Here's Exactly What To Eat (And Not Eat) To Maximize Fertility
Many of us spend our 20s trying not to get pregnant and our 30s desperately trying to get pregnant. And while 40% of pregnancies are unplanned, if you're in the 60% trying to conceive, you want to ensure that you'll have a healthy pregnancy, easy delivery, and an even healthier baby. But do you know that 15% of couples in the United States have trouble1 conceiving? Getting your period every month when you're trying for a baby can be deeply depressing.
So many of the 30-something women in my practice have been on oral contraceptives for years, living goal-oriented, high-stress lifestyles and getting all their "ducks in a row" before they start contemplating a family. Sadly, so many women don't realize they have medical problems until they are trying to conceive and having trouble doing so. There are many factors that contribute2 to fertility struggles, but I always take it back to the basics with my patients and start with nutrition.
The goal is to eat natural, clean, non-GMO, chemical- and dye-free organic foods as much as possible. Always check the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 for the most up-to-date foods to buy organic. The Standard American Diet (SAD) actually decreases3 fertility; people consuming high trans-fat diets, processed meats, sugary drinks, and high-glycemic-index foods can be devoid of essential nutrients, minerals, and vitamins—which makes it harder to conceive naturally. In contrast, the anti-inflammatory Mediterranean diet—my personal favorite—increases4 the chances of women conceiving naturally as well as through IVF. The key is to have adequate protein, fats, and healthy carbs while limiting excessive sugars and processed foods. Here's where to start:
1. The right kinds of fat.
Although excessive fat can hinder fertility in both men and women, by limiting5 sperm count in men and increasing6 hormonal problems in females, a recent study showed that women who ate full-fat dairy were more fertile7 than those eating nonfat or low-fat dairy. Dairy isn't for everyone, but for those who tolerate it well, always focus on full-fat, organic, grass-fed dairy.
You have to eat fat and have some fat on your body in order to get pregnant. Luckily, there are a ton of healthy fat options. Try eating wild Alaskan salmon, which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and sprinkle coconut oil in your food whenever you get a chance. There is a lot of controversy around coconut oil and saturated fats right now, but if you eat it in moderation (1 to 2 teaspoons a day), you'll be getting a daily dose of good fat that your body needs fat to make adequate amounts of hormones. Saturated fat is also stored in breast milk, which is something additional you want to keep producing postpartum. Trans fats should always be avoided, as they have been associated with increased inflammation in the body, which can inhibit ovulation.
2. Plenty of responsible protein.
Eating healthy, plant-based protein and limiting processed meats is imperative for a healthy fertility diet. Consume foods like beans, nuts, and legumes daily, as well as fish and eggs, which—according to a large study8—have no negative impact on fertility, as opposed to red meat, chicken, and turkey, which should be limited. If you do eat animal protein, ensure that it's organic, free-range chicken or grass-fed beef whenever possible.
3. Veggies, veggies, and more veggies.
Although I just told you to eat protein in moderation, it's important to remember that vegans and vegetarians aren't automatically healthier. Oftentimes, my vegan patients are deficient in fat as well as B12, iron, vitamin D, and cholesterol—which can inhibit hormone production when trying to conceive. They also tend to have lower body weight, a factor that can hinder pregnancy. It's important to get essential vitamins and minerals from veggies at every meal. Try aiming for seven to nine servings of veggies each day with a variety of colors, phytonutrients, and antioxidants. It's important to get your nutrition first through foods before supplementing. Add veggies to your smoothies, juices, omelets, salad, soups, and even snack on them. Make veggies an integral part of your day so you always get enough.
4. Natural, plant-based fiber.
Eating more fiber and limiting high-glycemic-index foods are both important pieces of the fertility puzzle. Fiber-rich foods help you stabilize your blood glucose and maintain a healthy weight, preventing insulin spikes and hormonal imbalances like PCOS due to elevated testosterone. Fiber also aids in GI detoxification and acts as a prebiotic, which is essential for females who are estrogen dominant and need to get rid of excessive xenoestrogens associated with problems like endometriosis and fibroids. The secret, however, is to make sure you're getting enough natural fiber through a plant-based diet instead of through excessive androgynous processed fiber supplements.
5. Beneficial bacteria.
Having a healthy microbiome in the GI tract and vagina are imperative for fertility. Studies indicate9 that having a healthy amount of lactobacillus increase10 chances of conception. Having a healthy microbiome is important because it decreases vaginal infections, keeps the immune system strong, and keeps inflammation that starts in the GI system at bay. I highly encourage females to eat fermented foods as much as possible including miso, sauerkraut, kimchi, coconut kefir, and full-fat or Greek yogurt (if they are not dairy-intolerant). Kombucha is another great fermented probiotic-rich beverage; however, I encourage limiting kombucha due to the minor alcohol quantity.
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Dr. Bindiya Gandhi is an American Board Family Medicine–certified physician who studied family medicine at Georgia Regents University/Medical College of Georgia. She completed her undergraduate training at the University of Georgia with a bachelor's of science in biology and psychology in 2004 and her doctor of medicine at American University of Antigua College of Medicine in 2010. She completed an integrative medicine fellowship at the University of Arizona with Dr. Andrew Weil. She is also currently working on her functional medicine training with the Institute of Functional Medicine. Her interests include integrative, holistic, and functional medicine; women's health; preventive medicine; international medicine; and health care reform. She's also a certified yoga instructor and Reiki master. She enjoys writing and educating everyone on important health matters.