Infertility is a common problem for couples in the U.S. and around the world. 7.5 million women have difficulty getting pregnant or carrying a baby to term[i]. Many seek the assistance of infertility services, yet not everyone is aware of the power of diet and lifestyle changes. Here are 6 of the most powerful dietary changes you can make today to increase your chances of getting and staying pregnant.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Obesity increases the risk of infertility, yet only 1/3 of women surveyed were aware of this link[ii]. As of 2010, one in five women was obese when she got pregnant. This translates to roughly 1.3 million women annually. A mother’s obesity in her first trimester of pregnancy more than doubles her child’s risk of becoming obese, yet most women are unaware of the association between her own diet, knowledge of nutrition and weight, and her child’s chances of growing up to maintain an optimal weight and a healthy lifestyle.
- Avoid saturated fats and trans fats. A dietary increase in saturated fat of just 5% is associated with a 38% lower sperm count.[iii] Saturated fats are found primarily in animal products such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy, but are also found in coconut and palm oil. In fact, coconut oil, which is often touted as a health food, is as high in saturated fat as butter and lard! Trans fats are often labeled partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and are found in many packaged and processed foods such as pastries, cookies, crackers, chips, French fries and more.
- Replace animal protein with plant protein. According to the famous Harvard Nurse’s study, which followed 18,555 women over 8 years, meat intake is associated with an increased risk of ovulatory infertility[iv]. Just a single serving of meat (red meat, chicken, turkey, processed meat and fish) was associated with a 32% greater risk of ovulatory infertility. Red meat increased risk of anovulation by 40%, while a single serving of chicken increased risk of anovulation by 50%! Replacing animal sources of protein with plant sources such as beans or tofu was shown to have the opposite effect, increasing fertility. Researchers believe this is the case because eating animal protein raises the levels of IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor-1). The study’s findings suggest that replacing animal sources of protein, especially chicken and red meats, with vegetable sources of protein may reduce the risk of infertility due to anovulation. The effect of diet is even more powerful than we imagined as what we eat affects not only our own bodies, but also the health and development of our unborn children. Researchers have found that meat is so packed with sex steroid hormones that when women eat beef while pregnant, it may alter her unborn son’s testicular development in utero and adversely affect his reproductive capacity later in life[v].
- Avoid Dairy and Eggs. Xenoestrogens are endocrine disrupters, which alter the normal function of hormones. These endocrine disruptors may have demasculinizing or feminizing effects. Many people are already aware of xenoestrogens such as BPA (Bisphenol A), phthalates, PCBs, food dyes and additives such as FD&C Red No.3 and BHA, but are not aware of the sources of many of these powerful chemicals. Dioxin is one of the most powerful xenoestrogens. The EPA estimates that dairy products account for about 30%-50% of our dioxin exposure[vi]. All food of animal origin, whether conventional or organic (meat, fish, eggs and dairy) contains natural estrogens including estradiol. This naturally occurring estradiol is 10,000 times more potent than most identified environmental xenoestrogens.[vii] Estrogens are contained in animal meat and eggs, but the major sources of animal-derived estrogens in the human diet are milk and dairy products.[viii] Dairy food intake, particularly cheese, is associated with lower sperm concentration[ix] as well as abnormal sperm shape and movement (morphology and motility)[x]. This suggests that dairy intake may be implicated in direct testicular damage. Milk products supply about 60-80% of the ingested female sex steroids in the human diet, while eggs supply about the same amount as meat and fish (10-20%). Vegetables and plant foods contribute no estrogens[xi].
- Increase Consumption of Fresh Organic Fruits and Vegetables. One cause of infertility is endometriosis. This is when the lining of the uterus grows into surrounding tissue, causing painful swelling and inflammation which often manifests in heavy, painful periods, pain during sex and infertility. The consumption of meat, specifically red meat (beef and pork) has been shown to increase the risk of endometriosis, whereas the consumption of green vegetables and fresh fruit has been shown to decrease risk[xii]. Dioxin, a toxic pesticide which bioaccumulates in the flesh of animals may promote inflammation-related development of endometriosis[xiii]. The most concentrated source of this toxic pesticide is fish. I, personally, have a friend and colleague, Katherine Lawrence, who suffered with endometriosis. She was told by doctors that she would have to have a hysterectomy. She did not listen and instead decided to change her diet. She lost 40 pounds, lowered her cholesterol and got pregnant naturally twice! She now has 2 beautiful, healthy boys! You can read her story here.
