It takes two to get pregnant
It takes two to create a baby, so it makes sense that the diets of both men and women affect fertility. Despite common thinking that the female's diet has the greatest impact on conception, new research is emerging on the importance of the man’s diet and lifestyle choices when it comes to trying to conceive.
Diet can have a strong effect on the maturation, production, and structure of sperm- all important factors when it comes to conception. Sperm is produced through very fast cell division, so intake of nutrients such as folic acid and B vitamins, which are involved in DNA production and rapid cell division, are bound to affect the sperm production process. A sperm membrane is also composed of a high concentration of polyunsaturated fatty acids, so intake of certain types of fats is likely to play a role as well.
With statistics showing that one-third of fertility problems are due to male factors, research is ongoing when it comes to interventions to increase male fertility. The following are dietary tips and considerations, which are likely to improve a man's health and have the added benefit of improving his role in the baby-making process.
- Cut down on refined grains, red meat, and added sugars: A typical “Western pattern” diet is one that includes a high intake of red and processed meat, refined grains, high-energy drinks, and sweets. This eating style can decrease sperm mobility, as found in a study conducted by the University of Rochester. Men whose diets consisted of more fish, chicken, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains had 11.3% higher “progressively motile sperm” (a measure of semen quality) when compared to the men who followed a Western pattern diet. If men are red meat-eaters, it’s a good idea to cut back to no more than one to two 3-ounce servings of red meat each week. Replace red meat with chicken, fish, or other vegetarian sources of protein, such as beans and tofu. Filling half the plate with fruits and vegetables is another easy way to achieve a more fertility-friendly eating pattern. Stay away from sugar-sweetened beverages as they have been found in research to decrease fertility both in men and women.
- Get to a healthier body weight: Research clearly shows that being overweight is linked with lower semen quality; in fact, this is the strongest area of research linking diet and male fertility. Being overweight or obese can decrease testosterone levels and increase estradiol levels, which can impact sperm production. Furthermore, insulin resistance can decrease sex hormones in men, and fat accumulation can cause a rise in scrotal temperature and an increased accumulation of toxic substances in fat tissue. All of these effects of obesity can decrease the odds of fertility.
Along with eating a healthy diet, men should strive to get 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least 5 days per week. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator, getting off the train or parking the car a few blocks away from a destination, and briskly walking while talking on the phone are all small changes that can make a big difference in weight management.
- Eat omega 3 fatty acids: Polyunsaturated fatty acids are necessary for sperm membrane fluidity and flexibility, while saturated and trans fats have been linked with decreased sperm quality. Studies have been conducted on particular foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids as well as folate and selenium, other nutrients that have been associated with sperm quality. In the study, researchers assigned 117 healthy male participants to the “walnut group,” which consumed 2.5 ounces of walnuts daily (a little more than a half cup), while the other half continued their regular "Western” diet. After 12 weeks, the men who consumed walnuts had improved sperm vitality and motility as well as decreased chromosomal abnormalities. Consuming walnuts increased the men’s blood levels of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the type of omega 3 fat for which walnuts are best known, and which researchers think plays a role in these favorable results.
Eating a healthful diet plus adding a serving of walnuts to a dad-to-be’s daily diet could result in improving the odds of conceiving. If not, men can’t go wrong with adding nuts to their diet to receive heart-healthy benefits.
- Get your vitamins and antioxidants: Published evidence is strongest for recommending the use of antioxidant supplements to men in couples undergoing infertility treatment. Folic acid, selenium, zinc, and vitamins C and E have all been linked with sperm quality. Some research has found that zinc sulfate and folic acid supplementation increased sperm count in both fertile and subfertile men. Since sperm are very susceptive to oxidative damage, antioxidants are likely important as well.
The recommended amount of zinc men should obtain is 11 mg daily. Great sources include oysters, baked beans, Alaska king crab, and fortified breakfast cereals. Men can obtain 400 mg of folic acid daily by eating fortified breakfast cereals, leafy greens, legumes, and orange juice, though it may be helpful to take a daily multivitamin or folic acid supplement as well. Vitamin C is another important antioxidant that can contribute to sperm quality and motility. Many fruits and vegetables are good sources of vitamin C, but a man can fulfill his daily needs of 90 mg with just a half cup of sweet red peppers or a serving of orange juice.
The ideal fertility diet that may increase sperm quality and quantity can be achieved by following the MyPlate eating method, which recommends filling half of the plate with fruits and vegetables, a quarter with a starch (whole grains or healthy starches such as sweet potatoes or beans are recommended) and the other quarter with a protein source (hopefully other than red meat to increase overall health and possibly fertility). Taking a daily multivitamin is also recommended to ensure that men get all the vitamins and minerals they need each day.
Though men should strive to follow healthy diets all the time, they may want to take a few extra considerations during the time when they and their partner are trying to conceive. When it comes to fertility, as research shows, men matter too!
- Palmer, Sharon, RD. Improving Male Fertility – Research Suggests a Nutrient Dense Diet May Play an Integral Role. Today’s Dietitian.Vol. 15 No. 6 P. 40.