Flourishing Fertility with Food
Updated: Mar 4, 2019
Fad diets and Google can be overwhelming when it comes to the "ideal diet" for anything, including fertility. Here I breakdown the building blocks for an optimal diet for fertility, pregnancy, and beyond.
Optimal fertility is dependent on many factors. Both women and men may struggle with fertility for various reasons. However, no matter the cause, a strong foundation of diet and health is critical. We can influence the health of both the egg and sperm (building blocks for a baby!) through the foods we consume. What is more amazing, is by optimizing the health of sperm and egg, we also have a profound effect on your future child’s health as a baby and adult! Talk about preventative medicine!
"Spoiler: There is no one food that has the magical ingredient for fertility."
Diet can be an overwhelming terrain to traverse on your own. Navigating the differing opinions, fad-diets, super foods, and old wives’ tales can be exhausting. So today, I am going to help you start optimizing your diet for fertility by focusing in on what to pay attention to as a way of building your strong foundation.
What foods boost fertility?
Spoiler: There is no one food that has the magical ingredient for fertility. Instead, you need to focus on eating a variety of whole foods to ensure you receive all of the necessary nutrients to support reproductive health and function.
I focus on the following core areas with all of my fertility patients.
Eat enough protein
Most people are unaware of the optimal amount of protein they should be consuming per day, and what that amount even looks like. The most common deficiency I will often see in a diet diary is a lack of protein, especially at breakfast! Protein is required for making enzymes, hormones and antibodies for optimal immune function. Protein is the building blocks of our DNA and play an important role for healing in the body. Protein also helps to stabilize our blood sugar levels, which is especially important for fertility. Research at the Delaware Institute for Reproductive Medicine showed that 25-30% of caloric intake from protein improved health and quality of the egg/embryo, and subsequently increased pregnancy rates. You can roughly calculate how much daily protein you should consume by multiplying your weight in KG by 0.8. This will give you the grams required per day.
In terms of protein sources, I recommend choosing organic, grass-fed and/or free-range animal protein when eating animal protein. When optimizing your fertility, it is especially important to decrease your exposure to unnecessary antibiotics and/or hormones that may be used in conventional farming practices. Wild, cold-water fish is another excellent source of protein and essential fatty acids, which aid in the production/regulation of hormones, inflammation and menstrual cycle health. Organic eggs are another excellent protein source, that are high in choline. Choline is gaining more research for its role in methylation, which plays a critical role for fertility success.
Organic dairy can be another healthy source of protein, so long as you have no signs of intolerance or sensitivity (gas, bloating, constipation, rashes). Excess amounts of dairy can cause mucous formation and congestion in some people, so I recommend eating dairy products in moderation.
When it comes to plant based proteins( for everyone, not just those following a vegetarian or vegan diet) I discuss how to ensure you are eating a complete protein source at every meal by the proper combination of plant protein sources. Most plant proteins on their own are not complete proteins. If you are following a vegetarian or vegan diet, you need to ensure all essential amino acids in your diet for optimal health (essential means unable to make these on our own).
The following is a chart I use to demonstrate how to combine plant-based protein sources:
Eat a lot of organic vegetables and fruit
You require a large array of plant-based nutrients for optimal function of every aspect of your health. Vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients play a huge role in the regulation of most processes that you depend on every day. You just cannot out-supplement a poor diet! Vegetables and fruit are KEY players in your health.
I tell my patients that I want them to be getting at least 5-7 servings of vegetables per day (8-9 would be amazing), and that at each meal most of their plate should be vegetables -- yes, even at breakfast. There is no rule book for what you can eat at each meal. It is cultural conditioning that tells us breakfast should be cereal and eggs. No more, I say! 1 serving of vegetables is ½ a cup, unless it is leafy greens and then a serving is equal to 1 cup.
You also want to ensure that you consume a range of all the available phytochemicals (plant nutrients), and to do that, I encourage “eating a rainbow” every day. No, this does not mean grab a bag of skittles! It means ensuring that you are eating foods of different colours. Tracking your food may reveal that you get a lot of red, yellow and green foods, but are falling short on orange and blue. Great! Now you know what to add more of to the diet!