- Avoid Soda and other Bottled Sweetened Beverages. A 2012 study in the journal Epidemiology[xiv] found that women who drank soda were less fertile than those who drank tea. You may already know that soda consumption (both regular and diet) is linked to weight gain, but soda and other bottled beverages are often packaged in plastic or metal. The chemicals in these bottles can leach into the products themselves. The beverages themselves already contain harmful chemicals, but storing them in plastic and metal allows endocrine disrupting chemicals to leach into the products and be ingested upon consumption.
To summarize, here are the top foods to avoid if you are trying to conceive:
- Red meat (beef, pork and lamb)
- Chicken and turkey
- Fish & and other seafood
- Eggs & dairy (milk, cheese and yogurt)
- Packaged and processed foods and beverages.
Here are the top foods to add to your diet to enhance fertility:
- Organic beans & legumes – 1 serving per day (black beans, white beans, garbanzo beans, lentils, hummus, etc.) If using canned, choose organic no-salt with a BPA-free lining
- Organic tofu, tempeh or edamame 2-3 x/week (avoid processed soy foods that contain isolated soy protein)
- Fresh organic vegetables and fruits – 9 servings per day
Bottom line – the sooner we achieve our optimal weight and health by switching to an organic, whole foods plant-based diet, the better it is for both our own fertility and the fertility of our children.
Do you have any questions or comments you’d like to share? I know that fertility can be a personal subject, but I’m here to help and I’d love to hear from you! Did you find this article helpful? If so, please share!
[iii] J. A. Attaman, T. L. Toth, J. Furtado, H. Campos, R. Hauser, J. E. Chavarro. Dietary fat and semen quality among men attending a fertility clinic. Hum. Reprod. 2012 27(5):1466 – 1474.
[iv] Chavarro JE, Rich-Edwards JW, Rosner BA, Willett WC, Protein intake and ovulatory infertility, Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2008 Feb;198(2):210.e1-7. doi: 10.1016/j.ajog.2007.06.057.
[v] Swan SH, Liu F, Overstreet JW, Brazil C, Skakkebaek NE, Semen quality of fertile US males in relation to their mothers’ beef consumption during pregnancy, Hum Reprod. 2007 Jun;22(6):1497-502. Epub 2007 Mar 28.
[vi] J Schaum, L Schuda, C Wu, R Sears, J Ferrario, K Andrews. A national survey of persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic (PBT) pollutants in the United States milk supply. J Expo Anal Environ Epidemiol. 2003 May;13(3):177-86.
[vii] L Aksglaede, A Juul H Leffers N E Skakkebaek, A M Andersson. The sensitivity of the child to sex steroids: possible impact of exogenous estrogens. Hum Reprod Update. 2006 Jul-Aug;12(4):341-9.
[viii] D Ganmaa, P Y Wang, L Q Qin, K Hoshi, A Sato. Is milk responsible for male reproductive disorders? Med Hypotheses. 2001 Oct;57(4):510-4.
[ix] M C Afeiche, N D Bridges, P L Williams, A J Gaskins, C Tanrikut, J C Petrozza, R Hauser, J E Chavarro. Dairy intake and semen quality among men attending a fertility clinic. Fertil Steril. 2014 May;101(5):1280-7.
[x] M Afeiche, P L Williams, J Mendiola, A J Gaskins, N Jorgensen, S H Swan, J E Chavarro. Dairy food intake in relation to semen quality and reproductive hormone levels among physically active young men. Hum Reprod. 2013 Aug;28(8):2265-75.
[xi] S Hartmann, M Lacorn, H Steinhart. Natural occurrence of steroid hormones in food. Food Chemistry Volume 62, Issue 1, May 1998, Pages 7–20.
[xii] Parazzini F, Chiaffarino F, Surace M, Chatenoud L, Cipriani S, Chiantera V, Benzi G, Fedele L, Selected food intake and risk of endometriosis, Hum Reprod. 2004 Aug;19(8):1755-9. Epub 2004 Jul 14.
[xiii] Kaylon L. Bruner-Tran, Ph.D., Grant R. Yeaman, Ph.D., Marta A. Crispens, MD, Toshio M. Igarashi, M.D., Ph.D, and Kevin G. Osteen, Ph.D., Dioxin May Promote Inflammation-Related Development of Endometriosis, Published online 2008 April 18. doi: 10.1016/j.fertnstert.2008.02.102
[xiv] Hatch EE1, Wise LA, Mikkelsen EM, Christensen T, Riis AH, Sørensen HT, Rothman KJ. Caffeinated beverage and soda consumption and time to pregnancy. Epidemiology. 2012 May;23(3):393-401. doi: 10.1097/EDE.0b013e31824cbaac.