Patients often wonder how the food they choose to eat or not eat affects their ability to have children. Before diving into this topic, it is important to acknowledge that even the healthiest of diets can’t cure the more serious conditions that cause infertility in men and women. If for example, a woman’s fallopian tubes are blocked and preventing sperm from fertilizing an egg, dietary changes are not going to do anything to resolve that blockage. Fortunately, cases like this can be helped by services such as in vitro fertilization (IVF) provided by fertility doctors.
That being said, the influence of diet and other related lifestyle choices on fertility should not be overlooked. Whether combined with fertility treatment or pursued on their own, changes in diet can have a significant and measurable effect on fertility.
Perhaps the most important factor to consider is body weight.
The well-established link between fertility and weight
Male and female patients alike should know that being underweight or obese can have a marked effect on their fertility. The male and female reproductive systems rely on a delicate balance of hormones to function properly, and when stress is placed on these systems as a result of a low or high body weight, their natural chemical rhythms begin to break down.
In particular, women who are obese or underweight have been shown to have a higher rate of infertility and a lower IVF pregnancy rate. Obesity in men has been shown to negatively impact male fertility as it relates to sperm count and sperm motility (the rate at which sperm move).
Furthermore, excess weight has been linked to the development and worsening of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a common cause of infertility in women, mostly due to irregular cycles and inconsistent ovulation. Symptoms of PCOS, including infertility, can be reduced when an affected overweight woman loses just 10 to 15 percent of her body weight.
How do you know if weight is affecting your fertility? A good place to start is to take a look at your body mass index (BMI). While BMI cannot account for important factors such as muscle mass and body fat percentage, it can give patients an idea of whether they might benefit from losing or gaining weight in the interest of maximizing their fertility. As a general rule, a BMI under 18.5 (underweight) or over 30 (obesity) may suggest that a patient’s weight is adversely affecting his or her fertility.
Here’s what you should add to your “fertility diet”
A 2009 study published in the medical journal Fertility & Sterility set out to determine whether certain dietary factors had an impact on couples undergoing IVF treatment. The study found a statistically significant increase in pregnancy rates for couples who adhered to a Mediterranean diet, defined by the study as, “high intakes of vegetable oils, vegetables, fish, and legumes and low intakes of snacks.” It also demonstrated that a low intake of certain nutrients such as B-vitamins negatively affected fertility.
Another study published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology drew similar conclusions. It followed thousands of women trying to become pregnant and found that “higher consumption of monounsaturated rather than trans fats, vegetable rather than animal protein sources, low glycemic carbohydrates, high fat dairy, multivitamins, and iron from plants and supplements” was correlated with a boost in fertility.
In light of the available research, here’s a list of foods that may be beneficial to individuals wishing to optimize their diet for fertility:
- Plant-based foods, including whole fruits and vegetables.
- Seafood rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon, mackerel, and lake trout.
- Whole grains.
- Raw nuts.
- Legumes (beans, lentils, etc.).
- Extra virgin olive oil (monounsaturated fat).
Researchers also often make note of the fact that diets found in Mediterranean countries usually come from cultures that value sharing and savoring meals. This contrasts sharply with our American tendency to scarf down processed foods on the go or devour carryout after a long day at the office. Mediterranean cultures also tend to squeeze in more physical activity, leading to lower overall rates of obesity.
Some things to cut out of your “fertility diet”
Naturally, the available research on the optimal fertility diet leads us to a list of foods that should be avoided or enjoyed only on occasion. These include:
- Simple or refined carbohydrates.
- Trans fats.
- Highly-processed foods.
- Alcohol (couples actively trying to get pregnant or undergoing fertility treatment should avoid drinking alcohol).
- Excessive caffeine intake (more than 500mg per day).
Prenatal nutrition for women
Ideally, women who are trying to get pregnant should begin making some adjustments to their diet well in advance of conception (ideally three months). This may involve supplements, and usually includes some kind of prenatal vitamin. When a woman undergoes a fertility workup, blood analysis will sometimes reveal nutritional deficiencies that may negatively impact her fertility as well as her ability to carry a pregnancy to term.
Prenatal nutrition and supplements aim to address both of these concerns, ensuring important nutrients including folic acid, iron, B-vitamins, and vitamin D are at optimum levels.