The Truth About Fertility and Dieting
The connection between the food we eat and our body’s overall health and wellbeing is undeniable. Particularly whole foods – food that’s minimally processed – are powerful allies in supporting balance and health.
This article post highlights natural, whole foods that can support hormone balance and fertility.
Infertility sucks. Let’s just say that and acknowledge it for the horrible thing that it is. For many women, and men too, the desire to make a baby and the inability to do so is devastating. It so discouraging to feel like your reproductive health is not in your control. You’re not alone in your struggle though, as many as 15% of couples in the US struggle with infertility.1 So, today we’ll discuss some ways you can try to take back control of your body and make that little bundle of joy!
If you’re a woman who’s been struggling to conceive and you’re not at an optimal or “healthy” weight, then chances are your healthcare provider has encouraged you to try and either lose or gain weight to help increase your chances of conceiving and carrying to term. You may also have heard that there are certain foods you should avoid, or eat more of, to increase your odds even further. But what does science have to say about these tactics? Can pursuing a healthier weight and/or changing your diet actually make a measurable difference in your odds of getting pregnant? For most women, yes it can.1,2 Actually, diet is one of the biggest controllable factors in ability to conceive.1 Let’s talk about how and why pursuing health by what we put on our plates can increase the odds of making beautiful, little babies.
Weight, I Have to Lose How Much?
Firstly, let’s discuss weight, which is of course a touchy subject for many ladies. If you’re either very slender or on the very curvaceous side, you may be having difficulty getting pregnant and there are reasons for this. Firstly, what many people don’t know about fat tissue is that it is very active in the body and can have a strong influence on hormones. For many women, having either very little or very large amounts of fat tissue negatively affects the function of their sex and reproductive hormones, thereby making conception more difficult.1,3 An ideal body mass index (BMI) is roughly 19-25, and if you fall outside that range you may experience detrimental hormonal effects.4 So, the next question becomes, do I have to lose/gain enough weight to be in that ideal BMI range if I want to conceive? Thankfully, no. Studies show that pursuing a healthier weight through diet and exercise can increase your chances of conceiving and experiencing a healthy pregnancy regardless of your BMI.1,2,4
If you’re overweight or obese, losing as little as 5-10% of your body weight can significantly increase the odds of becoming pregnant, because you’ve improved your hormonal health by reducing excess fat.4 So, if you weigh 200 pounds and you’ve been told to lose weight, don’t worry! You don’t need to lose 50-75 pounds to help restore fertility, try more like 10-20 pounds. While these numbers can still sound overwhelming, they are certainly more doable.
What’s the takeaway here? Yes, diet and exercise to help push your BMI closer to the ideal can have a hugely beneficial impact on your odds of conceiving, but you certainly don’t have to be the ideal size to see results.4
But I’m craving Oreos, can I still eat those?
Next, let’s discuss diet and fertility. Some healthcare professionals swear that eating healthier will greatly increase your odds of getting pregnant, and others believe it’s not about what you eat, but more about how much. So what does the science say? Fortunately, research has shown that certain healthy diet choices can have a measurable difference in a woman’s ability to conceive.1
Studies show that diets high in polyunsaturated fats such as olive oil, canola oil, and other healthy plant oils like avocados, nuts, and seeds, have been proven beneficial. Also on our fabulous list of fertility-enhancing foods are whole grains, fish/seafood, and every kind of vegetable. Likewise, choosing plant-based protein options such as beans, nuts and seeds has proven helpful. These foods are all high in key nutrients that promote fertility and reduce the chances of pregnancy complications: folic acid, vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids.1,2
There are also foods you should try and avoid if you want to increase fertility. Some research has shown red meat to be a counterproductive source of protein, so reducing your intake of beef and other red meats may prove helpful. Unfortunately for dessert lovers everywhere, sugar is also on the list of foods to eat very little of if you’re trying to conceive.1 Let’s be specific though, “sugar” here does not refer to fresh fruits, which are high in important phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals. If you’re trying to reduce your sugar intake, back off on desserts, sugary beverages, and concentrated sources of sugar such as granulated sugars, honey, agave, and maple syrup. In addition to sugars, eating fewer refined grains such as white bread, white pasta, and white rice can be helpful.1 These grains contain fewer vitamins and minerals as well as acting almost identically to sugar in the body once we’ve eaten them. You can think of white flour as savory, white sugar. Lastly, getting back to those all-important Oreos, choosing fewer processed foods is important. Processed foods often contain trans fats, refined carbohydrates, and chemicals that promote poor health in our bodies. Oreos are certainly not off limits, but they, and other processed foods, should be an occasional treat rather than a pantry staple.1
But you didn’t mention my favorite foods, can I still have them?
