If you’re considering trying to conceive, you may be interested in understanding how what you eat can impact your fertility, as well as your baby’s health once you do get pregnant. Below are some tips for optimizing your nutrition while trying to conceive, in order to support your health and the health of your little one.
- Plan for a Lifetime: Rather than approaching this time as a specific “diet” with a means to an end, let’s start by reframing our goals to be one of creating and sustaining a long-term healthy relationship with food and your personal nutrition. There is not one nutrition plan that is optimal for conceiving and another different plan that is beneficial for decreasing your risk of stroke, heart attacks, dementia and type 2 diabetes. Rather, eating a healthy diet that is rich in whole foods (such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans) and low in ultra-refined foods (such as candy, chips, soda, and doughnuts) and saturated fat is beneficial for health across the lifespan and to decrease the risk of many lifestyle related chronic diseases.
- Keep it Simple: Women who are trying to conceive should aim to have a diet that is nutrient dense. Unfortunately, most American women of reproductive age exceed the recommended daily limit of 10% of their daily calories from added sugars as well as the recommended limit of 10% of their daily caloric intake from saturated fat. Try to make each meal “count” by eating nutrient dense foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, low-fat dairy, beans, seeds, nuts), getting adequate iron intake and limiting ultra-processed foods (candy, chips, doughnuts) and drinks (soda/pop) as well as limiting saturated fat. For more information on Foods that Can Affect Fertility as well as information about iron, visit the Eat Right website.
- Up your Antioxidants: Fertility may be impaired by oxidative stress (when your body’s antioxidant levels are lower than are needed for optimal health). By eating antioxidant rich foods, oxidative stress can be decreased. Antioxidant rich foods may support your ovaries’ ability to ovulate regularly as well as early pregnancy. Antioxidant rich foods include many plant based whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Broccoli, spinach, carrots, grapes, berries, corn, whole wheat and oats are examples of antioxidant rich foods, but try to eat a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. It may help you to think of trying to “eat a rainbow” of fruits and vegetables each day or week. If you want to learn more about oxidative stress in general, or how it may impact female fertility, you can read more at these websites.
- Men Too: A healthy diet supports fertility in women AND also in men. Men who follow dietary patterns that are rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables and seafood have been shown to have better semen quality. A typical western dietary pattern (or the standard American diet or SAD diet) may have the opposite effect. A SAD diet is typically thought to consist of high amounts of nutrient poor/calorie dense foods and drinks such as soda, chips, candy, cakes, doughnuts, processed meats, and other sources of added sugar and saturated fat. While you are working on healthy eating, encourage your partner to do the same.
- Eat the Right Kind of Fat: Diets high in saturated fat intake have been associated with decreased fertility. High levels of saturated fat are found in meat fat (processed meat, red meat, poultry skin), fats that are usually solid at room temperature (butter) and tropical oils (such as coconut oil). Long chain omega 3 fatty acids may support fertility. These are found in high levels in flaxseed, fish and seafood (remember to take into account potential environmental contamination of fish and seafood and to limit exposure to mercury which is especially important during pregnancy). Consider putting some ground flaxseed into a smoothie this week or finding a recipe that has ground flaxseed as an ingredient.
- Avoid Sugar Spikes: Eating fiber rich foods (such as whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables) helps to keep your blood sugar more stable than eating high glycemic index foods that cause your blood sugar to spike soon after eating them (candy, cupcakes, ice cream, white rice and bread, chips, and other ultra-processed foods with added sugar). High glycemic index foods, when eaten regularly, lead to chronic, low grade inflammation which is associated with worse reproductive outcomes. This week, try to eat a fiber rich food at each meal and avoid or limit eating foods/drinks that are filled with added sugar such as candy and soda.
- Limit Glycotoxins: Glycotoxins (AGEs) are advanced glycation end products that are created in high amounts when we cook some of our food, especially meat, or smoke tobacco. Glycotoxins increase oxidative stress (mentioned above). If you smoke, definitely seek help from your healthcare provider with quitting now. AGEs are also highest in typical fast food meat as well as when meat is cooked in a dry heat method (such as grilling), especially if the meat is cooked for a long time. High glycotoxin intake may negatively impact female fertility and contribute to ovulation problems with PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome). Lowering AGE formation can happen through using moist heat cooking methods and shortening cooking times (remember food safety is important though and any meat that you eat should be thoroughly cooked).
- Take your Prenatal Vitamins: When trying to conceive, your nutrients should primarily come from a healthy, well-balanced diet. However, it is easy to not meet certain nutrient recommendations and the potential consequences could be detrimental to your future baby’s health. That is why many experts recommend that women of reproductive age who may possibly conceive, take one (and only one) prenatal vitamin each day that has 400 mcg of folic acid. You can get these from your local pharmacy. You should try to take this for at least 3 months prior to conception as folic acid decreases your risk of having a baby with a birth defect, specifically neural tube defects. It is difficult to get this level of folate through food consumption which is why the prenatal vitamin is incredibly important. It is important to get vitamins and minerals from a high-quality diet too. Some research has found that supplements don’t work as well as antioxidants from a high quality diet in supporting fertility. Take your prenatal vitamin with folic acid and B12, but try to eat a high-quality, nutrient rich diet every day. For more information about this topic, visit the Harvard Fertility and Diet webpage.
- Healthcare Experts: Talk to your CNM (certified nurse midwife) or physician about what you eat and your desire to get pregnant. Let them know if you have any dietary restrictions or preferences (such as being vegetarian or vegan), if you have any food allergies or other nutrition concerns. You may need additional nutrition support such as a B12 vitamin for women who follow a vegan dietary pattern. Also, your healthcare practitioner can refer you to a registered dietitian or nutritionist if you need support with getting to an optimal weight prior to conceiving, optimizing your preconception diet, if you have a chronic condition, or if you have dietary questions that you want to discuss. Some insurance companies cover meeting with a registered dietitian when trying to conceive, if you have a referral from your healthcare provider. Also, Diana Health has women’s health focused wellness coaches that can support your healthy lifestyle changes, as well as courses on nutrition that empower you to nourish your body for optimal health. Reach out to us if you would like to get connected with one of our women’s health experts, join a class or group.
- More than Nutrition: A healthy diet supports fertility, but the majority of infertility is NOT diet related. If you have tried to conceive for 6 months and have not gotten pregnant, reach out to your healthcare practitioner. Continue your healthy eating, which is good for your health as well as the health of a future baby, but explore other ways to optimize your fertility. Your CNM or physician can give you more information about fertility and infertility. It could be that you just need more time to get pregnant, but there could be other reasons too that your healthcare provider can address. Never feel guilty for not conceiving or blame yourself for not eating healthy enough. This is not good for you nor a future baby, and there are usually other causes for infertility beyond food.
As you consider supporting your fertility with food, remember that it’s the sum of the choices that we make, day by day, week by week, and month by month, that are important to your overall health. Ideally these choices will help you stay at or attain a healthy weight, which supports fertility too. (For more information on this topic, visit this website from UW Medicine.) If you didn’t eat as healthily as you would have liked yesterday, don’t feel guilty but instead, focus on moving forward with healthier choices today. Each day, and really each meal, is a chance to nourish yourself with foods that support your overall health and wellbeing, and will also support your fertility. Please reach out if we, at Diana Health, can support you along your fertility and health journey.