What you eat has a crucial effect on both your general health, like energy and mood, and your fertility. Your body uses the nutrients from the food that you eat and the supplements that you take to repair cells, produce hormones and ultimately produce healthy eggs and sperm. In many ways your fertility depends on what you eat.
Good nutrition does not mean having to give up all the foods you like, just eating more of the right foods and cutting back on the others. Moderation is the key. It’s fine to allow yourself the occasional indulgence so long as you are eating healthily at least 80% of the time. And if food cravings have been a problem for you in the past, you’ll notice that they will disappear because your body is getting all the nutrients it needs from food that is completely satisfying – so you don’t ever feel hungry.
When you are trying for a baby it is essential that you are eating a healthy diet with a balanced intake of protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals. This will not only give your baby a good start in life but will also give you the best chance of conceiving.
The general advice for eating to achieve healthy eggs and sperm is to have a well-balanced diet which includes:
- Plenty of fruit and vegetables a day
- Complex carbohydrates – whole grains like brown rice, oats and wholemeal bread
- Organic foods where possible
- Oily foods such as fish, nuts, seeds and oils
- Avoid trans fats
- Increase your intake of fibre
- More fish and organic eggs than red meat
- Avoid additives, preservatives and chemicals such as artificial sweeteners
- Reduce or avoid sugar, both on its own and hidden in food
- Reduce or eliminate caffeine, e.g. coffee, tea, chocolate, colas and alcohol
- Eliminate processed foods as much as possible.
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Carbohydrates are your key energy source. There are two types – complex and simple. Complex carbohydrates include vegetables and whole grains, such as rye, oat and wheat, and legumes, such as peas and beans. Simple carbohydrates include white sugar, fruit and fruit juices.
For optimum fertility you should limit your intake of simple carbohydrates (with the exception of fruit) and eat plenty of unrefined complex carbohydrates. This means choosing whole grain bread, brown rice, whole grain cereals and pasta instead of the refined white versions, as well as eating at least five portions of vegetables a day. Whole grains are packed with fertility boosting nutrients such as zinc, selenium and many B vitamins and they are an essential part of a hormone-balancing, fertility-boosting diet.
Steer clear of white flour and other refined grains which have little or no nutritional value because of the processing. In order to digest and absorb refined foods your body has to use its own vitamins and minerals, thus depleting your stores. Refined carbohydrates in the form of sweets, cakes, pies, pastry, white flour and white sugar all produce a sudden rise in blood sugar and trigger hormonal imbalances, so it is important to avoid them. Fruits are the exception here as although they are simple carbohydrates they are also packed with fertility-boosting nutrients. You shouldn’t cut fruit out but make sure you eat it with proteins, such as nuts or seeds, which can slow down the effect on blood sugar. Make sure too that fruit juices are diluted.
Fibre is needed to keep your bowels healthy. It isn’t difficult to increase your fibre intake. You don’t need to add bran to everything (bran can actually block the absorption of vital nutrients such as iron and zinc) – just eat more unrefined carbohydrates.
Eat a mixture of soluble fibre, such as fruit, oats, vegetables and beans, and insoluble (meaning it doesn’t dissolve in water), found in whole grains and nuts. Meals loaded with vegetables, cereals, whole grains, nuts and seeds should provide you with all the fibre you need.
Protein is important for your fertility because it helps to maintain blood sugar balance and gives your body the even supply of amino acids it needs for building and repairing cells, manufacturing hormones and a healthy reproductive function. Since your body can’t store protein the way it does carbohydrates and fat, you need a constant supply and should aim to eat some high-quality protein with every meal.
Different protein sources vary in the amount of other nutrients they contain, so it’s important to eat a wide variety. Good sources of protein include oily fish, eggs, pulses, beans, nuts and seeds. Try to have a handful of nuts and seeds every day or use a salad dressing made with a good-quality nut or seed oil. Instead of meat eat beans such as lentils, nuts and seeds like sunflower, sesame and quinoa, which are good sources of fertility-boosting protein. Research shows that eating an egg for breakfast not only gives you a protein boost but also keeps you feeling fuller for longer. Up to five eggs a week is perfectly safe for most people. Choose organic, free range eggs when possible.
Red meat consumption has been linked to fibroids and endometriosis, both of which are oestrogen-dependant conditions that can affect fertility. The saturated fats in red meat and poultry produce inflammatory prostaglandins – hormone-like substances which can trigger symptoms of endometriosis. High intake of beef, red meat and ham increase the risk of endometriosis by 80 per cent, whereas women with the highest intake of fresh fruit and vegetables lowered their risk by about 40 per cent.
