Finding it hard to fall pregnant? You’re not alone. Research illustrates that as many as one in six Aussie couples have trouble falling pregnant after one year of unprotected sex. Fertility is complicated and depends on a number of things which means that getting pregnant isn’t an easy journey for many couples. While fertility is complex and there are many aspects we can’t control, we know that nutrition can play an important role. Studies even show that healthy lifestyle changes, including eating a healthy diet, may improve fertility by up to 69%!
Okay, so we know that a “nutritious diet” is key, but what does that look like in practice? Let’s break it down, starting with important food and nutrients to include in the diet. For both women and men, the research highlights the importance of a balanced and nutritious diet. In practice, this looks like a wide variety of fruit and vegetables each day. Studies show that the Mediterranean diet is a style of eating that has been shown to be supportive of fertility (and general health).
This study illustrated men who adhered to the Mediterranean diet had a significantly higher quality of sperm than those that did not (this included concentration, count and sperm motility). To learn more about the Mediterranean diet check out this article.
If you’re looking to optimise your fertility through diet, these are some important nutrients to consider:
- Folic Acid. Sufficient folic acid is important to include within your diet when trying to conceive, because it can help to reduce the risk of neural tube defects and may even assist with conception. Specifically, women are recommended to take a pregnancy multivitamin supplement which includes folic acid (at least 400-500 µg/day) for at least 12 weeks before conception and then during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Folic acid is especially important in the first stages of pregnancy, so it’s always a good idea to forward plan and start supplementation early. Foods rich in folic acid include legumes, eggs, leafy greens, cruciferous veggies like brussels sprouts and broccoli.
- Vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is important in maintaining the health of your nervous system and combined with folic acid it is believed to help support your baby’s central nervous system as well. Foods rich in vitamin B12 include fish, meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products. As vitamin B12 isn’t readily present in plant foods, it is recommended that people who follow a vegan diet should consider supplementation under the guidance of their doctor or dietitian.
- Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids specifically EPA and DHA have long been known to support fertility and foetal development. Research has illustrated that including adequate omega-3 fatty acids may actually improve a woman’s reserve of viable eggs for fertilization. Additionally, studies have shown that a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids may increase the quality of a male’s sperm. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids include oily fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel or sardines, walnuts, flaxseed, and chia seeds.
- Antioxidants. Antioxidants are key for fertility and conception because they help to support egg and sperm health. Antioxidant rich foods include all fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains. Try eating every colour of the rainbow! It’s best to get antioxidants from food-based sources first, however if you feel like you might need supplementation it’s important to consult your doctor and dietitian before beginning a new regimen.
- Low-GI and high fibre carbohydrates. Opting for low-GI and high fibre carbohydrates has been shown to play an important role in ovulation, fertility and regulating your blood sugar levels. Foods that are low-GI and high fibre include oats or whole grains including barley, freekeh, quinoa and wholegrain breads, most fresh fruits , vegetables such as carrots, green peas and legumes like chickpeas or lentils. Reducing your reliance on animal proteins and adding in plant-based proteins like legumes and pulses could be an easy switch to support this!
- Iodine. Iodine requirements increase during pregnancy, so it is important to have good stores before conceiving. The 2011-12 National Health Measures Survey illustrated that iodine levels are relatively low in women of childbearing age. Foods rich in iodine include seafood, seaweed (like nori), potatoes, strawberries, dairy products like yoghurt and milk and commercially baked bread (which is fortified with iodine in Aus). Many prenatal vitamins include iodine to help supplement dietary sources. Again, when considering supplementation, it is important to consult your doctor or dietitian on what would be right for your situation.
On the other hand, some nutrients or foods you should try to limit include:
- Saturated and trans fats. Reducing the amount of saturated and trans fats in your diet is important for supporting general health. Swap out foods high in saturated and trans-fat and prioritise those rich in mono- and omega-3-poly-unsaturated fats. This could look like swapping fatty cuts of meat for leaner meat, poultry or fish. Other swaps include using extra virgin olive oil in cooking instead of margarine or butter and limiting your intake of fried and processed foods or commercially baked goods and snacks.
- Processed meats. Replace these with lean meats, eggs, full cream dairy and plant alternatives such as legumes, tofu, nuts, seeds and grains.
- High-GI carbohydrates. In line with what was mentioned previously, consider switching out high-GI and refined carbohydrates for low-GI alternatives. Examples of high-GI foods include sugar sweetened drinks, lollies, cakes, biscuits, desserts, and along with refined white bread, rice and cereals has been shown to be beneficial.
- Alcohol. Heavy alcohol consumption has been shown to increase the time it takes to get pregnant in a number of studies.
- Caffeine. Don’t worry! I’m not here to tell you that you have to abstain from drinking your morning cuppa, but excessive caffeine consumption (greater than 500mg) has been shown to make getting pregnant even trickier. To help situate this, one shot of espresso contains around 60-100mg of caffeine. As energy drinks are very high in caffeine, it’s also a good idea to limit these.
Other factors for both partners to think about
Consider eating earlier. Some preliminary research has been conducted to identify the most optimum eating patterns for fertility. Researchers found that eating a larger breakfast and a smaller dinner may reduce insulin resistance. In practice, this might look like opting for larger meals earlier in the day then tapering off and limiting late night snacks.
Move your body. The research says that it’s important for us to move! We know for general health that it is important to stay active, but specifically a sedentary lifestyle has been associated with a higher risk of infertility while increasing movement has been found to reduce the risk of infertility.
Find your calm. Whilst minimising stress is important for general health, studies have shown that it can equally be important when trying to conceive. Reducing stressors can be much easier said than done, so consider seeking professional help to help support your mental health and optimise your fertility during this time.
Fertility is a complex subject and can be a stressful journey for many. While this article might give you a few tips, it’s all about finding things that work for you and your own situation. For individualised advice that accounts for your unique requirements it is best to seek help from professionals. It is especially important to seek professional assistance from a dietitian if you have other medical concerns like PCOS, diabetes or endometriosis, if you are partaking in complementary therapies or if you’re in a smaller larger body and have concerns about your fertility and health.
This article was written by Caity Smith, Accredited Practising Dietitian and OnCore Nutrition volunteer, with support of Lauren Atkins AdvAPD.
Originally published by OnCore Nutrition.