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How dietary choices can influence fertility

A recent study on diet and fertility analyzed the impact of diet in relation to fertility, specifically with how its role, when paired with assisted reproductive technology (ART), can improve success. Think IVF. While the use of ART is growing in popularity, the success rates for such a physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing process (not to mention expensive!) are modest at best. Live birth rates per ART cycle are only about 30-40%. How can we improve these odds? One belief is through a woman’s dietary choices. It has been long believed that fertility can be enhanced through proper nutrition. This study found that when a woman follows a pro-fertility diet, one that is rich in folic acid, B12, vitamin D, and fresh produce, prior to beginning ART measures, there is an increased chance of live birth.

The researchers took four different diets into consideration: Fertility, Pro-Fertility, Mediterranean, and the Alternate Healthy Eating Index (AHEI). Full disclosure, diet alone is not likely to fix infertility issues, especially if the issues are large and complex, like endometriosis or infection. Dietary changes and food as medicine works best when infertility is caused by hormonal imbalances, as these can more likely be remedied through proper nutrition and supplementation. Again, transitioning to a healthier diet is never a bad idea, but it shouldn’t be considered a cure for infertility.

Below we break down the four diets included in the study…

Fertility diet

If you’re trying to conceive and have done some research into the process, you’ve probably come across positive praise for the fertility diet. This specific diet calls for foods that balance hormones and enhance a woman’s egg supply. There is an emphasis on whole grains, healthy fats, and plant-based protein sources. 

Focus on folate
Folic acid has been linked to increased fertility. Sources of folate in food include dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, and some fruits. 

Dairy
If you’re going to include dairy in your diet, go for full-fat options. While most studies have been inconclusive, and there are some contradictory views on the effects of dairy, some researchers have found that women who consume full-fat dairy may have higher chances of pregnancy. According to Health, one theory, “...may be because high-fat dairy is known to stimulate the production of a hormone called insulin-like growth factor, which may be related to ovulation and fertility”.

Pro-fertility diet

Nope, not the same as the above! But very similar. The same general concepts apply: a well-balanced diet, choosing complex carbs over refined carbs, healthy fats over trans fats, etc. 

The Pro-Fertility Diet takes the Fertility Diet on step further by heightening attention on more nutrients beyond folic acid, such as vitamin B12 and vitamin D.

A few points to note about this diet
This diet also acknowledges pesticides.. Followers of Pro-Fertility are conscious of where their food comes from and the quality of these foods. While fresh fruit and vegetables are healthy additions to any diet, if they are harvested in pesticide-ridden conditions, these chemicals can knock hormones out of balance and cancel out the positive effects of these foods (Link to balancing hormones tips article). 

Opt for organic. To speak to the earlier point, these products will lack the hormone-disrupting chemicals that their non-organic counterparts have.

Mediterranean diet

Let’s chat about a popular diet among those both within and outside of the trying to conceive community. Ever heard of the Mediterranean diet? What comes to mind? Olive oil? While this diet praises those healthy fats, there’s more to it. Again we see an emphasis on whole grains and, specifically here, fresh seafood. Since this diet is less niche than the previous two, it lacks the direct focus on specific vitamins and nutrients as noted above. 

A few points to note about this diet
We "heart" healthy hearts. This diet is most notable for its heart health benefits.

This diet is based on the eating habits of the coastal villages lining the Mediterranean Sea. That being said, it prioritizes the foods that are more accessible and the opposite holds for more rare products. For example, servings of red meat tend to be low, dairy is moderate, and beans are high in consumption. 

Nothing to wine about here! Red wine is a trademark of this diet (but this doesn’t hold true once you actually are pregnant).

Alternate healthy eating index (AHEI)

You probably haven’t heard of this one before. This diet’s main focus is on food quality. Sound like the Pro-Fertility diet? They’re pretty similar. AHEI is reflective of scientific research. This is opposed to other diets, which tend to fall victim to fad rumors and misconceptions.

A few points to note about this diet
This diet isn’t actually a diet at all; it was designed as a research tool for scientific studies, but the principles that it includes are helpful for navigating dietary choices!

Red is dead. AHEI advocates for no red meat altogether. Say goodbye to steak dinners.

So long, sugary sips. Like red meat, AHEI recommends zero servings of fruit juice or sugar-sweetened beverages daily.

Read More:
Fertility Diet & Lifestyle Guide for Women and Men
Fertility Calendar and Ovulation Calculator
Foods to Avoid During Pregnancy