Research suggests that fertility issues can affect around 15% of couples. Genetic, behavioural and environmental factors may impact fertility in males and females. Improving your diet can be a simple and inexpensive way to support fertility. If you are worried about conceiving, please consult your GP.
Although making changes to your diet does not guarantee conception, we know from a body of research that it may have a positive impact and increase chances of falling pregnant. Improving your diet from a nutritional point of view can not only enhance your own health but benefit your baby too.
It is important to note that both males and females have a role to play when it comes to fertility. Often when couples have trouble conceiving, it is assumed that the problem lies with the female which is not always the case… It takes two to tango!
Healthy eating patterns adopted before pregnancy are more likely to define the food environment in the household once a child is born. Eating a nutrient rich diet in preparation for pregnancy may increase your likelihood of getting pregnant.
Whilst there is limited evidence for a specific ‘fertility diet’, health professionals remain confident that by promoting a well-balanced diet, they are making a significant contribution to the health of women and their partners. In turn, this may encourage fertility. A well-balanced diet includes lots of wholegrain carbohydrates, plant protein, fruits, vegetables and essential fats. Nutrition is arguably the most influential non-genetic factor contributing to foetal development.
So what does the research tell us?
What a mother eats before and during pregnancy directly impacts the nutrients that are supplied to her growing baby. It therefore has a primary influence on foetal nourishment throughout each stage of gestation. Macronutrients include fat, protein, and carbohydrate, providing energy and protein for foetal growth. While micronutrients are involved in the metabolism of macronutrients, and the structural and cellular metabolism of the foetus.
One study followed over 116,000 women and demonstrated higher fertility rates in women who had diets rich in monounsaturated fats, vegetable proteins and fibre from wholegrains. Data from this study also revealed that women who consumed higher amounts of non-haeme iron (iron from plant-based sources) from foods like nuts, beans and vegetables are at decreased risk of ovulatory infertility.
Interestingly, some research has suggested that consumption of full fat dairy is associated with better fertility outcomes.
Women are also advised to take prenatal supplements prior to conception however the guidelines may differ depending on what country you are in.
- 400mcg Folic Acid is advised one month before conception and in first trimester
- 150mcg Iodine for those considering pregnancy and pregnant
- Iron through adequate food sources or supplement
- 10mcg Vitamin D daily during pregnancy
- Multivitamins are not advised unless other known deficiencies
What about food for fertility in men?
In men, it was found that consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids was important for sperm quality and quantity. Sperm production is improved with diets rich in omega-3 polyunsaturated fats but reduced with diets rich in saturated and trans fats. In regards to sperm quality, it is thought that zinc and folate are particularly important in terms of supporting sperm motility and the synthesis of genetic information found in sperm. Oysters, lean red meat, nuts, beans and wholegrains are all good sources of zinc. While fruit, veg (especially leafy greens), and cereal products are good sources of folate.
Sperm also need to be protected from free radicals once they are formed. Antioxidants are molecules that can protect against this damage by neutralising the free-radicals. Antioxidants include nutrients such as vitamin C, vitamin E and selenium and a large number of other compounds found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Other factors to consider
- Whilst excessive amounts of intense exercise are not advised, being physically active has been associated with increased rates of fertility. You do not have to get yourself to the gym every day to stay active. Consider taking long walks, workout classes or any type of movement you enjoy!
- Trying for a baby can be stressful and you might be constantly thinking about whether or not you have fallen pregnant. Try to relax. Research suggests that high stress levels may affect your cycle thus making it harder to know when you are ovulating.
- The link between caffeine consumption and fertility is inconclusive however some studies have seen increased amounts of caffeine decrease fertility rates. Consider limiting your intake to 1-2 cups of coffee a day and remember tea and chocolate contain caffeine too.
- In regards to overall diet, research suggests that a Mediterranean style diet may be the most beneficial. Although researchers are not entirely sure what it is specifically about this diet that seems to best support fertility, it demonstrates that a balance of fibre, essential fats and antioxidants are important.
Key takeaways on food for fertility
- Antioxidants for both men and women are important for pre-conception
- Diet in women can affect ovulation, foods that can improve: wholegrain carbs – quality over quantity, increased fibre, healthy fats (Monounsaturated) – nuts, oils, avocado etc.
- Eating more plant protein over animal protein may boost fertility
- Consume plant-based protein and non-haeme iron
- Choose low-GI carbohydrates
- Prenatal supplements are important
- Maintain hydration by consuming plenty of water
- Achieve a healthy weight (for you)
- Be physically active
- Cut down on caffeine
- Avoid alcohol
- Take time to relax
My practice with private clients sees me work with individuals to prioritise their health. When weight loss is one’s primary goal, nutrition can often be neglected and we know from a body of research that weight loss diets are usually not sustainable. Whilst research suggests that being significantly overweight or underweight may make getting pregnant more difficult, a healthy weight is hard to define using just numbers.
The research tells us that being overweight or underweight may affect the hormones that regulate ovulation. Following nutrient recommendations and making sure you have a well balanced diet is a good way of ensuring you are supporting your health prior to conception. But if you are worried about your weight, please seek advice from a Registered Nutritionist or Dietitian.
Please also note that if you are suffering with an eating disorder, you will need to seek additional support to help restore a healthy weight if you are thinking about pregnancy.