Diet and Fertility: How Are They Connected?

An increasing amount of research is pointing towards the role diet can play in fertility for both women and men. Ro Huntriss, a dietitian specializing in fertility, breaks down everything you need to know.

When it comes to fertility, understanding the intricate relationship it plays with nutrition is key. Unfortunately, this link is often overlooked until we're knee-deep in the journey toward parenthood. For many, online forums become a haven for sharing research findings and personal stories, offering a unique space for support and information exchange.

Wider dissemination of the evidence-based links between nutrition and fertility is crucial. Increasing awareness of this information can help individuals and couples take control of their reproductive health to optimize their fertility, increasing the probability of pregnancy and reducing the time it takes to get there.

The importance of finding your healthy weight

There is an association between fertility and weight, with increased weight associated with lower pregnancy rates and longer conception times. Having a higher BMI may also increase the risk of miscarriage, reduce egg quality, and have a negative impact on implantation. This is important information to be aware of if you are starting on a fertility journey.

The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence recommends a BMI of 19-30kg/m² for optimal fertility, so this is the range to aim for, we do have some evidence however to suggest that a BMI within the range of 19-25kg/m² is most protective of fertility.

Conversely, being underweight may lead to ovulation issues, irregular cycles, and impact assisted reproductive outcomes. Maintaining a healthy weight is a key consideration for maximizing fertility potential, especially in the case of irregular or absent periods.

Foods and nutrients that can affect fertility

There is mounting evidence suggesting that a fertility-supporting dietary pattern can benefit both men and women on their journey toward parenthood. Let's explore how certain foods and nutrients can become our allies on this journey.

Carbohydrates

When it comes to carbohydrates, it's not just about the quantity but the quality that matters. Opting for whole grains over refined ones is advised. Whole grains are more nutrient-dense and antioxidant-rich. Consuming wholegrains can also support implantation rates and live birth rates in people undergoing IVF.

Folate

Now, let's talk about folate – a powerhouse nutrient that has antioxidant properties. It not only supports egg quality and normal ovulation but adequate intake can also support progesterone levels aiding implantation. Ensuring adequate folate intake is non-negotiable on this journey.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are a must when trying to conceive. Found abundantly in oily fish, they boast antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, helping to safeguard egg quality as well as ovarian reserve. The optimal source of omega-3 fatty acids is oily fish, and having 1-2 portions per week is the recommendation. However, if fish isn't your thing you can consume omega-3 fatty acids through supplements.

Antioxidants

Antioxidants play a major role in reducing levels of oxidative stress within our bodies. Higher levels of oxidative stress has the potential to jeopardize our reproductive health. Plant-based foods are our main sources of antioxidants such as vitamin C and vitamin E. Aim for a rainbow of plant-based foods in your diet to fortify your antioxidant defenses which can protect eggs, sperm, and the uterine environment and even shorten your time to pregnancy.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D, often described as the sunshine vitamin, plays a pivotal role in fertility. Having adequate levels throughout the year is imperative when trying to conceive because low levels can increase the time to pregnancy, increase the risk of miscarriage, and are associated with recurrent implantation failure.

For those of us living in regions where sunlight exposure can be lacking (the UK between October and March), a supplement during the darker months is essential and advised to both men and women during these times.

Protein

Protein contains the important building blocks for our bodies, hormones, eggs, and sperm. It's not just important to consume enough protein but the type of protein can also make a difference. Opting for plant-based protein more often can support healthy ovulation. Plant-based proteins such as beans, chickpeas, and lentils are also nutrient dense ensuring a steady influx of fertility-supporting nutrients. It's a win-win!

Healthy fats

Contrary to popular belief, fats are not the villain they are often portrayed to be. Healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fats are essential for hormone production and boast anti-inflammatory properties. Think avocado, nuts, seeds, and extra virgin olive oil – your fertility's best friends.

On the flip side, saturated fats found in processed meats and indulgent treats such as biscuits, cakes and some fried foods can negatively impact our fertility goals, so it's wise to consume in moderation.

Diet and male fertility

When it comes to men, a Mediterranean-style diet has been linked to better semen quality. Think lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and delicious oily fish with just the right amount of carbohydrates thrown in.

For men, reducing meat intake, choosing leaner cuts of meat and reducing processed meats can help with fertilization particularly if undergoing IVF.

Eating a lot of saturated fats, especially from fatty meat, red meat, and processed meats, is linked to lower sperm count, reduced sperm concentration, and issues with sperm development.

Specifically, red and processed meats are particularly associated with lower sperm motility and count. This doesn't mean that meat is completely off the table when trying to conceive, just opt for leaner cuts of meat, and reduce consumption of processed meats for optimal outcomes.

Ever wondered where tomatoes get their vibrant red color from? Well, it's from lycopene, an organic pigment that has antioxidant properties. Incorporating sources of lycopene into the diet, such as tomato juice has been linked to improvements in sperm motility and morphology in young healthy men. Levels of lycopene are lower in infertile men so stocking up on foods containing it such as tomatoes, watermelon, pink grapefruit, goji berry, pink guava and papaya can give sperm health a boost.

Conclusion

In conclusion, there is an established relationship between diet and fertility for both men and women. Making positive changes to diet and lifestyle can help to increase chances of conception and reduce the time it takes to get there. When infertility affects one in seven couples, adjusting diet and lifestyle choices is an opportunity that both women and men can consider.

Words: Ro Huntriss

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