Unfortunately, fat in general has a bad reputation and many women especially tend to avoid it as a matter of course. But it is the saturated fats found in animal meat and the trans fats found in processed food that are harmful and can reduce fertility. Essential fatty acids found in nuts, seeds and oily fish, on the other hand, play a crucial role in fertility and the development of a healthy baby.
If you don’t eat enough essential fats, hormone production may be compromised.
Fats which have undergone a chemical process called hydrogenation can contain trans fats and should always be avoided. Found in fried foods, cakes, biscuits, chips and pastries, they can cause problems with ovulation. And because semen is rich in prostaglandins which are made from essential fats it is especially important for men to avoid trans fatty acids too as they interfere with absorption of essential fats.
If a product has the words ‘hydrogenated vegetable oil’ on the list of ingredients then choose another brand.
Unsaturated fats are divided into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil, are thought to lower the risk of heart disease. Polyunsaturated fats (classed as essential fats) can also be split into omega 6 oils (found in sesame, corn and sunflower oils) and omega 3 oils (in fish, linseed or flax oil). The body makes hormone-regulating substances called prostaglandins from Omega 3 and Omega 6 oils and they are extremely important for boosting fertility. Symptoms of an essential fatty acid deficiency include dry skin, dry hair, irritability, brittle nails, fatigue, weight gain, high blood pressure, PMS, arthritis, poor wound healing, hair loss and cracked skin, especially on the heels and fingertips.
Fish that are predatory and live a long time can contain higher levels of mercury because the heavy metal accumulates over time and the fish also feed on other mercury-contaminated fish. So it’s best to avoid shark, swordfish and marlin. The Foods Standards Agency recommends no more than two portions of oily fish a week during pregnancy and to limit tuna to either two fresh tuna steaks a week or four medium cans of tuna (canned tuna does not count as an ‘oily’ fish because the oils are lost in the canning process). Fish oil supplements (not cod liver oil because of the high vitamin A) are fine as long you know they are from a reputable company so that you know they have been screened and are free from contaminants. It really is worthwhile paying a bit extra to get the best.
Phytoestrogens are substances found in food which are thought to have a hormone-balancing effect. They are mainly found in legumes such as lentils, soya beans and chickpeas. Phytoestrogens are being studied all around the world for their effectiveness in lowering cholesterol and preventing heart disease, but they also play a role in balancing male and female sex hormones.
There has been concern in recent years that eating soya harms female fertility but this is only when consumed in large doses. Have soya products no more than five times a week and avoid any soya products that contain the word ‘isolate’, which means they are not made from the whole beans and are not in the form traditionally eaten.
Research has also suggested that soya could negatively impact on the ability of the sperm to fertilise eggs. However, the way in which this was tested (by exposing sperm to genistein – an isoflavone in soya – in a dish) does not replicate the effects that might be experienced by eating the foods.
Vital Minerals and Vitamins
Vitamin A: You need good levels of vitamin A at the point of conception because it is essential to the developing embryo. High doses of vitamin A from animal sources, e.g. liver, are not advised as this can also cause birth defects, but vegetable sources of beta carotene, which your body can turn into vitamin A, are safe. Vitamin A as beta-carotene is found in carrots, tomatoes, mangoes, pumpkins, cabbage, egg yolk, parsley, red peppers, carrots and broccoli.
Vitamin B6: This is important for reproductive health, the formation of female sex hormones and the regulating of oestrogen and progesterone levels. Women who have plenty of vitamin B6 in their diet are also only half as likely to miscarry in the critical first weeks of pregnancy. It is thought that B6 – found in high levels in potatoes, bananas, eggs, peanuts, mushrooms, oat flakes, soya beans, seaweeds, sunflower seeds, salmon and mackerel – plays a key role in the development of the placenta.
Vitamin B12: Another B vitamin that is important for your fertility. Vitamin B12 is found in eggs, seaweeds, sardines and tuna.
Other B vitamins: Vitamins B5, B1 and B2 are all essential for a healthy pregnancy. Vitamin B5 or pantothenic acid is found in whole grains, mushrooms, green vegetables, beans, chick peas, soya beans and brown rice; B1 is found in whole grains, dried beans, peas, lentils, soya beans, eggs and green leafy vegetables; and B2 is in whole grains, green vegetables, eggs, soya beans, peas and mushrooms.
