The foods you eat can affect your fertility and pregnancy. We let the experts explain.
You know the phrase fake it 'til you make it? Well, it applies to your confidence and to your trying to conceive, or pre-pregnancy, diet. "Eating as if you're already pregnant can actually help prime your body for conception," says Sarah Krieger, R.D., a nutritionist based in St. Petersburg, Florida. Here's how to deliciously dine your way to a happy, healthy pregnancy.
Boost your fruit and veggie intake
A study by the Harvard School of Public Health of nearly 19,000 women found a higher incidence of ovulatory disorder in women who consumed more trans fats, carbs, and animal proteins. The antidote? Make sure half your plate at every meal is composed of fresh fruits and vegetables. "Watermelon and asparagus, in addition to other raw fruits and vegetables, give the body a rich supply of glutathione, which is important for egg quality," says Alisa Vitti, integrative nutritionist and author of WomanCode: Perfect Your Cycle, Amplify Your Fertility, Supercharge Your Sex Drive, and Become a Power Source. "Kale is another a powerhouse vegetable because it contains elements necessary for estrogen metabolism." Vitti suggests juicing kale and other greens if you're not a fan of raw veggies. "I love recommending patients make fresh, mostly-vegetable juices with a few fruits like goji berries, which contain phytochemicals that are beneficial for fertility." Can't stomach any form of the raw stuff? That's okay; just watch how you prepare it. "All of the water-soluble vitamins found in pretty much every fruit and vegetable are destroyed with heat and water," Krieger says. To combat nutrient loss, roast vegetables in high heat for short time with no water or microwave them with a small amount of water. Save the water from boiled veggies to use later in soup.
Extra credit eats: Indulge in healthy, plant-based fats in moderation. Nuts, avocados, olive oil, and grapeseed oil can reduce the inflammation in the body, which helps promote regular ovulation and general fertility. Some good fats may even assist women who truly struggle with infertility. "Studies have shown that consuming a certain quantity of monounsaturated fats in the form of avocados during the IVF cycle increased the success rate by three and a half times, as opposed to women who don't eat good plant-based fats during that period," Vitti says.
Opt for lean protein
Chicken, turkey, pork, and beef trimmed of fat are great sources of protein, zinc, iron—all important building blocks for a healthy pregnancy. Steering clear of blubbery bits helps ensure you don't pack on excess weight, which disrupts estrogen levels and may also help you avoid organochlorine pollutants. These are chemicals that lurk in animal fats and are linked to conception delays, according to researchers at the National Institutes of Health. The exceptions to the skinny rule? Coldwater fish like salmon, canned light tuna, and sardines. They're an excellent source of DHA and omega-3 fatty acids; they also help develop the baby's nervous system and cut your risk of premature birth. You can eat them a couple of times a week without worrying about mercury levels, Krieger says, but it's best to avoid other varieties, such as shark, swordfish, tilefish, and king mackerel. Eggs, too, are another potent protein source. "They get a bad rap from cholesterol, but the yolk has excellent stores of protein and choline, a vitamin that helps develop brain function in babies," she says.
Extra credit eats: If lean meats are gold, veggie protein is platinum. One study showed that the risk of ovulatory disorders is cut in half when 5 percent of your total calorie intake is derived from plant proteins. The Harvard Public Health study also found that infertility was 39 percent more likely in women with the highest intake of animal protein. Beans are super sources, as are nuts, seeds, and other legumes, such as lentils and chickpeas.
Choose whole grains
Barely refined grains are superb sources of fertility-friendly B vitamins, vitamin E, and fiber. "Some of my favorites are buckwheat, which contains d-chiro-inositol, a compound that improves ovulation," Krieger says. The problem with more highly refined grains is that they can spike blood sugar levels, which affect insulin, messing with ovulatory function. Compose a quarter of your plate with more complex carbs, like brown rice. For some women, particularly those with hormonal disorders like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), cutting back on gluten may be advised. "Gluten has been shown to create an inflammatory response in the body, which heightens C-reactive protein and sends signals that it's not an ideal time to conceive," Vitti says. "It makes implantation more difficult and is also known to inhibit ovulation."
Extra credit eats: Break out of your rice and pasta rut and sample more diverse grains like amaranth, millet, and quinoa. They'll help keep you fuller longer and maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
Reconsider your dairy intake
Low-fat dairy is a smart source of protein and calcium, but a high intake of low-fat dairy has been shown to raise the risk of ovulatory infertility, compared to high-fat dairy. Before you bust out the Chunky Monkey, look at ways you can swap one serving per day sensibly, perhaps by adding whole milk instead of skim to your tea. If you're having continued trouble conceiving, you may want to consider limiting dairy altogether. "We're being exposed to dairy in mass quantities that's more hormonally driven, meaning the production of cow dairy has become very chemically manipulated," Vitti says. "These excess hormones may disrupt the conversation that the brain is trying to have with the endocrine system, particularly your ovaries." Just make sure you consult your doctor about the best ways to supplement your calcium intake if you temporarily ditch dairy.
