What on earth is a fertility diet and should I be on it?
The experts weigh in
Once your peer group crosses into that 30-something territory, babies are on the brain. Some don’t want kids. Some refuse to accept that they’re no longer considered kids themselves. For many, it means planning and prepping for conception. And that includes reading books, talking to mommies, and hounding doctors so you do it right. While getting pregnant in your 30s is not the adventure sport we were conditioned to believe, as Dr Priti Vyas explains, biological factors do affect fertility. “We are born with a fixed number of eggs, a few million, and every time we ovulate, a few hundred eggs die. This is primarily why fertility reduces as you age.”
And even if you are healthier than the healthiest fitness influencer on Instagram, women looking to conceive would like to lay fertile ground for baby-making. As nutritionist Sarah Krieger tells Parents.com, “Eating as if you’re already pregnant can actually help prime your body for conception.”
While I wouldn’t mind eating for two, pregnancy or no pregnancy, Krieger’s advice can be linked to the first ‘fertility diet’ devised by Harvard doctors Jorge Chavarro and Walter Willett, of the Harvard School of Public Health, based on the Nurses’ Health Study, one of the longest-running studies of women’s health in America.
After reviewing diets of more than 18,000 women who did not have a history of infertility but were trying to get pregnant, they found that quality of diet, activity levels and whether you smoke can improve your odds of conception. In their book, The Fertility Diet, they share that the women who consume good fats, whole grains and plant protein improve their egg supply, while those who eat ‘bad’ fats, refined carbohydrates and red meat may make fewer eggs.
They also prescribe 10 simple changes in diet, including cutting back on red meat and trans fat, getting protein and iron from veggies and nuts, and choosing whole fat milk and ice cream. That’s a diet plan I can get on board with.
Research now suggests there’s more than one fertility diet, but most have points in common. Dr. Manzer Altamash Shaikh, consultant obstetrician and fertility specialist, Masina Hospital, Mumbai, breaks down the ideal fertility diet: “Although more robust research is needed, a healthy diet can enhance fertility by correcting hormonal imbalances and menstrual irregularities. Your diet should be rich in omega 3 fatty acids, folic acid, vitamin D and micronutrients to help in periconception and pregnancy.”
Being overweight or underweight could mess with the balance of hormones, in turn affecting the reproductive system and putting you at risk of infertility, miscarriage, and pregnancy complications.
Fats: Consume mono and polyunsaturated fats (MUFA and PUFA) like olive oil, flaxseed oil, plant oils, avocado, nuts, oily fish and seeds. Avoid trans fats, originating from processed foods and meat, which are inflammatory and increase insulin resistance.
Proteins: Plant protein — legumes, soy, quinoa — could improve fertility. Fish, lean meat and chicken should be consumed in moderation.
Micronutrients like folic acid, B12 and B6: Recent research has consistently shown that folic acid improves chances of pregnancy and lowers chances of ovulatory infertility.
Vitamin D: It modulates female reproductive functions and supplementation increases chances of pregnancy in women with PCOS.
Minerals: Calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, iodine, and selenium are essential. Iodine is important in pre-conceptional period, and regulates thyroid gland function.
Antioxidants: Recent research suggests that women experiencing infertility may benefit from antioxidants like vitamins A, C and E.
Shaikh advises getting on the Mediterranean diet that is:
- High in mono and polyunsaturated fats from nuts and olive oil
- High in grains, legumes, dairy, fresh vegetables and fruits
- High in dietary fibre
- Moderate in red wine, sweets
- Moderate in poultry and fish
This is backed by a study in the medical journal Fertility & Sterility that found significant increase in pregnancy rates for couples undergoing IVF who adhered to a Mediterranean diet.
Shaikh advises against fast food, processed meats, and excess sugar, which indirectly increase insulin resistance, Type 2 diabetes and PCOS. Excess caffeine may increase time to achieve pregnancy. Alcohol reduces fertility and increase chances of menstrual abnormalities, so hold off until after the baby is born to stock up on your celebratory drinks.
* Please consult your doctor before starting any supplementation or getting on any diet/course of treatment.