Folic acid: Until recently this B vitamin was known mainly for its role in preventing spina bifida in babies but now conclusive research has shown its vital role in fertility. Food sources include green beans, leafy vegetables, broccoli, green peas, asparagus, salmon, alfalfa sprouts, chickpeas, tomato juice, orange juice, oranges, strawberries, bananas, grapefruit and whole meal bread. However, this is such an important nutrient that all experts recommend taking it as a supplement in the preconception period.
Vitamin C: This is a powerful antioxidant which can be helpful for both male and female fertility. Vitamin C is found in raw fruits and vegetables, especially citrus fruits, blueberries, kiwi fruit, mangoes, red peppers, strawberries, green sprouting vegetables like Brussels sprouts, watercress and parsley.
Vitamin E: Another powerful antioxidant and important for both male and female reproductive health. Food sources include cold-pressed unrefined oils, whole grains, egg yolk, green leafy vegetables, avocados, lettuce, peanuts, sesame seeds, soya beans, unrefined cereals, nuts, oily fish and broccoli.
Calcium: An important mineral when aiming to conceive as the woman needs adequate calcium for the baby’s teeth and bones. Although many of us do rely on dairy products for our calcium intake always bear in mind that there are many other non-dairy sources, such as sardines, salmon, prunes, almonds, oranges, papayas, watermelon, spinach, nuts, sesame seeds, pulses, leafy green vegetables and whole grains.
Zinc: This mineral is vital for the health and maintenance of reproductive hormones in both men and women. Zinc is needed for the production of sperm and the male hormones. Food sources include eggs, apricots, whole grains, dried fruit, seaweed, sunflower seeds, all vegetables, watermelon, mushroom, beetroot, oily fish, onions, nuts, peas and beans.
Selenium: A good antioxidant. Good food sources for selenium include herring, tuna, garlic, eggs, carrots, mushrooms, whole wheat, broccoli and garlic.
Magnesium: Needed along with calcium for healthy bones and teeth. Food sources include dairy products, nuts, green vegetables, eggs, avocado, dried apricots, brown rice, bananas and sunflower seeds.
Water is an essential but often forgotten ingredient in a healthy eating plan. Not only is your body two thirds water but water intake and distribution are essential for hormonal balance. Water also provides the means for nutrients to travel to all your organs, including your reproductive organs, and for toxins to be removed. In addition it helps your body to metabolise stored fat so it is crucial for weight management.
Try to drink at least 1½ litres (or six to eight glasses) of water a day. Herbal teas such as peppermint and chamomile will count as a glass of water or have hot water with a slice of lemon.
Organic foods often contain higher levels of nutrients and are free from pesticides. The concern is that pesticides can act as Endocrine Disruptor Chemicals and have a negative effect on reproductive hormones for both men and women. So buy organic where possible.
What to avoid
There are some things that can have a negative impact on fertility and should be either eliminated completely or reduced.
Researchers have found that caffeine can have an adverse affect on female fertility and may increase the risk of a miscarriage, so it makes sense to cut caffeine out altogether. Men aren’t immune either and studies indicate that problems with sperm health seem greater with increased coffee intake.
Caffeine is found in regular coffee, black tea, green tea, colas and chocolate. Tea contains tannin as well as caffeine and tannin blocks the absorption of important minerals, so if you drink tea with your meals you are preventing vital nutrients from being absorbed in your digestive tract.
Chocolate contains caffeine too and you can’t cheat by switching to organic dark chocolate! It does have less sugar than milk chocolate but its percentage of cocoa solids will be higher, making the caffeine effect even stronger.
Decaffeinated options for tea and coffee aren’t really a good substitute as we have no idea how many chemicals are involved in the decaffeination process. However, you can use them in the weaning stages to get you off the caffeinated drinks. Begin by substituting decaffeinated coffee for half of your total intake a day and then gradually change over to all decaffeinated. Then, slowly substitute again with other drinks, such as herbal teas and grain coffees. You should, ideally, eventually eliminate decaffeinated coffee as well because coffee contains other stimulants (theobromine and theophylline), which are not removed when the coffee is decaffeinated.
Experiment with herbal teas. Try peppermint, chamomile and also grain coffees which contain chicory and barley.
This is a complete no-no when it comes to fertility for both men and women. It acts as a diuretic (causing valuable fertility nutrients like zinc and folic acid to be excreted) and a toxin to the sperm and egg and to the baby once you are pregnant.