Many women are seeking the best dietary and lifestyle approaches to promote fertility. Women who are overweight or who have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or endometriosis are particularly prone to experience difficulty conceiving due to hormonal imbalances- namely an increased estrogen level. Fortunately, there are safe, natural, and simple ways to increase fertility in women with these conditions as well as any woman of reproductive age who is considering becoming pregnant. An important concept of the fertility-friendly diet is that foods to avoid are just as important as those that are beneficial to consume.
Weight Loss and Carb Control
For overweight and obese women, the first step to increase fertility is weight loss. Weight loss can reduce estrogen dominance, which is not only a problem in overweight women, but also in women with endometriosis, PCOS, and fibroids. Since fat tissue produces estrogen, losing fat can help restore hormonal balance by lowering estrogen levels. Even if an ideal body weight isn’t reached, just a 5-10% weight loss can increase fertility.
Another focus, especially for women who are overweight or have PCOS, is to achieve optimal blood sugar control through a carbohydrate-controlled diet. This eating pattern can reduce levels of insulin, a hormone that is frequently elevated in women with PCOS and women who are overweight. Consuming a Mediterranean-style diet rich in healthy fats, vegetables, vegetable-based oils, legumes, and fish has been shown to increase the chances of becoming pregnant when compared to a low fat diet in women undergoing in vitro fertilization. In fact, women following a diet plan consisting of less than 40% of calories from carbohydrates and greater than 25% of calories coming from protein resulted in an 80% pregnancy rate. A sample menu of this eating style is provided below.
Foods and Chemicals to Avoid
When it comes to foods to avoid, the focus should be on reducing intake of foods that contain high amounts of estrogen which include conventional meats and unfermented soy products. Reducing red meat intake and buying the organic variety when beef is consumed is recommended. Soy products that have undergone fermentation like miso, tempeh and naturally brewed soy sauce, are safe to consume as they don’t produce the same “estrogenic” effects as non-fermented soy products. Soy isolates are added to power bars and some veggie burgers, and are an example of non-fermented soy products.
Pesticides are also known endocrine (hormone) disruptors, so organic fruits and vegetables should be consumed as often as possible. If buying organic becomes too expensive, the focus should be on buying organic varieties of those with highest pesticide residues. The Environmental Working Group publishes a list of these high pesticide fruits and vegetables, known as the "dirty dozen." The same goes for bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical used in packaging which has been found to decrease sperm count. It can be found on the inside lining of food and infant formula cans as well as polycarbonate plastic. Avoid BPA by:
- Using glass, porcelain or stainless steel containers for hot foods and liquids instead of plastic containers
- Reduce your use of canned foods or buy organic canned food
- If a plastic container doesn’t say “BPA-free,” check to see if the recycling code on the bottom is 3 or 7, which means the container may contain BPA.
Foods and Nutrients to Consume
Foods to focus on adding to your fertility diet include vegetables (especially cruciferous), whole grains, low mercury fish, and one serving of full fat dairy a day. Cruciferous vegetables contain a compound called Indole-3-carbinol, which changes the way estrogen is metabolized and may help in lowering excessive levels of the hormone. Cruciferous veggies include broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, kale, cabbage and bok choy. The fiber from whole grains, fruits, and vegetables along with plenty of fluid from water, promotes good digestion and elimination, which is an important factor in promoting a healthy internal environment for conception. One full fat serving of yogurt a day may also be helpful, according to the Harvard’s Nurses’ Health Study, which suggests that a daily full fat dairy serving may increase fertility. An added benefit is that the good bacteria, or probiotics, in yogurt can also promote gut health and healthy digestion.
It is also important to consider vitamin D, DHA, EPA, and coenzymeQ10 when it comes to enhancing fertility. A good source of all three of these nutrients is fatty fish such as salmon, halibut, and sardines. Vitamin D is also found in fortified orange juice, cereals, and milk. If you are having difficulty conceiving (inability to conceive after 12 months of unprotected intercourse), having your vitamin D levels checked and discussing additional supplementation above the amount contained in your prenatal vitamin with your physician is a good idea. CoenzymeQ10 is a compound produced by the body that acts as an antioxidant and has been shown to improve both egg and sperm quality. Whether or not additional supplementation helps boost fertility is unclear, but it doesn’t hurt to discuss this with your doctor as well.
By following the above advice and consuming a diet similar to the one outlined below, there will not only be a good chance that a woman will conceive, but a 100% chance that the overall health and wellness (of both men and women) will improve.
One Day Sample Fertility-Friends Diet:
2 scrambled eggs
1 cup spinach
1/4 cup salsa
1 corn tortilla
1.5 cups sliced strawberries
1.5 cups black bean soup
1/2 cup kale and 1/2 cup portobello mushrooms sautéed in 1.5 tsp. olive oil
1 slice whole grain toast
4 oz.wild salmon
3/4 cup cannellini beans
1 cup roasted Brussels sprouts
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup whole fat yogurt (*whole fat instead of fat-free dairy products have been found to increase fertility)
1 cup blueberries
½ oz. almonds
1 tablespoon honey