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Foods That Can Affect Fertility

Contributors: Caroline Kaufman, MS, RDN and Sarah Klemm, RDN, CD, LDN

Published: April 21, 2020

Reviewed: March 16, 2023

Bowl of beans, tomatoes and corn
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Infertility affects about 6% of married women who are of childbearing age, according to a national survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While couples can't control all the causes of infertility, they can control their eating habits. And, nutrition and a healthy body weight for both partners can 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's nine-month stay. This should include sources of folic acid, iron and other important nutrients.

Men and Fertility

Men also should try to maintain a healthy body weight and follow a balanced eating pattern, since male obesity may alter hormone levels. Plus, low sperm count and reduced motility are common in men with overweight and obesity. When it comes to food choices, load up on fruits and vegetables, which contain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that may help create strong sperm.

Find Your Healthy Weight

Increase your chance of getting pregnant by achieving and maintaining a healthy weight. Weight extremes can alter hormone levels and throw ovulation off schedule. For women who are considered to be overweight or obese, due to a body mass index (BMI) equal to or greater than 25, weight loss may improve fertility. On the other hand, women who are classified as being underweight, with a BMI below 18.5, may experience irregular menstrual cycles or stop ovulating altogether. Those who regularly participate in high-intensity activities — such as gymnastics or dancing — have an eating disorder or follow restricted diets often are at an increased risk.

Avoid going on fad diets, which can deplete your body of the nutrients it needs for pregnancy and find a healthy eating plan that works for you by talking to a registered dietitian nutritionist.

Include Adequate Amounts of Iron

According to results from The Nurses' Health Study II, an eating pattern rich in iron that comes from vegetables and supplements may lower the risk of ovulatory infertility. Ovulatory infertility is only one cause of infertility.

Vegetarian foods with iron include beans, 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" Pattern

Published by a team of Harvard researchers in 2007, the "Fertility Diet" study found women with ovulatory infertility who followed this eating pattern had a 66% lower risk of ovulatory infertility and a 27% 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 (from foods such as avocados and olive oil)
  • Less animal protein and more vegetable protein
  • More high-fiber, low-glycemic carbohydrate-rich foods (including whole grains)
  • More vegetarian sources of iron and fewer meat sources
  • Multivitamins
  • High-fat dairy instead of low-fat dairy

In general, eating a variety of vegetables in adequate amounts, choosing monounsaturated fats instead of saturated and trans fats, making at least half your grains whole and getting enough calcium-rich foods, including 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 adequate folic acid. Folic acid is needed to prevent neural tube defects. The neural tube develops into the brain and spine three to four weeks after conception, before most women even realize they're pregnant. Recommendations from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommend a daily supplement containing 400 to 800 micrograms of folic acid in addition to consuming folate and folic acid-rich foods such as dark leafy green vegetables and fortified grains. If you're considering taking a dietary supplement, talk to your health care provider first.

For more information on foods for fertility and creating a personalized eating plan, consult a registered dietitian nutritionist.

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