados are a “Mediterranean-style” food due to their antioxidant and fiber rich content and the fact that they contain primarily monounsaturated fat (also known as MUFA.). The Nurses Health Study showed that consuming just 2% of energy from unprocessed monounsaturated fat (such as from nuts, seeds and avocado) instead of hydrogenated trans fat, was associated with less than half the risk of ovulatory infertility. A MUFA rich diet is also linked to a more than 3 times higher odds of having a live birth after IVF. And when high fat, high fiber foods like avocado are added to a meal, they decrease they glycemic load, thus decreasing it’s effect on blood glucose. Find quick and easy recipes using avocado here.
Choose Smart Carbs
Over and over, eating foods with a lower glycemic index has been shown to improve fertility, not to mention improving the long term health of your baby. In my book Eating Expectantly, I talk about smart carbs a lot. So what falls into the category of “smart carbs”?
- Whole grains like whole wheat, oats, farro, barley, bulgar
- Whole-grain like foods: sorghum, quinoa
- Whole wheat bread and pasta
The amount of carbs you eat are important too. For overweight women, a lower calorie, low-glycemic index diet helped with weight loss and had an 85% increase in oocyte retrieval during IVF. I’ve done that here on a separate post about the Glycemic Index.
Also, remember that an antioxidant-rich diet is good for both women and men who are trying to conceive. Fruits and veggies along with whole grains, nuts and legumes are the best sources of antioxidants. See this post to help you find more ways to eat your veggies!
Eat More Plant Protein
In the Nurses Health Study, women who ate a higher percentage of plant protein were at lower risk of having ovulatory infertility. Think bean burrito, meatless chili, and tofu stir-fry for some quick meal ideas. See my post Vegetarian Shopping Guide for more info.Could #MeatlessMonday help your #fertility? Research says yes! Read more here. bit.ly/2dJTLNh #FertilityProject Click To Tweet
Watch your fat.
Yep, the word is out—sat fat is bad and so is trans fat. (So… blanket generalizations are a bad idea-both in science and politics, so I need to tell you there are some specific saturated fatty acids that are good for you, but that goes beyond the discussion here.) But we can count the ways that saturated and trans fat can negatively affect fertility.
- Higher amounts of saturated in the diet have been linked to higher risk of ovulatory infertility and decreased success in IVF outcomes.
- Trans fats have been shown to decrease men’s sperm count. The more trans fat in the diet, the lower the sperm count!
Where to find saturated fats: also found on the label of packaged foods
- High fat animal protein–think bacon, sausage, less than 90% lean ground beef, the fat on chicken, steaks, fish etc.
- Coconut oil, palm oil and butter
- Coconut milk
- Full fat ice cream and cream
- Whole milk (however having some whole fat dairy in the diet seems to help fertility–see below.)
A Note about Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is a highly saturated fat and in the last few years has been aggressively marketed as a healthy fat. The jury is still out on this, though it is leaning towards the positive benefits of coconut oil. Most health professionals recommend you treat it like any other saturated fat and eat in moderation, just like butter. One recent study suggested that coconut oil raised total and LDL cholesterol more than other plant based unsaturated oil. On the other hand, people in the South Pacific whose main source of fat is coconut oil have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and other recent research suggests that eating an oil rich in lauric acid such as coconut oil may improve the total cholesterol to HDL ratio.
Where to find trans fats: look on the label for trans fat content and in the ingredients for the term “partially hydrogenated oil”
- Fried foods like French fries and onion rings
- Fast foods
- Some shortening (read the label and it varies between brands)
- Some stick margarines
- Bakery goods like donuts, cookies, croissants
- Non-dairy creamers
- Ready-to-use frosting
Which Oils are Best?
- Extra Virgin Cold-Pressed Canola Oil
- Peanut Oil
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Flaxseed oil
- Avocado oil
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Walnut oil
Pop a Multi.
Harvard researchers found that women who took a multivitamin on most days of the week had a lower chance of having ovulation problems. Speaking of vitamins, men who took antioxidant supplements were more successful in getting their partners pregnant, and for the pregnancy to proceed to a live birth. Also taking 400 micrograms of folic acid is recommended for all women of childbearing age because it helps prevent neural tube defects. Make sure your multivitamin contains folic acid.
Drink your milk, and make it whole.
Having at least least one serving of full fat dairy a day has been shown to decrease the chances of infertility due to problems with ovulation. It’s interesting full fat dairy is making a comeback, both in research studies and in the marketplace. Check out my favorite whole milk yogurts I recently tried here:
See my other Posts about Fertility
Trying to Conceive? 14 Foods to Eat Right Now!
Is Your Body Ready for a Baby? Take the Quiz!
Check out our upcoming Twitter Chat!
Saturated fat and sperm quality
Preconception diet: The Dutch Study
The Nurses Health Study about Diet and Fertility
The Role of Avocados in Maternal Diets
American Society of Reproductive Medicine Fact Sheets and Booklets
Emily Holdorf says
This is great info for women! I just did a project on bariatric surgery & infertility and have been learning all about nutrition & fertility while finishing my masters. It’s fascinating stuff!
Amy Gorin says
Great information here!
Sarah @ BucketListTummy says
This is a great run down. I think it highlights the importance of not cutting out any entire food groups because they all have their own source of nutrients. Very educational!
Jamie @ dishing out health says
Very helpful information, Bridget. Great post!
Shahzadi Devje says
An interesting read. Thanks for sharing!
Kaleigh @ Lively Table says
This was such a great read. Very informative! Saving for later for sure!
Lauren O'Connor says
One’s diet can definitely make a difference in fertility outcome. Great advice!
Great article, Bridget! Sharing on Pinterest.
Michelle Jaelin RD says
Baha. Love how you break down Paleo – Amazing!!
Thomas Clarence says
My sister and her husband are planning on starting their family soon and my sister wants to know how she should be eating in order to keep her body healthy. It was really interesting to me when you explained that trans fats and saturated fats are bad. As far as I know, these fats are commonly found in foods so it might be a good idea for a woman to work with a nutritionist before getting pregnant.