Fruit Fruit is also important, especially for their antioxidant properties. I suggest eating fruit away from a full meal, as fruit digests very quickly in the body. When mixed with a heavy meal, fruit can cause fermentation in the gut; cue the smelly gas. I recommend 2-3 servings of fruit per day, focused on the lower glycemic fruits (berries) as opposed to higher glycemic options (melons).
Whole grains and fibre
Whole grains are naturally more complex than the processed grains we commonly consume in the Standard North American (SAD) diet. Complex carbohydrates and grains are much better at balancing our blood sugar and providing the body beneficial vitamins and fibre. Fibre is critical for blood sugar balance and the natural processing of excess hormones. Note that an excess of certain hormones can be a cause of infertility, and supporting the body’s natural ability in balancing hormone levels can directly improve fertility.
Fibre also helps to keep our bowels regular, which is integral for overall health! Choose whole wheat bread, rice, whole-grain pasta, and quinoa. If gluten sensitive, quinoa, quinoa pasta, and whole grain gluten-free breads can be an option. Beware of gluten-free products that use corn as a substitute grain. Corn is not considered a particularly nutritious grain and I don’t recommend consuming it in excess, since it too tends to be excessively processed.
One more important dietary recommendation I discuss often is to include healthy sources of fat in the diet. Our hormones are cholesterol based molecules. This means they are made from FAT. The fat-free trends of the past has likely resulted in the increase in hormonal issues of today. Let’s be radical and break free of this as well. Healthy fats will not make you fat, when balanced with a healthy diet. Because of their caloric density, a serving of fat is much smaller than the rest of the macros. 1-2 Tbsp of straight olive oil, or 2 Tbsp of nut butter is considered a serving for one meal. Beyond hormone production, healthy fats are also critical for blood sugar regulation, energy production, and mental function. Look at inviting avocados, olive oil, coconut oil, nuts, seeds, nut/seed butters and grass-fed butter into your meals.
What foods should you avoid or limit your consumption of if you are trying to get pregnant?
Foods I typically suggest to limit would be:
Trans fats: those are not good for anyone!
Refined carbohydrates and sugars: recipe for blood sugar dysregulation and immune system depletion
Fruit juices: same as above
Alcohol: can affect both sperm health and ovulation
Caffeine: there are some studies linked to infertility and miscarriages. I advise women to follow the suggested daily amounts that are safe in pregnancy if eliminating caffeine is too much to begin with.
For some people, an elimination of certain foods can make a huge difference in their health and therefore fertility status. Gluten is one food that patients report noting a difference once removed from their diet. If there are concerns of autoimmunity, we would also want to look at the foods we know can trigger more of an immune / inflammatory response, and remove them from the diet.
Is there an optimal diet (paleo, vegan, vegetarian etc) that you would recommend or not recommend if someone is trying to get pregnant?
I do not typically have one diet that I suggest for everyone, as every BODY is different. Some may require a specific dietary plan while others will flourish with following general healthy dietary guidelines. I aim to work within the patient’s belief systems around diet (ie: if someone is vegetarian for ethical reasons) and follow the recommendations discussed above. The best researched diet for fertility currently is the Mediterranean Diet. I prefer this diet to many others, with a few tweaks (more healthy fat, less grains).
I do not often prescribe a vegan or vegetarian diet as a therapeutic diet for fertility, as there are many nutrients that are more difficult to get in a purely plant-based diet. However, it is absolutely possible to maintain a healthy foundation with a vegan/vegetarian diet, which I am happy to support. Often, regardless of the diet consumed, nutritional supplementation will be a part of the plan to ensure optimal fertility nutrient requirements are met. Typically, iron, vitamin B12 and zinc are more difficult to get in a vegan/vegetarian diet. Iron and zinc are very important for fertility, so we want to make sure that we supplement accordingly.
I hope you’ve received the overall message that there is no perfect diet, whether to optimize fertility or on a day-to-day basis. Most important is to consume a wide variety of foods, emphasizing all colours of the rainbow and a good serving of vegetables at every meal. For fertility specifically, adequate protein, fat and fibre are essential.
To determine the best diet for you and to further discuss what nutritional supplements can benefit any fertility issues, send me a message. I would love to support you!