Written By: Dr. Meghan C.H. Ozcan, Fellow, Women and Infants Fertility Center on July 1, 2022
Many people faced a few extra pounds after the pandemic or with the stressful diagnosis of infertility. Patients often wonder how the food they choose to eat or not eat affects their ability to have children.
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. This was highlighted in the 2022 update to the American Society for reproductive medicine (ASRM)’s committee opinion on Optimizing natural fertility.
Some things have very strong evidence:
Multiple studies have assessed the links between dietary patterns, food choices, and infertility. These diets usually focus on macro (big) and micro (small) nutrient choices. In more approachable terms they offer an approach on what types of fats, proteins, carbohydrates, and vitamins to include in your diet. Each of these studies followed hundreds to thousands of women through their journey through fertility and into pregnancy. The findings are summarized in the table below.
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 carry out after a long day at the office.
Mediterranean cultures also tend to squeeze in more physical activity, leading to lower overall rates of obesity. So take time to enjoy meals – remember the reasons you want to grow your family as you share food, have fun, and destress at the end of the day.
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:
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 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). Insulin resistance and diabetes can complicate this even more.
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 5 to 10 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.
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 either folic acid or a 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 these concerns, ensuring important nutrients including folic acid, iron, B-vitamins, and vitamin D are at optimum levels.
Contact us to learn more about how our team can help support you as we help you build your family.
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