Most women we’ve worked with are familiar with diets as a tool for weight management. In most cases, diets are focused on what to remove from your daily eating plan. In this case, diets are single purpose and used to minimize perceived downside (e.g., weight gain).
But, what if we could also use diets to maximize upside?
While it is important to understand what foods can interfere with fertility and pregnancy outcomes and should therefore be minimized in your diet, it’s even more important to focus on what to add to your eating plan for optimal fertility and pregnancy.
Nim Barnes, founder of Foresight, sums it up well: “...it has been found that in all types of animal life, from insect to mammal, a diet which supports normal adult life is not necessarily sufficient to support reproduction.”
In other words, eating for fertility is not quite the same as eating for daily life.
Barnes continues, “Besides taking in extra calories for growth and energy, you need extra vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and amino acids.” Moreover, women on healthy diets have been shown to have better pregnancy outcomes than those on poor diets.
Given that, what is a healthy diet in the context of fertility?
Despite popular rhetoric or whatever fad diet is trending right now, the optimal macronutrient ratio for for fertility and pregnancy is:
Dietary fat has been maligned in the media for years. We were told that “fat would make us fat” or that “fat would clog our arteries”, but the story isn’t quite that simple. And, it’s certainly not the most nutritionally sound advice for fertility and pregnancy.
Adequate levels of healthy fats are absolutely critical for maintaining a regular menstrual cycle. Both animal and human studies have confirmed that low dietary fat intake can interfere with ovulation. Other studies have shown that low-fat diets can lead to reduced estrogen and progesterone levels (which may be helpful for post-menopausal women facing breast-cancer risk, but is less helpful for pre-menopausal women hoping to make babies).
It is also important to understand that all sex hormones are made from cholesterol, which is mainly found in animal products. In other words, cholesterol is a precursor in the production of estrogen, progesterone and testosterone, all of which are needed for reproduction. Without adequate cholesterol, your body does not have the “raw materials” necessary to make sufficient sex hormones. Granted, plants do contain sterols (the plant-equivalent of cholesterol) and your body does make its own cholesterol internally, but your body generally needs more than these two sources to create the optimal level of sex hormones needed for successful reproduction.
The most important nuance in the fat discussion, however, is that the variety and quality of fat is what really matters when it comes to overall health and reproduction. Instead of trans fats (in items like packaged snacks and fast food) which have been associated with infertility, opt for a balance of saturated fats (e.g. dairy and animal meat) and unsaturated fats (e.g. olive oil and avocados), both of which are needed for healthy hormone production and signaling. And when it comes to quantity, aim for the Goldilocks principle - not too much, not too little, just right.
As with fats, the Goldilocks principle applies to carbohydrates as well. Too many carbohydrates can contribute to blood sugar and insulin dysregulation issues, which can ultimately interfere with ovulation.
On the other hand, too few carbohydrates can signal “scarcity” and “survival” to your body, which then shuttles resources from making your sex hormones to making your stress hormones. When this happens, your body doesn’t have adequate sex hormones to menstruate regularly or reproduce.
Adequate “slow carbohydrate” intake (e.g., high fiber carbs like vegetables and whole grains) is necessary to signal to your body that it’s safe and stable enough to reproduce.
Dietary protein intake is converted into structural tissues (e.g., bones, muscles, skin) as well as blood, hormones, enzymes and antibodies. For fertility specifically, adequate protein intake is necessary to maintain hormone levels (and to eventually maintain a pregnancy). Similar to the fat discussion above, the quality of your protein sources is quite important; you want to minimize exposure to growth hormones, antibiotics and pesticides, among others.
In summary, a “fertility friendly” nutrition plan would include:
- Adequate, high-quality sources of saturated fat (e.g., animal fats such as dairy, eggs, beef, pork and lamb; plant fats such as coconut, cocoa butter and palm products) and unsaturated fat (e.g., animal fats such as oily fish; plant fats such as avocados, olives, nuts and seeds)
- Moderate amounts of “slow carbohydrates” (including lots of colorful, organic produce)
- Clean sources of animal protein (e.g., grass-fed, pastured, organic, wild) and plant protein
These real foods will provide your body with the necessary macronutrients (protein, carbs and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients) to make the appropriate levels of sex hormones to sustain a regular period and a successful pregnancy.