Whether you are currently trying to conceive or hope to start someday soon, many factors can affect fertility in both men and women — one of the most influential being nutrition and diet. With various diets circulating the internet, social media, and news, it can be challenging to know which one will best support your fertility goals. To help you make the best choices moving forward, here are some of the pros and cons to consider — and what to eat instead!
The paleo diet has become very popular over the last 10 years. It generally promotes whole foods while avoiding processed ones, and also recommends excluding certain food groups in their entirety. To be more specific: soy, gluten, dairy, refined sugar, grains, processed foods, and seed oils are eliminated while animal proteins and fats, non-starchy vegetables, fruit, unrefined oils, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices are encouraged.
Of course, eating whole foods provides a bevy of micro and macronutrients, but such strict limitations may not be the best option while trying to conceive. For example, whole grains are rich in fiber which helps our bodies eliminate excess hormones. Research shows that at least one serving a day is associated with increased implantation rates, pregnancy, and live births. It’s still important to be intentional about what grains you choose, so consider swapping a sandwich with refined white bread for a farro-based grain bowl. I recommend consuming about 6 oz of whole grains daily.
Dairy is another food group that plays an important role in fertility outcomes. Some research shows that women who struggle with irregular ovulation may benefit from one serving of full-fat dairy daily. Treat your body by digging into the real thing, avoiding the low-fat and nonfat options, and seeking out the highest quality organic versions possible. Not only will you be enjoying something delicious, but you will also benefit from the fatty acids and calcium here too!
The Ketogenic diet is a very low-carb, high-fat program that allows for a moderate amount of protein intake. Although very restrictive, this diet helps regulate blood sugar and insulin levels and often results in rapid weight loss. While it is not suited for everyone, research shows a keto diet can have positive outcomes for those who are obese with irregular ovulation cycles and women with PCOS. If these are not issues you face, you may want to reconsider following such a strict program when TTC. Due to the carbohydrate restriction, even vegetables are limited, which is of concern because when you reduce the number of vegetables in your diet, you lose a lot of nutrition, including fiber, folic acid, beta carotene, and b-vitamins. Additionally, research shows that the reduction of animal proteins in the presence of more plants can positively affect overall fertility.
Being a healthy vegan requires time, effort, and research to ensure you are eating a balanced diet and not simply filling up on empty calories. To meet your nutritional needs, this requires meal planning, preparation, and proper supplementation. That said, you can absolutely prepare your body for pregnancy while following a plant-based diet.
The biggest nutritional risks you may run into include: low vitamin B12, iron deficiency anemia, and low protein intake. Since B-12 only comes from animal sources and fortified foods, it is important to take a B-12 supplement daily. In terms of iron, you can find it in many plant foods including leafy greens, legumes, lentils, dried fruit, and tofu however, our bodies do not absorb non-heme iron (the type found in plant foods) as efficiently as it does heme-iron (the type found in animal foods). Vitamin C increases the absorption of plant-based iron so an easy solution is to enjoy Vitamin C-rich foods as part of the same meal with iron-rich foods.
Some simple examples include:
- Adding lemon juice to your greens
- Cooking beans and lentils with red peppers
- Adding a glass of orange juice to some of your meals.
Finally to make sure you are meeting your protein requirements (about 70 - 100g/day) make sure to add beans, tofu, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains to your diet.
This diet requires the removal of grains that contain the protein gluten including wheat, barley, and rye. A gluten-free diet is especially important for those who have an allergy to gluten, known as Celiac Disease, and for those who exhibit symptoms of gluten sensitivity. Some women struggling with infertility may benefit from the removal of gluten as it can cause low-grade, systemic inflammation preventing implantation and pregnancy. Removing gluten temporarily may improve outcomes. Although going “gluten-free” is trending and new products are available everywhere, these products are often full of fillers, gums, calories, and simple carbohydrates which can cause imbalanced blood sugar levels, low energy, and weight gain.
It should be noted that not all products with gluten impact the gut in the same way. Bread made with high-gluten flour and commercial yeast will impact the gut differently than whole wheatberries, for example. Pay attention to your own body and learn to notice if all forms or just some forms of gluten cause irritation. Be an educated consumer by choosing your products wisely, opting for whole foods, and reading the ingredients and the nutrition labels.
Most importantly, opt for whole foods first since fruits, veggies, most grains, healthy fats, and lean proteins are naturally gluten-free.
As it turns out, this is the healthiest way to eat to support fertility. The Mediterranean diet focuses on abundance and moderation rather than limitation. Its recommendations include:
- Reducing red meat consumption
- Increasing the intake of protein from plants and seafood
- Enjoying plenty of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains all paired with heart-healthy fats
- Incorporating limited amounts of whole milk dairy
A 2018 research study done by the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology, found that women who started a Mediterranean diet six months prior to IVF cycles had a “significantly better chance” of conceiving and giving birth than women who did not eat a comparable diet. Additionally, prior research shows this style of eating can boost male fertility too. More encouragement to eat those plants, fiber, and clean proteins!
As your body is beautifully complex and unique, be sure to talk to your provider about what might work best for you. While there is no “one size fits all” blueprint for fertility, one thing is for sure — whole, nourishing foods are always a good choice for you and your future family.