Written by: Jessica Diamond, MPH, RDN
Fertility is a deeply personal process, and there are no two paths that are the same. If you are struggling with infertility, one or multiple miscarriages, infant death, or anything else related to infertility, our heart goes out to you. And please know you’re not alone: it’s estimated that 15-30% of couples in the US are affected by infertility.
Nutrition plays a key role in our overall health, so it’s a great place to start when you’re thinking about having a baby or improving your chances of conception. We are by no means saying that a certain diet will fix all infertility issues, but it is helpful to pay attention to how we are fueling our bodies for conception and pregnancy. For example, research shows that modifying your diet can improve fertility by up to 66-69%. And we shouldn’t only focus on the woman’s health: 25% of US infertility cases are a result of the man’s health, so his nutrition matters too! The takeaway here is that changing both your and your partner’s diet quality can have a significant impact on boosting fertility. So, if you’re looking to optimize your fertility, read on!
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- Focus on consuming a Mediterranean-based diet: Studies have consistently shown that a Mediterranean diet improves fertility. The Mediterranean diet is not a prescriptive nor restrictive diet, it’s more a framework with an emphasis and de-emphasis on certain foods and food groups. It emphasizes higher amounts of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids, and plant-based sources of protein as well as fish. It minimizes the consumption of red meat, processed foods, dairy products, and sweetened beverages.
With most things in life, we are firm believers in the 80/20 rule. This means working hard to make meaningful dietary changes 80% of the time, knowing that 20% of the time life gets in the way. It’s all about making changes that we can sustain in the long run. All the recipes on our website fall under a Mediterranean diet, so if you’re looking for some recipe inspo, here you go!
To keep it simple, focus on increasing:
- Whole grains
- Healthy fats (monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats like olive oil, avocado, seeds, and omega-3’s)
- Legumes and other plant-based sources of protein
- Fish (such as salmon plus a DHA supplement)
- Minimize processed foods, trans fats, ultra-refined carbohydrates, saturated fat, and red meat: Processed foods and meats, trans fats, ultra-refined carbohydrates, saturated fats, and red meat have been shown to decrease fertility. A tip for avoiding these items is to focus on consuming “real” foods, like the items you find on the perimeter of your grocery store. Also, trans fats are often found in shelf-stable baked goods, margarine, and processed peanut butter, so avoid those when possible.
To keep it simple, focus on minimizing:
- Processed foods and processed meats
- Trans fats (check the ingredients for “partially hydrogenated” oils)
- Ultra-refined carbohydrates (like processed white bread and many cereals)
- Saturated fats (like butter, cheese, and fatty meats)
- Red meat
- Sweetened beverages
Here are some easy swaps you can make to reduce these items in your diet:
- Replace commercial peanut butter with this peanut butter or one that has an ingredient label of 100% peanuts.
- Replace butter or ghee with olive oil (or avocado oil for high smoke point cooking).
- Replace red meat with fish or a plant-based source of protein like lentils. (We love these crispy lentil cauliflower tacos – even the biggest meat lover will love these!)
- Replace white bread with a whole wheat option. We love this bread and this bread.
- Take a look through our Thrive Market picks for some amazing food products to start incorporating into your diet.
Here are our top foods to add into your diet to optimize your fertility: (you can shop all our favorite food products here and here)
- Avocados: Avocados are a nutrient all-star, and they are especially great for fertility and pregnancy. They are unique among fruits and vegetables because they contain much higher amounts of key nutrients like folate, potassium, healthy fats, and fiber, all of which are normally under-consumed before pregnancy. Higher amounts of these nutrients have been shown to decrease rates of ovulatory infertility and improve IVF success. Additionally, the folate found in avocados has been shown to decrease neural tube and heart defects early on in pregnancy.
If you haven’t already, give our favorite guacamole a try! You might also start your day the way we love to by adding an avocado to a morning smoothie or by having some avocado toast on whole grain bread with a sprinkle of our favorite seed blend (flax seeds, chia seeds, and hemp seeds) for some omega-3’s.
