Often when people are having trouble getting pregnant, their thoughts turn quickly to in vitro fertilization (IVF). While the rise of reproductive technologies like IVF have been vital for many journeys, IVF is a complex, invasive, and expensive process that's not the right fit for everybody.
Before pursuing IVF as an option there are first-line interventions to consider, including nutrition. Research shows that healthy dietary patterns among people of reproductive age have a beneficial effect on fertility — whether that's by lowering the risk of infertility related to irregular ovulation or by improving semen quality. And for those who do pursue IVF, research suggests that nutrition can help increase chances of success, too.
Improving nutrition for fertility doesn't have to mean following a strict, specific diet. Following a few general guidelines — and connecting with a nutritionist for more personalized advice — is an impactful place to start.
5 nutritional guidelines for fertility
1. Follow evidence-based guidelines
While nutrition isn't a cure for those with medical infertility, studies show that a healthy diet can positively affect fertility outcomes — and a poor diet can have a negative impact. Foods and nutrients linked with improved fertility outcomes and improving semen quality include:
- Unsaturated fats
- Whole grains
- Fruits and vegetables
- Leafy greens
An example of a healthy meal made up of foods from the first group might look like a serving of fish like salmon, leafy greens like kale, and a serving of a whole grain like brown rice. For those going through IVF, research also suggests that following the Mediterranean diet specifically may help improve success rates for those who are under 35 and not obese. The Mediterranean diet includes the foods listed above as well as healthy fats such as olive oil, nuts, and avocados.
On the other hand, there are specific categories of food associated with poorer fertility outcomes that should be avoided or consumed in moderation. These include:
- Saturated fats
- Trans fats
- Starchy carbohydrates
- Processed foods
2. Take prenatal vitamins
While you want to get as much of your nutrients from the food you eat as you can, sometimes it's not possible to hit all the daily requirements. That's why it's recommended that people who are trying to get pregnant take prenatal vitamins that include folic acid, iron, and calcium.
Many studies have shown that there's a link between fertility and the micronutrients found in vitamins. For example, one long-term study of more than 18,000 women found that supplementing with iron appeared to decrease the risk of ovulatory infertility — when someone rarely or never ovulates, the cause of infertility for 1 in 4 infertile couples. Similarly, another public health study found that a higher intake of vitamins B-1, B-2, B-3, B-6, and B-12 was associated with a lower risk of ovulatory infertility.
3. Safely manage your weight
Being overweight or underweight can make it harder to get pregnant. For instance, being overweight can create hormonal imbalances that prevent ovulation and even cause menstrual disorders. It can also lead to issues with erections, sperm count and quality, and general health conditions. Being underweight can reduce fertility by causing hormone imbalances that affect ovulation. If you're trying to lose or gain weight, make sure to continue eating a balanced diet, consuming whole foods, and not skipping meals, which can disrupt your metabolism. For people with ovaries, changes in metabolism can impact fertility.
If you prefer to follow specific guidelines, use the anti-inflammatory or the Mediterranean framework. Both of these approaches focus on including high-quality proteins, vegetables, and fats when creating meals. While many overweight and underweight people are still able to get pregnant, following a balanced, nutritious diet can increase your chances of getting pregnant and carrying a healthy pregnancy to term.
4. Keep an eye on stress
While a healthy diet is important, it shouldn't add to your stress levels. Experts believe that psychological factors such as stress can increase the risk of infertility in people trying to get pregnant. In fact, one 12-month study measured an enzyme called salivary alpha-amylase, an indicator of stress, in people starting to attempt pregnancy. It found that those with the highest alpha-amylase levels were more than twice as likely to be infertile compared to people with the lowest levels. Studies suggest that psychological stress can also have a negative impact on semen quality. If you're stressed about following a “perfect” diet, treat yourself with compassion and know that one meal won't make or break you or your partner's chance of getting pregnant.
5. Consult with a nutrition expert
Ultimately, everyone's specific nutrition needs will vary. For personalized advice, consider seeing a nutritionist. A nutritionist will review your medical, health, and diet history and use that information to create an individualized plan that includes everything from nutrition guidelines to recommendations for supplements, if applicable. We recognize the difference that having professional support can make during a pregnancy journey, which is why we offer Carrot members access to nutrition counseling that gives them the guidance they need.
There's no denying that reproductive technologies like IVF provide a fantastic option for people trying to get pregnant. But for those who can't go through IVF, choose not to, or want to explore other options first, nutritional intervention can be an effective strategy to try.
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