By Caroline Kaufman, MS, RDN
Infertility affects about 7.3 million women and their partners in the U.S., according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. While couples can’t control all of the causes of infertility, they can control their diet. And diet and weight management have a significant impact on the ability to conceive.
Women and Fertility
To prepare for pregnancy and enhance fertility, maintain a healthy weight and choose foods that will create a safe and supportive home for your baby during its nine-month stay.
Find Your Healthy Weight
Increase your chance of getting pregnant by achieving and maintaining a healthy weight. The National Infertility Association reports that 30 percent of infertility cases are due to weight extremes, which can alter hormone levels and throw ovulation off schedule. For women who are overweight, as little as 5 percent weight loss could improve fertility. On the other hand, women who are underweight, with a body mass index below 18.5 (19 – 24 is considered normal), may experience irregular menstrual cycles or stop ovulating altogether, according to the American Society of Reproductive Medicine. Those who regularly participate in high-intensity exercise — like gymnastics or dancing, have an eating disorder or follow restricted diets — are often at an increased risk.
Calculate your body mass index.
Avoid going on fad diets, which can deplete your body of the nutrients it needs for pregnancy and find a weight-loss plan that works for you by talking to a registered dietitian.
Choose Iron-Rich Foods
An iron-rich diet that comes from vegetables and supplements* may lower the risk of ovulatory infertility according to results from The Nurses’ Health Study II, which followed 18,500 female nurses trying to get pregnant. Ovulatory infertility is only one cause of infertility and affects 25 percent of infertile couples.
Vegetarian foods high in iron include all types of beans, eggs, lentils, spinach, fortified cereals, long-grain enriched rice and whole grains. Add vitamin C from citrus fruits, bell peppers or berries to your meals to enhance iron absorption.
The "Fertility Diet"
Published by a team of Harvard researchers in 2007, the "Fertility Diet" — with a book released in 2009 of the same name — found women with ovulatory infertility who followed this eating plan had a 66 percent lower risk of ovulatory infertility and a 27 percent reduced risk of infertility from other causes than women who didn't follow the diet closely.
Women following the "fertility diet" chose:
- Less trans fat and more monounsaturated fat (like avocados and olive oil)
- Less animal protein and more vegetable protein
- More high-fiber, low-glycemic carbohydrates (like whole grains)
- More vegetarian sources of iron and fewer meat sources
- High-fat dairy instead of low-fat dairy
In general, eating more vegetables, swapping healthy monounsaturated fats for saturated and trans fats, making at least half your grains whole, and getting enough calcium-rich foods — like dairy — will help you meet nutrient needs and promote a healthy weight.
Don’t Forget Folic Acid
While it won’t make you more fertile, it is crucial that women trying to conceive obtain 400 mcg per day of folic acid from supplements* and/or foods like dark leafy green vegetables and fortified grains. Folic acid is needed to prevent neural tube defects. The neural tube develops into the brain and spine 3 to 4 weeks after conception, before most women even realize they’re pregnant.
Men and Fertility
Men should also try to maintain a healthy body weight and follow a balanced diet, since male obesity may alter testosterone and other hormone levels, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. Plus, low sperm count and poor sperm motility are common in overweight and obese men.
When it comes to diet, load up on fruits and vegetables, which contain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that may help create strong sperm.
Read more about fertility and men's diets.
For more information on foods for fertility and creating a personalized eating plan, consult a registered dietitian nutritionist.
*Talk to your healthcare provider before starting supplements.
Reviewed August 2013
Caroline Kaufman, MS, RDN, is a family nutrition expert and freelance writer. Her writing or advice has been featured in Health, EatingWell, New York Metro Parents and Food & Nutrition Magazine. As the lead dietitian for Health magazine’s “Must Eat List,” Caroline helped develop the criteria for health-promoting packaged foods.