Healthy Foods That Support Fertility
- Choose unrefined carbohydrates and healthy fats
- Incorporate antioxidant-rich foods and add some plant-based protein
- Don’t forget folate, iron, selenium, vitamin D, and DHA
- Get your man on the same healthy plan to keep them fertile too!
The bad news is that many of the standard options to improve female fertility are invasive and expensive. The good news is that simple nutritional and lifestyle changes are actually some of the most promising interventions to help women improve their chances of getting pregnant. And they’re free!
One study showed that modifying diet and certain lifestyle factors can lower the risk of infertility and may promote the potential for conceiving by up to 28%.1 The study’s findings also suggest that significant improvement could be made through diet and lifestyle interventions. Healthy body weight and body composition, physical activity, and good nutrient intake are all factors that can positively affect a woman’s fertility.
The Mediterranean diet and IVF
In a recent study, couples undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF) had about three times better odds of getting pregnant when they closely adhered to a Mediterranean diet.4 The Mediterranean diet focuses on a high consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains, a moderate consumption of poultry, eggs, and dairy products, and a limited consumption of red meat. It has also been shown that increased consumption of trans fats, low-fat dairy foods, animal protein, sugary beverages, and foods with a higher glycemic load all increase a woman’s risk of certain problems linked to ovulation.1 Conversely, higher intakes of folic acid, nonheme iron, high-fat dairy, and vegetable protein are associated with a lower risk of this problem. These findings are consistent with further research that supports the importance of a healthy diet for conception. Here are the foods women should fill up on to stay in tip-top shape for fertility.
Fertility friendly foods
Choose unrefined carbohydrates
Stick to unrefined high-fiber carbohydrates like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, while avoiding refined carbs, which include anything made with white flour or sugar. Focus on high fiber foods, which help regulate the body’s blood sugar balance.5 This helps support a healthy pre-pregnancy weight, which in turn supports a woman’s chances of conceiving.6
|Refined Carbohydrates||Unrefined Carbohydrates|
(anything made with white sugar)
(anything made with white flour)
|White bread||Whole grains
(the first ingredient must begin with “whole”)
(usually used to make French fries)
|Whole grain, flour, pasta, bread, oats (Note that many have gluten sensitivities)|
|Most baked goods
(cookies, cakes, doughnuts)
|Naturally gluten-free flours (Tapicoa, almond, arrowroot, coconut)|
|Most breakfast cereals
(if the first ingredient doesn’t begin with “whole” then it’s refined)
(quinoa, barley, bulgur, amaranth, buckwheat, farro, millet, spelt, etc.)
Add more plant-based proteins
Incorporate more whole plant-based proteins into your diet such as quinoa, beans, lentils, edamame, and hemp seeds. Studies show that replacing animal protein with vegetable proteinsources substantially lowered participants’ risk of problems linked to ovulation.7
|Plant-Based Protein Sources|
|Quinoa||Nuts & Seeds|
|Hemp seeds||Spirulina & Chlorella|
Eat healthy fats
Choose healthy fats like monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) and polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) including nuts, seeds, olives, and avocados. Avoid trans fats found mainly in processed foods. Research has shown that an increased consumption of trans fats over MUFAs or PUFAs is associated with ovulatory infertility, independent of age, BMI, lifestyle and hormonal levels.2 Choosing healthy fats also helps keep you full, thereby helping to avoid overeating and promoting a healthy pre-pregnancy weight.
|Monounsaturated Fats (MUFAs)||Polyunsaturated Fats (PUFAs)|
|Avocados||Walnuts, walnut oil*|
|Nuts||Flaxseeds, flax oil*|
|Olives (olive oil)||Chia seeds*|
|Canola oil||Fatty fish** (salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, anchovies)|
*High in the omega-3 ALA, which needs to be converted into EPA and DHA in the body. **High in omega-3s EPA and DHA
Incorporate more antioxidant-rich foods
Eat antioxidant-rich foods throughout the day. These foods typically include colorful fruits and vegetables. One easy way to do this is to incorporate greens in at least two meals per day and consume fruits as a healthy carbohydrate for both meals and snacks.
|Berries (Blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, goji berries)||Dark green leafy vegetables (kale, collard greens, spinach, broccoli, etc.)|
|Black plums||Sweet potatoes|
|Beans (Kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans)||Purple cabbage|
Nutrients to support fertility
Along with the above, generally healthy foods, which may help improve a woman’s fertility, here are some specific nutrients to pay particular attention to.