Extra credit eats: Boost your intake of yogurt, ideally homemade or Greek-style. Why? The probiotic microbes may be instrumental in boosting your future kid's health. A study conducted on mice at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed that females who ate yogurt versus junk food diets gave birth to larger litters. It also boosted semen quality in their male counterparts.
Eat more whole foods
To witness the power of whole foods in action, look to our sisters in the Mediterranean. Their diet, which is rich in whole grains and vegetables, and has less processed meat, may protect against ovulatory dysfunction. A Spanish study of more than 2,000 women showed that only 17 percent of women who follow a strict Mediterranean diet had fertility issues, compared with 26 percent of women who ate fattier meats and more processed foods. Another good reason to avoid processed stuff: It's often laden with trans fats, which can foul up your ovulation and hinder your body's ability to process insulin. In the Harvard School of Public Health study, women who ate trans fats were 70 percent less likely to get pregnant than those who avoided them entirely.
Extra credit: Avoid forms of processed soy, particularly powders and energy bars. Some experts believe that large quantities of soy protein isolate in these products contain estrogen-mimicking properties that can disrupt your hormonal balance. "You get a huge dose of phytoestrogens that you would never normally be able to consume in one serving," Vitti says. "Men, in particular, should avoid them, as they may influence their testosterone levels." Whole soy products like edamame and tempeh are fine in moderation, as are fermented versions of soy such as miso paste or natto. "When we're eating soy in its most natural form like in other cultures like Japan and China, it's very healthy for the body," says Krieger.
Get more variety in your diet
Regardless of how virtuous your diet seems, too much of anything is never good for the body. "Even if you're eating homegrown tomatoes every day of your life, you might be getting too much of something in your soil," Krieger says.
Now's the time to kick food jags—looking at you, mac 'n' cheese addicts—and round out your diet with a variety of foods from different parts of the country, even the world. "The more variety you have, the more likely you're able to complete the nutrient gaps you may be lacking," Krieger says.
Extra credit eats: Opt for organic whenever possible to avoid pesticides, additives, and other chemicals in conventional foods, but don't stress if you can't afford it. "I don't want people to feel guilty about not eating only organic food," Krieger says. "Just do the best you can."
Cut out simple sugars
Concentrated doses of the sweet stuff can throw your blood sugar totally out of whack, creating issues with insulin and your general hormonal balance. Lay off the candies and desserts, obvs, but don't forget about sneakier sugar bombs like fruit juice, energy drinks, and sweet teas. Sugared sodas, in particular, have been associated with ovulatory infertility. That doesn't mean you should use artificially sweetened products in their place. "Artificial sweeteners are stressors on your system; they create a cortisol response, which inhibits ovulation," Vitti says.
Extra credit eats: If you're craving sugary stuff (and who can blame you?), choose less-processed sweeteners with lower glycemic loads, such as agave syrup, honey, maple syrup, and stevia, a natural zero-calorie sweetener. Limit your servings of simple carbohydrates like white flour and white rice. "You don't have to avoid it like it's the devil; just opt for more complex carbs," Krieger advises. "It's just more about limiting simple sugars."
Make over his plate
It's easy to forget that your man brings a full 50 percent to the baby-making table. So if his diet would shame even Hamburglar, it's time for a revamp. "I'm not saying treat your man like a child, but if you cook and eat at home together, help make veggies a focus on his plate," Krieger says. Vitti advises guys to eat asparagus, sunflower seeds, and other foods rich in zinc to prevent testosterone from being converted to estrogen. Your man may also need to pass on the cheese plate more often: High dairy intake has been linked to poor sperm motility and concentration. You can also encourage him to take daily vitamins. Pre-natal vitamins on the market come in his and her packs with the vitamins for men including Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Selenium, Zinc, and Lycopene.
Extra credit eats: Selenium is fantastic for sperm motility, and the number-one source is Brazil nuts. "Have a nice big bowl that your guy can crack open—you just don't need to tell him that's what it's for!" Krieger says. Another superfood is oysters. On top of their aphrodisiac properties, the bivalves are rich in zinc, vitamin B12, and protein.
Hydrate the right way
You already know to avoid caffeine and alcohol for their chemical effects, but there's another benefit to ditching these fertility zappers. "Our morning cup of coffee is the worst thing we can do from the dehydration standpoint," says Angela Chaudhari, M.D., a gynecologic surgeon and assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. Both caffeine and alcohol are diuretics and can prevent your mucus membranes from staying moist, affecting the consistency of your cervical fluid. Limit caffeine intake from coffee, energy drinks, and teas to under 200 milligrams a day and restrict alcohol to two to three glasses spaced out over a week. You may want to up your intake of decaf teas. Some studies have shown that herbal tea may be beneficial for fertility.
Extra credit eats: If you loathe plain-old H2O, remember that soups and salads all count toward your fluid intake. "The notion that eight cups of water a day is what everybody needs is false, as everybody is a different size." says Krieger. Try veggie packed gazpacho or a dessert of watermelon sorbet to stay hydrated. How will you know you're consuming the right amount of fluids each day? Your urine should be a clear, very pale yellow. Anything darker indicates dehydration.