The Fertility Diet
It doesn’t seem all that tricky. But in the US, baby making has turned into one of the most earnest endeavors of the 21st century. More than 6 million women of childbearing age have trouble getting pregnant, and infertility affects an estimated one in 10 couples.
What’s the problem? A number of factors come into play. Environmental pesticides and hormones in food can wreak havoc on hormone production. Modern lifestyle factors—a rushed schedule and chronic stress—can make conceiving difficult. And restrictive diets lacking in key nutrients (and calories) play a part. “In an evolutionary sense, we’re programmed not to have babies in times of famine,” says Jill Blakeway, LAc, author of Making Babies ((Little, Brown, and Company, 2008). “These days, [some] women fake famine with strict dieting. If you don’t have enough nutrients of your own, how can you expect to grow another human being?”
And guys aren’t necessarily off the hook: Dietary factors play a huge role in the viability of sperm, including their number, morphology (shape and size), and motility (their ability to propel themselves through the uterus and fallopian tube to penetrate the egg).
If you’re trying to conceive, it’s essential that both of you start with a healthy diet based on whole foods, preferably organic, that are free of chemical additives. You may also want to add these 10 proven fertility boosters to your shopping cart.
1. Lentils are loaded with iron, which Harvard researchers found reduces ovulation problems in women and enhances fertility. Plant sources of iron appear to work even better than animal sources, says Jorge Chavarro, MD, lead author of the study, and can be as effective as iron supplements. Other good sources of this nutrient: spinach, beans, clams, beets, oysters, and soybeans.
On your plate: Cook red lentils with coconut milk and Indian spices. Combine cooked French lentils with crumbled goat feta and minced mint leaves.
2. Olives have healthy fats, critical for manufacturing hormones and maintaining the reproductive health of both men and women, says Jeremy Groll, MD, author of Fertility Foods (Simon and Schuster, 2007). Other healthy fats include olive oil, canola oil, avocados, wild-caught salmon, and nuts. Meanwhile, minimize saturated fats and steer clear of trans fats, which significantly decrease fertility, though the reasons aren’t yet clear.
On your plate: Puree black olives, garlic, capers, and olive oil for a savory tapenade. Add chopped black olives and diced tomatoes to braised greens.
3. Almonds, like olives, are chock-full of healthy oils; they’re an especially good source of monounsaturated fats, which appear to increase a woman’s chances of getting pregnant, says Chavarro. Ayurvedic medicine recognizes the energetics as well as the nutrients of foods, so almonds strengthen the reproductive system and boost fertility by a sort of “law of similars”—they’re the seed of the plant, and life springs from them, according to Vaijayanti Apte, founder of the Ayurveda Institute of America.
On your plate: Spread almond butter on apple slices for a fast, healthy snack. Add crushed almonds and ground cumin to cooked brown rice.
4. Papaya boasts vitamin C, a crucial fertility nutrient for men that helps improve sperm count, morphology, and motility. Papaya also comes loaded with beta-carotene, another antioxidant that improves semen quality. Other great sources of vitamin C include peppers, peaches, strawberries, broccoli, and orange juice.
On your plate: Top bitter greens with cubed papaya, avocado, and pomegranate seeds. Puree papaya, olive oil, and chipotle peppers for a spicy dressing.
5. Goat cheese and other full-fat dairy products appear to enhance fertility, while low-fat and fat-free dairy can decrease a woman’s chances of conceiving. In a recent study, women who ate two or more servings a week of low-fat dairy had a significantly higher risk of ovulation problems than women who ate high-fat dairy, perhaps because a fat-soluble substance in full-fat dairy foods is responsible for improved ovarian function, says Chavarro. Because goat’s dairy is easier for most people to digest than cow’s, stick to goat cheese, yogurt, and other products, says Randine Lewis, author of The Infertility Cure (Little, Brown, and Company, 2005).
On your plate: Combine diced artichoke hearts and roasted red peppers with crumbled goat cheese. Top corn tortillas with goat cheese, black beans, diced tomatoes, and minced cilantro then warm under a broiler.
6. Sunflower seeds are rich in vitamin E—crucial for sperm health, says Blakeway. Some studies have shown that vitamin E increases sperm motility. “Additionally, vitamin E seems to enhance the sperm’s ability to penetrate the egg,” says Blakeway. A half cup of sunflower seeds provides the daily requirement of this hard-to-get nutrient. Other great sources include almonds, spinach, tomato paste, and turnip greens.
On your plate: Add sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, and a dash of tamari to cooked brown rice. Top goat’s milk yogurt with sunflower seeds and fresh or frozen berries.
7. Soy contains phytoestrogens, plant estrogens that can help balance female hormones. “Phytoestrogens displace xenoestrogens—harmful estrogens from pesticides and conventionally raised meat and dairy—by occupying estrogen receptor sites on the cells,” says Lewis. But eating vast amounts of processed soy—like soy milk and soy protein powders—can have the opposite effect; an abundance of phytoestrogens in the bloodstream indirectly causes the body to decrease production of natural estrogen, according to Lewis. Strive for balance: Eat soy in small amounts—no more than a quarter cup a day—and stick to less processed forms, like tofu, tempeh, and edamame.
On your plate: Toss cooked and shelled edamame with olive oil, minced basil, crumbled goat feta, and dried cranberries. Sauté diced tempeh with onions and portobello mushrooms.
8. Kale and other vegetables in the Brassicaceae family contain a chemical compound called diindolylmethane (DIM) that can steady unbalanced hormones in women. “Excess estrogen from environmental toxins and conventionally raised meat and dairy products can create a condition called estrogen dominance,” says Lewis. “DIM binds to these toxins and helps the body excrete them.” Other DIM-rich members of the Brassicaceae family include broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and collard greens.
On your plate: Toss chopped raw kale with olive oil, almonds, kalamata olives, and avocado cubes. Combine braised kale with cooked white beans and minced garlic.
9. Prunes have the highest oxygen radical absorbency capacity (ORAC)—a measure of the antioxidant capacity of foods developed by the USDA—of any fruit or vegetable. Antioxidants are critical in preventing free-radical damage to reproductive organs and may help prevent age-related fertility decline in women. Additionally, the high-fiber content of prunes helps the body rid itself of excess estrogen from environmental sources, says Blakeway. Other high-ORAC foods: raisins, berries, spinach, kale, and brussels sprouts.
On your plate: Add chopped prunes, dried apricot, cumin, and turmeric to cooked garbanzo beans. Top salads with diced dried prunes and wedges of fresh pear.
10. Oysters contain a wealth of zinc, which helps maintain optimum sperm counts by lowering excessive amounts of estrogen in men, says Derek Abbassi, MD, board certified obstetrician/gynecologist and member of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. The mineral is also important for women, says Abbassi, to reduce the risk of miscarriage, but it’s best to find it in other sources. “Women should avoid shellfish when they’re pregnant or trying to conceive.”
On your plate: Broil oysters on the half shell—Rockefeller-style—with spinach, Parmesan cheese, and Pernod. Use whole oysters in a spicy fish stew.
Lisa Turner is a health and nutrition writer in Boulder, Colorado.