Connecting the dots between nutrition and fertility

Does what I eat really impact my fertility? 

The short answer is, yes. Diet matters. While the research continues to evolve on this topic, studies have found that diet not only improves fertility in males and females, but also improves the chances of successful pregnancy in individuals actively undergoing fertility treatment. What you put in your body impacts inflammatory responses, metabolic health, hormone levels, and therefore overall reproductive health. But again, there is a lot of ongoing research and it’s not always super clear or straightforward, so let’s dive into what we do know.  

What are some of the nutrients that matter? 

  • Fats: When it comes to fats, quality matters. Mono and poly-unsaturated fatty acids, which includes a high intake of omega-3 fatty acids, are recommended for fertility health. Omega-3 is found in foods such as oily fish, nuts and seeds, and olive oil. It has anti-inflammatory properties, improves metabolic health which is essential for fertility, and has been shown to improve the quality of oocytes (developing eggs), decrease risk of ovulation disorder, and improve embryo health when pregnancy is achieved. On the other hand, trans-fatty and saturated fats found in processed and fried foods, fast food, and red meats should be limited given their negative impact on insulin regulation and ovulatory function. 
  • Protein: As a general rule of thumb, about 10% to 35% of your calories should come from protein. While protein is derived from both plants and animals, research has shown that there are more benefits to consuming plant-based rather than animal-based protein. This is because animal-based proteins can contain high amounts of saturated fat and carry hormones and antibiotics which can negatively impact reproductive hormones. Due to this, consider limiting your intake of animal-based protein and focus on plant-based proteins such as whole grains, seeds, and lentils. Seafood also can be rich in protein and omega 3 fatty acids, which is beneficial for reproductive health. However, it can also lead to increased exposure to mercury, depending on the type of seafood you’re consuming, so be mindful of this when considering the types of seafood you eat, as research has shown that high blood mercury levels can impact semen quality and menstrual regularity. Some higher mercury seafood to avoid include tuna, swordfish, shark, and king mackerel. 
  • Folate and B vitamins: While the link between adequate folate intake and healthy fetal neural tube development is well established, it’s also important to understand the impact of folate on fertility during the preconception period. One important finding is that folic acid intake can reduce the risk of anovulation, which is when an egg doesn’t release from the ovary during your menstrual cycle. Also, a study of Danish women planning for pregnancy found that folate supplementation reduced overall time to pregnancy. Leafy green vegetables, beans, and peas are high folate foods to consider adding to your diet. Vitamin B-12 and B-6 are also important for regulating ovulation. These vitamins can be found in fortified foods, animal liver, sardines and supplements. If taking supplements, it’s always important to review these with your provider. 
  • Vitamin D: Vitamin D has anti-inflammatory properties which contribute to insulin regulation and healthy endometrial tissue, important factors in fertility health. Many people are vitamin D deficient, so discussing this with your clinician is important during the preconception planning phase. 
  • Antioxidants: Antioxidants play an important role in fertility since they help regulate the amount of oxidative stress in our bodies. High oxidative stress has been linked to diagnoses such as Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) and endometriosis. Antioxidants such as vitamin C, E, and A help with regular ovulation, and improved circulation to the endometrium, which is the membrane that lines the uterus. Vitamin C can be found in citrus fruits, broccoli, and bell peppers, vitamin E is in foods such as sunflower seeds, other nuts and seeds, and avocados, and foods high in vitamin A include sweet potato, carrots, and fish. 

Does diet matter for male reproductive health? 

Absolutely. Diet plays a key role in semen quality and sperm health, an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to fertility. Research has shown that trans-fatty acids, processed foods, and refined sugar negatively impact semen quality. More specifically, this type of diet has been shown to reduce sperm count, sperm concentration, sperm motility, and the normal shape and size of sperm. Try to limit high energy sugar found in beverages and sweets as much as possible because it can increase insulin resistance and oxidative stress in the body which decreases sperm concentration and motility. Increasing intake of fruits and vegetables, fiber, omega 3 fatty acids, and antioxidants is linked to improved semen quality. Being mindful of all this is important, especially considering that up to 50% of infertility is linked to male factors. 

Considering all this, is there a main dietary pattern I can or should consider? 

Focusing on a diet that is rich in whole fruits and vegetables, legumes, dietary fiber, vegetable proteins, with limited processed foods, dairy, and added sugars (e.g., Mediterranean Diet) is recommended when planning ahead to build your family. This is also true for those who are currently undergoing or pursuing fertility treatment, as studies have linked the Mediterranean Diet to improved chances of pregnancy while undergoing IVF treatment. Not only is this important for healthy reproductive organs, insulin regulation, anti-inflammatory properties, and overall fertility health in males and females, but a Mediterranean diet can also support parental and fetal health throughout pregnancy, as research has shown it can reduce the risk of pre-eclampsia, a serious pregnancy complication. 

This all sounds great, but how do I actually make these changes? 

Lifestyle adjustments can be challenging, especially when you consider other factors such as a busy work schedule, a partner’s eating habits, tendencies to eat out, etc. Knowing how nutrition impacts your reproductive health will hopefully help you take the first steps to make any needed changes.  Frame is here to support you along this journey. Our Frame Coaches can dive into this more with you and we can connect you with partners who are available to keep you focused on a healthy diet while considering your family building goals. You’re not alone! 

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