If your favorite foods include items like cheese, butter, milk, coffee, chocolate, and wine then I’m afraid we don’t have a clear-cut answer for you. Some studies have shown that foods containing large amounts of caffeine, saturated fats, dairy, and alcohol have no effect on fertility and other studies claim that they can decrease fertility.1,2 Basically, the margin by which these foods have been shown to decrease fertility is so slim that the scientific studies on these foods and their impact on fertility have inconsistent results. If you want to change your diet to improve your chances of conceiving, then these foods should be last on your list of foods to cut out. It’s possible that eliminating them from your diet could help you, but it’s not likely. So, enjoy your morning cup of coffee with a splash of cream if that’s your thing, and don’t overthink it.
His Health Matters Too!
As women, we’re used to bearing the brunt of the reproductive health burden. Women are typically the ones responsible for birth control, and also the ones who take responsibility for improving a family’s chances of conceiving. However, the health of the man matters too! Whether you’re trying to conceive via traditional methods or using newer options such as IVF or turkey basters, make sure the sperm donator is taking care of his health too. Sperm have to work hard to fertilize an egg, and they should be in fighting form if you want good odds. The same advice applies to men as it does to women: pursue a healthy weight and eat mostly healthy, whole, plant-based foods.1 In addition to this advice, men should also avoid saturated fats since they can lower sperm production.1 Saturated fat is any fat that is solid at room temperature, or about 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Get your man on a healthy diet with you and get those sperm movin’ and groovin’!
To Sum it Up
I guess the results of these studies really aren’t that revolutionary. If you’re trying to improve your chances of conceiving by how you eat, the bottom line is to pursue a healthy weight (whether you reach it or not), and to eat a healthy diet full of whole, plant-based foods. I wish I had a trick for you, but if you put in the work to make these changes, it just might do the trick.
In parting, remember that eating healthy, whole foods, and lots of plants foods is one of the simplest, safest, and most effective things we can do to promote good health in our bodies. As with every preventative/restorative measure though, sometimes these changes alone are not enough to help our bodies function the way we want or need them to. If you are struggling with health problems, please contact your doctor or other healthcare provider such a Naturopath, Dietitian, or Mental Health Professional to see if they can offer appropriate guidance and care. We at Wholesome Story believe that healthy communities require community effort, so we advise you to keep your healthcare community aware and involved in your journey as you pursue better health.
- Panth N, Gavarkovs A, Tamez M, Mattei J. The influence of diet on fertility and the implications for Public Health Nutrition in the United States. Frontiers in public health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6079277/. Published July 31, 2018. Accessed November 23, 2021.
- Robert H. Shmerling MD, Alison Shmerling MD. Fertility and diet: Is there a connection? Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/fertility-and-diet-is-there-a-connection-2018053113949. Published November 3, 2020. Accessed November 23, 2021.
- Why is weight loss before pregnancy important? Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/getting-pregnant/expert-answers/weight-loss-before-pregnancy/faq-20380882. Published April 3, 2020. Accessed November 23, 2021.
- ; BAHARA. Impact of obesity on female reproductive health: British Fertility Society, policy and practice guidelines. Human fertility (Cambridge, England). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18049955/. Published 2007. Accessed November 23, 2021