Fertility Diet: What to Eat When Trying to Get Pregnant
If you’re trying to conceive, make these changes to your diet to improve fertility and ovulation function.
If you're trying to get pregnant, is your diet packed with foods that increase fertility? Unlike other factors that you can't control—such as age and genetics—eating certain foods and avoiding others can help improve your ovulatory function, according to a study from Harvard Medical School. "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 by following a fertility diet.
Fruits and Vegetables
For a fertility diet to improve egg quality, load your plate with fruit and veggies. A study by the Harvard School of Public Health, which comprised nearly 19,000 women, found a higher incidence of ovulatory disorder in those who consumed more trans fats, sugar from carbohydrates, 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," she says. To combat nutrient loss, roast vegetables in high heat for a short time with no water, or microwave them with a small amount of water.
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.
Avoid all trans fats and eat more healthy unsaturated fats. Trans fats (found primarily in foods such as commercial baked and snack foods, animal products, french fries, and some margarines) increase insulin resistance. Insulin helps move glucose from the bloodstream to the cells; resistance means it's harder to move glucose into the cells. The pancreas keeps pumping out more insulin anyway, and the result is more insulin in your bloodstream. High insulin levels cause a lot of metabolic disturbances that affect ovulation, so they should be avoided in a fertility diet.
Eat more complex ("slow") carbs and limit highly processed ones. Your body digests bad carbs (like cookies, cakes, white bread, and white rice) quickly, and turns them into blood sugar. To drive down the blood-sugar spike, the pancreas releases insulin into the bloodstream—and studies have found that high insulin levels appear to inhibit ovulation.
Good carbs (those containing fiber, such as fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains) are digested slowly and have a more gradual effect on blood sugar and insulin. 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.
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."
Compose a quarter of your plate with more complex carbs, like brown rice. It may also pay to 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.
Get less protein from red meat and more from fish. Chicken, turkey, pork, and beef trimmed of fat are great sources of protein, zinc, and 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 in a fertility diet 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 in a fertility diet. "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.
When picking foods that increase fertility, opt for plant protein (from beans, nuts, seeds and tofu). They come with healthy fats and are relatively low in calories, which can be helpful for weight loss. 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.
Consume one or two servings per day of whole milk or other full-fat dairy foods (such as yogurt) and less non- and low-fat dairy. "We found that the more low-fat dairy products in a woman's diet, the more trouble she had getting pregnant," says Walter Willett, M.D., a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health and one of the study's authors. That's because 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, however, 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 from your fertility diet plan 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.
It's also a good idea to boost your intake of yogurt, ideally homemade or Greek-style, which is one of the top fertility foods for getting pregnant. 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.
Foods to Limit or Avoid in a Fertility Diet
Caffeine: Drink coffee and tea in moderation. According to the Harvard study, several cups of coffee or tea a day had little effect on ovulation problems—but it could lead to dehydration. "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. In fact, caffeine is a diuretic that 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. You may want to up your intake of decaf teas. Some studies have shown that herbal tea may be a good fertility food for getting pregnant.
Alcohol: Regular alcohol consumption can also lead to dehydration, which is why some experts often recommend limiting it in your fertility diet. Restrict alcohol to two to three glasses spaced out over a week.
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Sugary drinks and processed sweeteners: Cut down sugar levels, and stick to less-processed sweeteners. 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 for your fertility diet plan, and 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. 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.
Soy: Avoid forms of processed soy, particularly powders and energy bars. One of the foods to avoid when trying to get pregnant, soy may have a negative effect on fertility. 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.
Tips for a Successful Fertility Diet
Choose whole foods over processed options. 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 with 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.
Take your vitamins. Take a daily multivitamin that contains at least 400 micrograms of folic acid and 40 to 80 milligrams of iron. Women in the Harvard study who took daily multivitamins containing 400 micrograms of folic acid were 40 percent less likely to experience ovulatory infertility over the eight years than women who didn't.
Mix up your plate. Regardless of how virtuous your fertility diet plan 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 fertility 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
Know the best fertility foods for men. 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 for better male fertility: High dairy intake has been linked to poor sperm motility and concentration. You can also encourage him to take daily vitamins. Prenatal vitamins on the market come in his and her packs with the vitamins for men including Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Selenium, Zinc, and Lycopene.
Also, 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" Krieger says. Another superfood is oysters. On top of their aphrodisiac properties, the bivalves are rich in zinc, vitamin B12, and protein.
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