If you’re ready to get on the baby-making train, or have been trying for a while, nutrition is the right place to start. Even if you’re already pregnant, or on the other hand, just want to ensure your fertility is preserved for when you are ready to start a family, this article is for you.
Pregnancy has unfortunately become tied with body image; some women might use it as a “time out” when they can eat whatever junk food they want and let go of the usual worry about “getting fat” for a while. Or, on the flip side, some women obsess about gaining too much weight while pregnant, and might scrimp on nutrition.
We want to help free you from any guilt or confusion related to pregnancy and eating. Our approach to fertility and pregnancy needs an overhaul — pregnancy is a sacred time when the body performs amazing feats, and our job is to provide the right raw materials to make that possible.
Therefore, it’s important to ensure that we possess the necessary knowledge and resources to provide those raw materials. That means learning more about the macro- and micronutrients that the body needs to first conceive, and then build a healthy baby.
Why nutrition matters for fertility
If you have been trying to conceive but haven’t had success, nutrition might be at the root of the problem. Although there are many factors that determine whether someone is fit to reproduce, many of them come back to food.
Without good food, our reproductive organs don’t work at their optimum.
Without good food, we don’t have the necessary sex hormones to make those organs fertile.
And without good food, we don’t have the protein, fat and nutrient building blocks which literally get pulled from our own body’s stores and put back together again as a new human being.
If you’ve been struggling with fertility, there is a good chance that nutrition can turn that around. Research shows that infertility linked to autoimmune disorders, chronic illness, thyroid disease, hormone imbalance, low sperm count, obesity, and poor egg quality or lack of ovulation, among other issues, can be positively influenced by nutrition.
Let’s examine some of the vital foods that both women and men should consume to maintain, improve, or regain fertility.
We are putting this topic right at the top of the list, since the widespread societal “fear of fat” is only just beginning to end, and fat is oh-so-important for fertility! The hormones that support all of our key functions and make fertility possible are built from fats, as is a new baby’s brain.
Here are some good sources of fat to improve your baby-making abilities:
- Coconut oil
- Grass-fed butter
- Nuts and seeds
- Oily fish
- Good quality cheese
- Red palm fruit oil
The Weston A. Price Foundation is a leading authority on ancestral nutrition. Their guidelines recommend consuming at least six tablespoons of whole, healthy fats daily for optimum fertility nutrition.
One study found that when healthy reproductive-age women were placed on a vegetarian diet for six weeks, 78 percent of them stopped ovulating.
This alarming figure shows how important animal protein is for fertility. The following are the best forms:
- Eggs — a good source of choline, which protects against neural tube defects.
- Cold-water fish — such as wild-caught salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines.
- Organic pastured poultry and meat — to provide protein and magnesium.
Vitamins B12, B6 and B9 (folate)
A 2009 study, involving 172 men and 223 women who were unable to conceive. showed that 36 percent of the men and 23 percent of the women had vitamin B12 deficiencies. While this correlation does not necessarily imply causation, it was further found that sperm abnormalities in 40 percent of the infertile men were directly linked to their lack of vitamin B12.
While the mechanism in women is poorly understood, research shows that a lack of these B vitamins also impairs egg function and may result in miscarriage of a fertilized egg.
Organ meats, shellfish, pastured meats and eggs are the best sources of B vitamins, so be sure to invest in quality proteins.
Nutrient-dense fertility foods
Tribal cultures have long accentuated the importance of stocking up the body with nutrient-dense fertility foods prior to conceiving. The Maasai tribe of East Africa only allows a couple to marry when they have spent six months consuming raw milk and butter during the season when the grass grows the greenest and contains the most nutrients.
We should similarly make a conscious effort to incorporate nutritious traditional foods, which have been largely forgotten in our generation. Here are a few key foods that might be new to you, but which ancestral wisdom (and now modern science) tells us are vital for fertility:
- Fermented foods — seek out unpasteurized sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir or kombucha, or make your own at home. These foods contain probiotic bacteria, which help extract nutrients from your meals and support good digestion and immunity. Your baby will inherit your gut microbiome, so make sure yours is healthy!
- Organ meats — liver in particular is the most nutritious. You’ll get an absorbable form of iron, vitamin B12, zinc and folate. Try to find organic pastured beef and chicken livers, and/or take a cod liver oil supplement.
- Broth — save up bones from any organic meat that you buy and make your own broth in your Crock-Pot. It’s easy and provides a wealth of proteins, fats and minerals for robust health and fertility.
- Fish eggs — You will find an incredible amount of minerals and omega-3 in caviar. Try to have a few tablespoons a week as a fertility supplement.
On another note, here are some foods that throw your body out of balance, and should be avoided when trying to conceive.
While the vast majority of fertility-boosting foods are equally beneficial to both men and women, there are a few which each sex might want to focus on for specific reasons.
Fertility foods for men
Zinc is vital for sperm health, and is notoriously lacking from our modern diet. The majority of men who test positive for poor sperm quality or motility can improve this through zinc supplementation. While eating fresh oysters or grass-fed beef and lamb are the best options, using zinc tablets is also effective.
Although in theory some plant foods provide zinc, the plant form is very difficult for the body to use since it is generally bound to an anti-nutrient called phytate. Studies have found that the zinc levels stored in cells drop significantly if a person stops consuming meat and fish (even if they continue to consume dairy and eggs).
Another nutrient vital for healthy sperm is selenium. Men should ensure they consume plenty of Brazil nuts, mushrooms, fish, shrimp and liver to provide enough selenium.
Fertility foods for women
Folate is a critical nutrient that prevents many defects and complications in pregnancy. Although many women believe the need for folate is met by a prenatal vitamin supplement, these usually contain the less ideal form, folic acid, rather than the active form. Folate is best derived from whole foods such as leafy greens, asparagus and liver.
While low-carbohydrate diets are experiencing a bit of a heyday at the moment, they may not be the best for women who are hoping to conceive. This is an issue affecting women in particular, because of the delicate hormonal balance required to ovulate, conceive and have a healthy pregnancy.
An adequate level of carbohydrates supports the subcutaneous fat and hormone levels (leptin and insulin) which a woman must have in order to signal to the body (via the hypothalamus and pituitary glands) that it is well fed and therefore safe to conceive. Eating carbs also fosters thyroid health, which is a common underlying cause for fertility problems. Finally, moderate carbohydrate intake might help rectify other factors that are keeping you from being fertile, including the improvement of mood, stress levels and sleep.
What carbs to eat? Try at least 100 grams per day of starchy roots and tubers, such as sweet potatoes, regular potatoes, cassava and taro. Also be sure to eat fresh fruit.
It’s never too soon to start investing in your health, since your future children will be built from the raw materials your body provides.
—The Alternative Daily
Bennett M. Vitamin B12 deficiency, infertility and recurrent fetal loss. J Reprod Med. 2001 Mar;46(3):209-12.
Berker B, Kaya C, Aytac R, Satiroglu H. Homocysteine concentrations in follicular fluid are associated with poor oocyte and embryo qualities in polycystic ovary syndrome patients undergoing assisted reproduction. Hum Reprod. 2009 Sep;24(9):2293-302