It’s time for a guest post! Today my dear friend Rachelle, registered dietitian nutritionist and momma, shares the basics of how nutrition can impact fertility. Fertility is complicated, we don’t have all the answers and many people feel shame when they aren’t getting pregnant as quickly as they want to. Unfortunately, nutrition messaging can play a role in that. Even if you have the most “perfect” diet (whatever that means), you’re still not immune from health or fertility issues. But, there are some things you can do to boost your chances. Here’s what Rachelle has to share:
We know that eating more plants is good for the environment; did you also know it can help create a healthy environment for conception? If you’re planning a pregnancy or struggling with infertility, a nutritious diet may improve your fertility. When I started working in reproductive medicine back in 2006, there was little discussion about the relationship between nutrition and infertility. Over a decade later, there is growing acceptance that nutrition and lifestyle factors may be related to fertility in men and women, and more research to back it up. Here’s what the latest evidence shows about diet and fertility, and where plant-based diets fit in.
Multiple studies have linked a healthy diet with improved fertility and success rates in assisted reproductive technologies (ART). There is not a single definition of a “healthy diet” — research has looked at several dietary patterns, including the Mediterranean diet and the Dutch dietary recommendations. While research investigating vegan or vegetarian diets specifically is limited, the healthy dietary patterns that have been studied feature higher intakes of plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and vegetable oils, and lower intakes of animal protein.
The Nurses Health Study-II (the largest prospective cohort for women’s health research) found that one additional serving of meat per day, while keeping caloric intake the same, was linked to a 32% increase in the risk of ovulatory infertility. Another study of women undergoing ART found that red meat consumption had a negative impact on embryo development. Get inspired by Meatless Monday and try replacing a serving or two of meat each week with plant-based protein such as beans, lentils, or tofu.
Soy is a nutritious, high-quality protein option. It often gets a bad rap because it contains phytoestrogens; however, evidence from human studies has not found a negative effect on female reproduction. Moreover, soy has not consistently been linked to poor fertility, and it actually appears to have a positive effect on women undergoing fertility treatments. Try using soy milk in your morning smoothie or cappuccino, snacking on edamame, or adding cubed tofu to curries.
A review of current data on diet and fertility suggests that higher intakes of omega-3 fatty acids may help improve female fertility. Nuts and seeds such as chia, flax, and walnuts provide omega-3 fats in the form of ALA, which is then converted to DHA and EPA the body. However, this conversion is inefficient and varies among individuals. Keep the nuts and seeds in your diet – they’re loaded with other nutrients including unsaturated fats, fiber, protein, and antioxidants, but consider complementing them a DHA and EPA supplement to get the optimum amount.
Folate, the food form of folic acid, is found in many plant foods, especially cooked spinach, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, and avocado. In addition to consuming folate from a varied diet, the Institute of Medicine advises all women of childbearing age to consume 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid daily from supplements and/or fortified foods to help prevent neural tube defects. With regards to fertility, research has found adequate intakes of folic acid are linked to lower rates of infertility, lower risk of pregnancy loss, and improved outcomes in infertility treatment. Moreover, researchers have found that folic acid may exert greater benefits when taken in higher doses than 400 mcg.
Keep in mind, high levels of supplemental folic acid may mask a vitamin B12 deficiency, so it is prudent for vegans to ensure they are getting enough vitamin B12 through supplements or fortified foods. If you have any questions about what supplements may be beneficial for you, consult with a registered dietitian nutritionist who can provide recommendations tailored to your needs.
A recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine associated higher pesticide residue intake with lower chances of pregnancy and live birth in women undergoing fertility treatments. Although this is just one study and more research should be done to draw firm conclusions, it is still better to eat a conventional fruit or vegetable rather than to skip it completely. However, when possible, consider choosing organic versions of high pesticide residue produce such as spinach, peppers, grapes, or strawberries, especially if you’re trying to conceive.
Rachelle LaCroix Mallik, MA, RD, LDN is a Registered Dietitian and owner of The Food Therapist, LLC, a private nutrition counseling practice based in Chicago. Rachelle specializes in reproductive nutrition for fertility, prenatal, and postnatal wellness. She earned a Bachelor’s with Honors in Human Nutrition at Arizona State University and a Master’s in Food Studies at New York University. Rachelle is a member of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the Women’s Health Dietetic Practice Group, and she serves on the board of the Academy’s Chicago chapter.
Rachelle is a compassionate, food-first dietitian who empowers women during their reproductive journeys. With more than ten years of experience in patient care, including a top-fertility center in New York, private practice in New York and Australia, and a community hospital in Chicago, Rachelle provides a holistic and evidenced-based approach to nutrition and wellness. Rachelle strives to ensure women are nourished and nurtured before, during, and after pregnancy to improve their health and the health of the babies.
Follow Rachelle on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook at @rachellemallik.