While consuming folate won’t make women more fertile, it is a necessary nutrient to help prevent neural tube defects. The neural tube develops into the brain and spinal cord during weeks three to four after conception, which is before most women even know that they’re pregnant. Because most women of reproductive age are not getting enough folate through their diets alone, it is recommended that all women of reproductive age should consume at least 400 mg of folate each day. Food sources include green leafy vegetables, legumes, beets, citrus fruits, and fortified grains. Folate can also be obtained through supplements to ensure a sufficient daily intake.
Iron (+ vitamin C to increase absorption)
Women need to pay attention to their iron status.Iron deficiency anemia is the most common nutrient deficiency in women and can affect their chances of getting pregnant.8 It has been shown that women who do not get enough iron in their diets may suffer from ovulatory problems and possibly poor egg health, which can inhibit pregnancy up to a rate 60% higher than those with sufficient iron stores.9 In addition, a diet rich in nonheme iron and supplements may lower a woman’s risk of certain ovulatory issues.5,10 Plant-based iron sources include beans, lentils, spinach, and fortified whole grains. Here’s a tip: Pair iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods (citrus fruits, peppers, berries) to help increase the body’s absorption of iron, while also providing many other nutritional benefits.
Selenium is a key player in thyroid hormone function, which helps regulate a woman’s metabolism. Low selenium status has been linked to recurrent miscarriages, low birthweight infants, and problems associated with elevated blood pressure during pregnancy, which is why it’s so important to ensure adequate amounts when trying to conceive.11 Adding just one Brazil nut daily can meet the daily recommended amount for this essential nutrient.11 These nuts are delicious on their own or added into a favorite smoothie!
Recurrent pregnancy loss (RPL) affects nearly 1% of couples, and research suggests that vitamin D deficiency may play a part, since around 20-90% of American women of reproductive age are thought to be deficient in vitamin D.12 Conversely, vitamin D status within the normal range has been shown to promote a more favorable environment for pregnancy through its modulating effects on our immune response and other factors. Most doctors agree that vitamin D supplementation is needed in order to get enough. When deciding how much vitamin D to supplement with it is important to consider many factors that may increase your risk of vitamin D deficiency, and to get your vitamin D levels tested. For more information about the role of vitamin D during pregnancy, check out “The Importance of Vitamin during Pregnancy“.
Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA, are some of the key building blocks used during fetal development. During the periconceptional period, many of the baby’s organs start forming. This is a time when the placenta and fetus are especially vulnerable to the mother’s nutrition status and can also be before a woman even knows that she’s pregnant. Since a mother’s dietary status is correlated to her infant’s, ensuring adequate omega-3 DHA stores while trying to conceive is always a good idea.
When deciding how much DHA to take while trying to conceive, consider the omega-3 doses that have made an impact. Healthy omega-3 status has been shown to help prevent preterm birth and low birthweight and to help support certain measures of cognitive function in infants. A three-ounce piece of salmon provides about 600 mg of DHA, but who has salmon every day? To complicate matters, it is recommended that women only consume low-mercury fish during pregnancy, at most 2-3 times per week. One of the best ways to ensure adequate DHA intake is with a daily DHA supplement made from fish oil (or algae oil for vegetarians). Just be sure your supplement doesn’t smell fishy, and discuss with your physician what dose is best for you. To learn more refer to “Why Do I Need DHA During Pregnancy?”.
A healthy diet can impact male fertility too!
Ladies are not alone in the quest for healthy fertility. Men should follow similar healthy eating patterns to improve their fertility too, since more than half of all cases are related to the male. It’s been shown that male adherence to a healthy diet can improve semen quality and a couple’s chances of getting pregnant. For example, men who had low adherence to a Mediterranean-style diet were about 2.6 times more likely to have lower sperm concentration, motility, and total sperm count.13
Better fertility does not have to be scary or drain the bank account. Many women (and men) can improve their chances of getting pregnant by incorporating specific nutrients into their diets while also improving their overall health in order to be at their best when that little one arrives.
Glycemic load: The number that estimates how much a certain food will raise a person’s blood glucose level after eating it.
Infertility: Failure to conceive after twelve months of timed and unprotected sexual intercourse.
Nonheme iron: A form of dietary iron that comes from plant-based foods rather than animal proteins.
Ovulation: Is the release of an egg from the ovary. This must happen in order to achieve pregnancy naturally.
Ovulatory disorders: a group of disorders in which ovulation fails to occur, or occurs on an irregular basis
Periconceptional period: The time before conception to early pregnancy.