Spring is officially in full effect with weather is hitting high 70s here in NJ this week. You know what that means. The birds and the bees are doing their thing. Rabbits making lots of little bunnies. Springtime is often referred to as “mating season” in the animal kingdom. While us humans don’t exactly have a mating season, research has shown that December is the month when the most babies are conceived. Nine months later leads to August being the highest birth month.
This all sounds great if things go according to plan. However, I am encountering more clients, friends, and colleagues lately who are having significant difficulty getting pregnant. From miscarriages to failed IVF attempts, people have become more open about their struggles. Infertility is defined as the inability to conceive after one year of unprotected sex (six months if the woman is over age 35) or the inability to carry a pregnancy to live birth. Infertility affects 12% of married couples, according to The National Infertility Organization. As a dietitian, I always like to research the nutrition and health connection to matters such as fertility. While there are a lot of factors that affect fertility, nutrition and exercise are the few areas we can control. Just remember both parties involved play an equal role, and sometimes it’s a combo of the two.
Fertility Nutrition for Him
One-third of infertility cases are related to the male partner. This could be due to low sperm count, slow moving sperm, abnormal shape and size of sperm, and problems with semen. Men who refuse to eat their fruits and vegetables are not only setting themselves up to be poor role models for future picky eaters. Fruits and vegetables are said to help create strong sperm. So make sure you’re both getting those 5 servings daily.
Men should maintain a healthy body weight while following a balanced diet consisting of wholesome foods to increase and/or improve testosterone levels. Male obesity may alter testosterone and hormone levels. Aim to exercise at least five days a week for 30 minutes. However, for my gym rats out there, be cautious. Too much exercise has been shown to decrease testosterone, which can result in decreased sperm count and poor sexual function.
Here are recommendations to help men improve fertility:
- Eat your greens! (and reds, purples, oranges, etc): Incorporate fruits and vegetables daily. At least 2 ½ cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit. Best sources to help with fertility include leafy greens, yellow and purple vegetables, apples, oranges, kiwi, blueberries, and melon. Antioxidants found in fruits and veggies can help fight free radicals that can lead to infertility. They also provide sources of zinc, selenium, and folic acid which have been linked to sperm production.
- Go the Whole way: Eat those whole grains. Look for whole grain sources offering 3g or more fiber per serving. Whole grain bread, oats, quinoa, freekeh, sorghum, and farro are just a few examples of whole grains to start adding into your diet.
- Don’t diss dairy: Low-fat and non-fat dairy products contain helpful nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, potassium and protein. Eat up to 3 servings of low-fat or non-fat dairy, milk, yogurt, or minimally processed cheeses.
- Minimize Meats: Cut down on meats, particularly red meat, in favor of leaner cuts of beef or increasing intake of poultry and fish. Explore more plant-based protein options by incorporating nuts, beans, tofu, and seeds into meals and snacks.
- Let’s go Nuts!: Walnuts have been connected to male fertility due to their high omega-3 content. The antioxidant-rich food can turn sperm into mini Michael Phelps swimmers – faster & stronger towards their destination.
Fertility Nutrition for Her
Females hoping to conceive are encouraged to maintain a healthy weight. Underweight women can have as much difficulty conceiving as overweight or obese women. Exercise continues to play a role in maintaining a healthy lifestyle, weight, and muscle mass. However, some women may need to limit the intensity of exercise, opting for 30 minutes of moderate movement instead of 60-90 minutes of vigorous activity. Some research has shown that too much intensive exercise can lessen chances of conception.
Harvard published the “Fertility Diet” study in 2007 and found the following nutrition factors may reduce risk of infertility. You may notice some similar recommendations for males and females:
- Fat Chance: Increase intake of monounsaturated fats (such as from avocados and olive oil) while decreasing trans fats.
- Go Fish: Intakes of fatty fish high in omega-3 fatty acids can help with hormone production, reducing inflammation, and regulate menstrual cycle. This includes salmon, cod, and halibut.
- Plant your protein: Increase intake of plant-based proteins while decreasing animal proteins. Tofu, beans, nuts, and seeds can all do the trick.
- Make half whole: Aim for more high fiber sources of carbohydrates, including a goal to make half your grains whole.
- Got High Fat Milk? Women are encouraged to consume high-fat sources of dairy vs low-fat. Research has show women who consumed high fat dairy in moderate amounts were more likely to get pregnant. This may potentially be due to female hormones found in milk fat that can help promote ovulation.
- Pumping Iron: Iron-rich foods may help lower ovulatory infertility, which can affect 25% of couples trying to conceive. Vegetarian forms of iron are more highly recommended, and include beans, eggs, pulses, spinach, cereals, and whole grains. Foods high in vitamin C are encouraged to be eaten at the same time to increase iron absorption. These include citrus, bell peppers, and berries.
- Take Your Vitamins: decrease nutrient deficiencies by taking a female-specific multi-vitamin. Pre-natal vitamins contain adequate folic acid (approx. 400 micrograms) needed for conception and to prevent neural tube defects.
CHECK BACK TOMORROW FOR AN INTERVIEW AND RESOURCES ABOUT INFERTILITY FROM FELLOW DIETITIAN LIZ SHAW, MS, RDN, CLT
Content researched by Rachel Rovner, Dietetic Intern