If you’re trying to conceive or planning on growing your family in the near future, you may have fertility on your mind—especially if you’ve had friends or family members who’ve struggled to get pregnant.
Perhaps you’re even in the midst of an infertility journey yourself. If so, please know you’re not alone. Fertility has been on the decline globally in recent years and today, infertility affects at least 50 million couples worldwide. Fertility has declined by 45% in women ages 20-24 years and in the last fifty years, sperm count in men has declined by 50% globally.
But don’t let those numbers scare you—fortunately, there are steps you can take to enhance your fertility.
So, what affects fertility and what can we do to improve it? One factor you may not have considered is diet.
Common causes of infertility
Although our main focus here is the link between diet and fertility, there are many causes of infertility that are not related to what we eat. Medical conditions, environment, social determinants of health and lifestyle factors all impact our fertility.
Below are a few of the most common factors that can cause infertility:
- Ovulation disorders. Conditions like PCOS, thyroid disorders, hyperprolactinemia, RED-S and eating disorders can impact ovulation, which impacts fertility.
- Fallopian tube damage or blockage. Pelvic inflammatory disease, endometriosis and salpingitis can cause damage or blockage in the fallopian tubes and impact fertility.
- Uterine or cervical abnormalities. Fibroids, cervix abnormalities, uterine polyps or uterus shape can impact fertility.
- Cancer and its treatment. For all genders, tumors, chemotherapy and radiation can all impact fertility.
- Primary ovarian insufficiency (early menopause)
- Pelvic adhesions (scar tissue)
- Abnormal sperm production or function. Genetic defects, infections (STDs and HIV), undescended testicles and diabetes may impact sperm production and function.
- Overexposure to certain environmental factors. Pesticides, radiation, chemicals, steroids, nicotine, frequent heat exposure, marijuana and certain medications may impact sperm production.
- Issues with sperm delivery
- Alcohol and drug usage
- Undereating or eating disorders
- Stress and sleep issues
Where does nutrition come into play?
Research shows that a diet high in unsaturated fats, whole grains and legumes, fruits and veggies, a variety of protein sources and full-fat dairy may improve fertility in all genders. If you’re looking to improve your fertility, focus on incorporating these foods into your diet:
- Unsaturated fats (avocados, olives, canola and olive oils, nuts, seeds, peanuts)
- Whole grains and legumes (beans, chickpeas, oats, farro, corn, arrowroot, quinoa)
- Fruits and veggies (aim for a colorful plate)
- Variety of protein sources (with an emphasis on more plant-based protein sources)
- Full-fat dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt)
The importance of iron and folic acid in fertility
It’s also important to make sure you’re consuming enough iron and folic acid. Research shows adequate intake of these nutrients may help you get pregnant and stay pregnant. Supplementing with a prenatal vitamin when you’re trying to conceive may also be beneficial. Ask your OBGYN if they have any supplement recommendations.
To increase your intake of iron, add these foods to your rotation:
- Dried fruits
The following foods can help boost your folic acid intake:
- Dark leafy greens
- Whole grains
- Bell peppers
Are you eating enough?
Undereating has also been shown to decrease fertility. Ensuring that you are eating three meals a day and incorporating foods with carbs, fats and proteins into your diet is crucial to proper nutrition.
Nutritional deficiencies can prevent you from being able to conceive, as well as negatively impact your pregnancy after conception. Dieting or weight loss while trying to get pregnant and throughout the pregnancy is not recommended and may increase the risk of miscarriage or health conditions during pregnancy.
Talk to your OBGYN about getting tested for nutritional deficiencies like vitamin B12, iron and folate if you are trying to get pregnant.
The full picture of fertility
Keep in mind that nutrition isn’t the end all be all of fertility. Nutrition cannot cure disease. There are many factors that play into fertility, so make sure you and your doctor are looking at the full picture. Choosing a variety of foods can help nourish your body for a healthy pregnancy—but don’t neglect other aspects of your health like sleep, stress and exercise level.
If you have a condition like PCOS or endometriosis, these foods listed above can be helpful for conceiving, but they are not specific guidelines for these conditions. Make sure you talk with a dietitian and your OBGYN about ways to improve your fertility.
You may also like:
- Male fertility 101: How to optimize sperm count
- Geriatric pregnancy: Waiting later in life to have a baby
- How to cope with the emotional stress of infertility