- Brazil Nuts: Brazil nuts are a fertility powerhouse. They have the highest amount of selenium per weight than any other food item. Selenium is a trace mineral that doesn’t usually get a lot of attention, but when consumed in ample amounts, it can affect fertility. It has antioxidant properties that have been shown to decrease oxidative stress and damage to the oocyte (aka egg), and low levels of selenium have been tied to miscarriages. Luckily, Brazil nuts are packed with selenium, and just one has enough to meet your daily selenium needs. Too much selenium can actually be harmful, so we suggest no more than one Brazil nut per day. We love adding one brazil nut to our smoothies 3-4x/week.
- Quinoa: Quinoa is one of our favorite grains because it’s packed with protein, fiber, iron, folate, zinc, and whole grains, all of which you need for fertility and your overall health. It’s super simple to prepare and easy to add to all types of recipes. If you’re looking for a simple way to get more quinoa into your life, try our favorite quinoa salad.
- Chia seeds, flax seeds, and hemp seeds: Chia, flax, and hemp seeds are loaded with fiber, protein, omega-3’s, and other important nutrients like iron, zinc, and calcium, all of which are needed for fertility. Polyunsaturated fats are important for fertility because studies have shown that it can help egg quality and embryo implantation. They are so versatile and can be added to many recipes you’re already making such as oat balls, smoothies, oatmeal, salads, etc. I encourage all my clients to keep a mason jar of a mixture of 1 part chia seeds, 1 part ground flax seeds, and 1 part hemp seeds so they can easily add them to any meal. You should also try our raspberry chia pudding and overnight oats!
- Lentils: Plant-based protein is key for fertility, and it’s always best to get protein directly from food sources. While all beans are great sources of protein, lentils are one of our favorites because they have 18 grams of protein per cup and plenty of iron at 6.6 mg per cup! (Check out this lentil taco recipe, it’s our go-to for taco night.) Chickpeas are also a great source of fiber and protein, and our creamy hummus is an easy grab-and-go snack for your fridge.
- Green leafy vegetables (eaten with a vitamin C source): Green leafy vegetables are filled with vitamins and minerals and are a great source of iron, which is essential for fertility. Spinach is a popular choice because it has a mild taste. and it can be easily added to all kinds of recipes like soups, stews, smoothies, veggie sides, etc. The biggest thing to remember when it comes to green leafy vegetables or any plant-based iron source is that you must pair it with a Vitamin C source to unlock the iron! So, serve these foods with berries, orange, bell peppers, or a little bit of lemon or lime juice to ensure that you absorb the iron. Studies have also shown high intakes of this vitamin and antioxidant help improve egg quality as well as contribute to better sperm count and quality – win, win! Try our Easiest Sauteed Spinach and our favorite smoothies for easy sources of added greens and vitamin C to your diet!
- DHA supplement and salmon: Omega-3 fatty acids, specifically DHA, are critical for fertility and during pregnancy. Studies have shown that DHA intake is associated with improved sperm quality and a reduced risk of anovulation, which is a very common cause of infertility in women. DHA is found in fish and algae, and while the current recommendation for pregnancy is 200mg/day, some studies show that higher amounts of 600-1000mg/day may improve an infant’s brain development, decrease the risk of preterm health, and lead to higher birth weight. With this in mind, make sure your prenatal vitamin contains DHA and if not, consider supplementing. Check out our favorite supplements here and this article for even more information on DHA supplements.
No matter how dialed in our nutrition is, there will always be gaps, so taking a prenatal vitamin and other supplements is a good idea. We’ve got more information on supplementing for fertility and during pregnancy in this article, Prenatal Vitamins Explained and check out our podcast episode Fertility, IVF, Egg Freezing: Everything You Need to Know with Dr. Ghadir (renowned reproductive endocrinologist).