Fertility issues can affect up to 1 in 6 couples and there are a multitude of factors affecting fertility include genetic, environmental, behavioural and nutritional issues. On the blog today we explore dietary factors affecting optimal fertility. When trying to enhance fertility reviewing your diet to ensure it includes all the necessary nutrients can be a good place to start, however it's worth noting that no single food or diet will guarantee conception or a healthy pregnancy. Let's look at Nutrition for Optimal Fertility.
Nutrition is a factor that can affect fertility for both men and women, so when planning for a baby it’s important to review both partners diets to ensure you are both achieving adequate nutrition. The quality of both parent’s diet can impact the genetics and health of the child, however the nutritional status of the mother will impact the baby the most as she is not only providing half the genetic material for the child, but the womb, environment and ongoing nutrition for the fetus to ensure its optimal growth and development for the next 9 months.
Women planning on conceiving should ensure they are consuming a healthy balanced diet and should address any underlying health issues, as conditions like obesity, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) or undiagnosed or poorly controlled Coeliac disease. Many women discover their Coeliac diagnosis as a result of investigations to identify their infertility. The prevalence of Coeliac disease is actually quite common. About 1 in 70 people have Coeliac Disease and up to 80% of people with the disease remain undiagnosed which means they are unwittingly contributing to the inflammatory process and fuelling their autoimmune disease by consuming gluten in their diets. Poorly managed Coeliac Disease is a concern as it can lead to congenital malformations, intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR) and recurrent miscarriages. As a Coeliac myself this condition is very close to my heart.
Obesity can inhibit conception due to increased insulin sensitivity, a lack of sensitivity to Leptin (which is a hormone responsible for inhibiting hunger) and an excess of the male hormone Testosterone in women. Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) also inhibits fertility in much the same way and affects around 8-18% of women at childbearing age.
It is also important to maintain a healthy BMI. If you find your BMI is sitting in the overweight or obese category even losing 5-10% of your body weight can assist in increasing your chances of getting pregnant and maintaining a healthy pregnancy. Knowing your BMI also comes in useful when you get pregnant because it allows you to gauge and guide how much weight gain in pregnancy is healthy.
Higher fertility rates in women have been associated with an increased consumption of monounsaturated fats, increased vegetable/plant proteins and a fibre rich low GI diet.
So, let’s talk specifics about what makes a healthy fertility boosting diet. Men planning to start a family should specifically concentrate on getting enough Zinc, Folate, Omega 3 and Antioxidants in their diet to assist in producing healthy sperm and should note that the quality of sperm can be affected by diet choices from 90 days ago. Men looking to promote their fertility should be consuming a diet high in wholegrain carbohydrates and fruit and vegetables rich in fibre.
Women should start with the nutrient we’ve all heard about in relation to preparing for a pregnancy – Folate.
Folate is a B group vitamin that has been proven to reduce the risks of Neural Tube defects like Spina Bifida as well as assisting in egg quality and maturation. Folic acid is another name often used for Folate and actually refers to the synthetic form of Folate as used in supplements. The recommendations are to aim for 600mcg of folate per day for at least one to three months before planned conception and throughout the first trimester of pregnancy. Foods high in folate/folic acid include: Legumes (especially lentils and pinto beans), fruit, vegetables (especially green leafy vegetables, broccoli and asparagus) and fortified grain foods like corn flakes, bread, pasta. (NOTE: taking Aspirin and Antacids which are commonly prescribed during pregnancy can interfere with folate absorption. Discuss with your Doctor if you are worried about your folate levels and are taking either of these medications.)
Maintaining adequate Iron levels is important for women when planning for pregnancy as Iron levels can become depleted in the pregnancy and birth. Many women of childbearing age are at risk of iron deficiency prior to pregnancy due to the monthly loss of blood each menstrual cycle, poor diet and previous pregnancies (especially when pregnancies occur close together).
Iron is important for blood formation. Due to increased blood volume during pregnancy more iron is required to transport oxygen around both the maternal and fetal circulations. The RDI* of iron during pregnancy is 27mg per day. Iron deficiency and anaemia can be linked to increased risk of premature labour, low birth weight and fetal growth restriction. Women who consume higher amounts of non-haem iron (found in sources other than red meat) are also at a decreased risk of ovulatory infertility. Iron is also an important nutrient for men as a deficiency can lead to defective sperm (as can a Copper deficiency). Foods rich in Iron: Red meat, chicken, green leafy vegetables, legumes, eggs, dried fruit, fish, nuts (Note: Iron is best absorbed when taken in conjunction with Vitamin C. Foods high in Vitamin C: citrus, tomatoes, red capsicum, kiwi fruit, pineapple, berries)
Vitamin D is important for both men and women planning to conceive. It’s thought that Vitamin D may be involved in actions critical for fertilisation to occur. RDI* for Vitamin D is 200-400mcg. Foods rich in Vitamin D: Sardines, Egg yolk, fortified foods and of course we can produce our own Vitamin D through our skin when exposed to good old-fashioned sunlight.
Iodine levels need to be maintained prior to pregnancy to prevent hypothyroidism in pregnancy and to optimise brain and nervous system development in the fetus. Foods rich in Iodine: iodised salt, fortified bread, seafood and seaweed.
Zinc can help boost the immune system and has been shown to reduce the risks of low birth weight, miscarriage and still birth. The RDI* of Zinc during pregnancy is 16mg. Foods high in Zinc: Seafood, Meats, Wholegrains’, oysters, nuts, sesame seeds, beans.
Selenium deficiencies in both men and women can directly affect fertility. Foods rich in Selenium include: Brazil nuts, oysters, tuna, wheat germ.
Women planning a pregnancy are also advised that in conjunction with a healthy and balanced diet prenatal supplements are recommended. These include a Folic Acid supplement of 400mcg per day and an Iodine supplement of 150mcg per day as adequate levels of these nutrients can be difficult to obtain from our modern diet alone.
Eating a healthy and balanced diet rich in whole foods and low in ultra-processed foods is one of the most powerful ways a woman and her partner can boost their fertility and prepare for a healthy pregnancy. It’s important to note that the foods you eat now can impact the health of your eggs and sperm for the next 3 months. It’s recommended that addressing nutritional deficiencies should commence 6 – 18 months before conception, however starting at any time is better than not starting at all.
Another factor to consider when planning a pregnancy is limiting both partners exposure to harmful substances. These include cigarettes, alcohol, environmental contaminants and drugs (both recreational and some prescription and over the counter medications). In relation to taking medications and nutritional supplements a discussion with your GP can be beneficial to check whether what you’re currently taking is safe and compatible with pregnancy.
When preparing for pregnancy it’s a great time consult with a Dietitian or Nutritionist to review your current diet and lifestyle habits and work towards ways to improve your chances of achieving a healthy pregnancy and growing a healthy baby. Looking at nutrition for optimal fertility and making changes to your diet is a relatively simple but very powerful way to enhance your chances of a successful and healthy conception.
*RDI = Recommended Daily Intake