Whether you’re already trying to get pregnant or are getting ready to start, it’s natural to look for ways for you and your partner to increase your chances of conception each month. Here, we’re focusing on one piece of the fertility equation: nutrition.
We’ll discuss what current research says about how diet may affect male and female fertility, what to eat and what to avoid while trying to conceive, and more.
Do fertility-boosting foods really exist?
There are no specific foods that are known to boost fertility. However, some studies have suggested that certain nutrients found in a range of different foods can have benefits for male and female fertility, particularly for people experiencing signs of infertility.
Both your fertility and your partner’s fertility depend on a number of health factors, including your respective ages, medical histories and lifestyles. So while there aren’t any specific fertility-boosting foods, there are general dietary habits that are associated with higher fertility. Habits include maintaining a healthy body weight and eating a diet that’s naturally high in nutrients, such as a Mediterranean-style diet – which we’ll talk more about below.
The role of supplements in fertility nutrition
Getting nutrients from supplements isn’t the same as getting them from whole foods, which are unprocessed or minimally processed foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Whole foods provide a variety of natural compounds, like polyphenols and other plant chemicals, and specific nutrients. This is different from supplements, which typically contain high amounts of just one nutrient.
That said, supplements can be effective and sometimes necessary for reaching nutrition and health goals. Folic acid supplements are a great example. For years, health experts have recommended that women get a higher amount of daily folic acid if they’re trying to conceive and during pregnancy, because it helps protect against birth defects.
However, it’s very hard to get the recommended amount through food alone, which makes prenatal vitamins or folic acid supplements essential. But generally, supplements are most effective when paired with a nutritious diet and active lifestyle. So it’s important to work with a doctor to determine if supplements are necessary or appropriate for you.
What to eat while trying to conceive
When we say “Mediterranean-style diets,” we’re not suggesting a trendy diet program. Instead, we’re referring to a diet rich in whole foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains, as well as lean proteins including legumes, seafood and poultry. Whole foods contain important vitamins, minerals, healthy fat and fiber, so they’re already generally recommended for improving health. So, they can also serve as a solid base for a good pregnancy diet.
A balanced diet based around whole foods can provide healthy amounts of nutrients that have been studied for their potential benefits for male and female fertility.
Nutrients and foods that may benefit female fertility
Along with folic acid, vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids are already recommended for pregnant women and women planning to become pregnant, because these nutrients support healthy development of the baby’s brain, spine and nervous system.
However, studies suggest that getting more than the recommended daily amounts of these nutrients may also improve fertility. More research needs to be done to determine specific recommendations, so it’s important to talk to a doctor for guidance on what amounts of these nutrients may be appropriate for you. But getting some through food is a safe place to start.
Folate, the dietary counterpart to folic acid supplements, can be found in foods like:
- Dark-green leafy vegetables
- Chickpeas, lentils, black-eyed peas and other legumes
- Fortified cereals or bread
- Brussels sprouts
Vitamin B12 can be found in foods like:
- Low-mercury fish (such as salmon, cod or light canned tuna)
- Lean beef, pork and lamb (in moderation)
- Fortified nutritional yeast
Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in foods like:
- Low-mercury fish (especially salmon)
- Flax, chia and other seeds
- Plant oils (such as olive oil, flaxseed oil and canola oil)
Nutrients and foods that may benefit male fertility
Male fertility is defined by semen quality, and most studies on it have specifically studied men experiencing fertility issues. However, some more general patterns have emerged as well. An analysis of recent studies showed that diets rich in unsaturated fatty acids (including omega-3 fatty acids) and antioxidants are associated with better semen quality, and that a low intake of protein may be a risk factor for male infertility.
Unsaturated fatty acids can be found in foods like:
- Low-mercury fish
- Seeds, nuts and avocados
- Plant oils
Antioxidants are vitamins and minerals that can help protect your body from damaging free radicals. Some of the most well-known antioxidant examples are vitamins C and E. Antioxidants are primarily found in plant-based foods, including:
- Fruit and vegetables
- Seeds, nuts and whole grains
- Herbs and spices
For a balanced protein intake, try to eat 2-3 daily servings from a variety of protein sources, such as:
- Low-mercury fish, poultry or eggs
- Beans, lentils or other legumes
- Plant-based proteins like tofu or tempeh
- Nuts and nut butters
Foods to limit while trying to conceive
In the same way that studies support Mediterranean-style diets for both male and female fertility, studies also suggest that some foods, such as simple carbohydrates (like added sugar) and red or processed meats, should be eaten in moderation or avoided. Diets that are high in these kinds of foods are associated with obesity, diabetes and other chronic health conditions that can negatively affect fertility.
Prepping for pregnancy? We can help
Diet is a key piece of your fertility. But there are a lot of other pieces, too, including your family and medical histories, age and lifestyle. An appointment with a men’s or women’s health expert can help put everything together to set you up for conception and a healthy pregnancy.