How Your Diet Could Be Affecting Your Fertility
15% of couples in the US are affected by infertility issues, and while there can be a wide range of reasons for this, many couples can turn the tables and make it more likely for them to fall pregnant naturally simply by tweaking their diets. If you’re thinking about having a baby naturally within the next few years, or if you’re actively trying to get pregnant, make sure you read this article through to the end to ensure you’re not stacking the odds against yourself at every meal.
What could I be eating that’s hurting my fertility?
Obesity (in both males and females) is a big factor that impacts fertility negatively - a BMI of over 30 and any diet that leads to obesity is associated with poor fertility. Diets high in saturated fats and sugar are linked with lower levels of fertility. Diets rich with red and processed meat, candy, sugary sodas, and potatoes are all to be avoided for good overall health, but even more so if you’re trying to get pregnant (this goes for both males and females). It’s also important to note that obese females are much more likely to experience a complication during pregnancy and childbirth than someone who isn’t.
All these foods spike your insulin levels (particularly the high carb, sugar, and starchy foods) and this is particularly important to note because it will affect a woman’s hormone levels through ovulation. Insulin interferes with ovulation, disrupting the maturation of eggs and increasing the likelihood of forming ovarian cysts.
Men also need to be cautious about how their diet affects their hormone levels, as a high-fat diet and being overweight have been seen to negatively affect spermatozoa, the essential precursor to sperm.
Don’t forget that it can be what you’re not eating, too. We’ll cover the nutrient side of this below, but being underweight (a BMI of under 20 for a female) will also likely hinder your ability to get pregnant as the body won’t think there are enough resources available to feed both mother and baby.
How to Eat to Improve Your Fertility
While everyone is an individual, certain diets have been seen to help improve fertility. Diets that contain plenty of unsaturated fats, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and fish have been seen to improve fertility in both men and women. The Mediterranean diet is one of the best for this, as it’s naturally high in healthy fats and low in sugar and simple carbohydrates.
These foods are also naturally high in some of the vitamins and minerals that are associated with good fertility, including:
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin D
- Omega 3s
Whether you like the Mediterranean diet or not, eating a healthy and balanced diet will ensure you get enough of these nutrients. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you may need to be more mindful of what you’re eating (or supplementing your diet with) as some of these vitamins and minerals can be more difficult to get in the right amounts if you don’t eat meat or fish.
If you’re a fan of seafood, give yourself a treat by increasing your seafood intake - studies have found that couples who ate low-mercury seafood (such as scallops, shrimp, and salmon) 2-3 times a week got pregnant sooner than those who didn’t. If you don’t, make sure you’re consuming a good source of omega 3s such as chia seeds, Brussels sprouts, flaxseed, and kidney beans.
If you drink sugar-sweetened beverages like soda and energy drinks, make sure you swap to diet versions (or, even better, cut it out altogether). Studies have seen that sugar-sweetened beverages are linked to lower fertility while drinking diet sodas seemed to have no effect.
Supplements can be a great way to ensure you are getting the right nutrients to get pregnant, but make sure you talk to your doctor if you take any medication and if/when you get pregnant, talk to your doctor about what is safe to continue taking and in what amounts. Too much vitamin A, for example, can be harmful to a developing fetus.
What if I eat well and still encounter fertility issues?
If you are eating well and still encountering fertility issues, it’s best to speak to a fertility clinic or specialist to make sure you don’t have any other hurdles between you and having children, especially if you have no other symptoms.
Most women with PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) seek help for their other symptoms before trying to get pregnant, but one of the symptoms of PCOS is difficulty in becoming pregnant naturally. IVF or another kind of fertility treatment is usually necessary in these cases, but women have found success in falling pregnant naturally by cutting out sugar and most traditional sources of carbohydrates (such as bread, rice, pasta, and so on). If you have any other symptoms of PCOS, (or have been diagnosed with PCOS) this may be something to discuss with your doctor to see if a low carbohydrate diet is safe for you.
The decision to start trying for a baby is always a momentous one, and you often don’t pause to consider whether you’ll be able to get pregnant easily or not until you decide for sure that you want children. Following a healthy diet, maintaining a steady healthy weight, and giving your body the right nutrients are essential steps that can help set you up for success.
Dr. Nancy Rahnama, MD, ABOM, ABIM, is a medical doctor board certified by both the American Board of Obesity Medicine and the American Board of Internal Medicine. Her specialty is Clinical Nutrition, that is, the use of nutrition by a medical doctor to diagnose and treat disease. Dr. Rahnama has helped thousands of people achieve their goals of weight loss, gut health, improved mood and sleep, and managing chronic disease.