Tons of different factors come together to influence a woman’s fertility. While many of these can’t be controlled, adopting a healthy diet is one you can influence. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, both a healthy body weight and nutrition significantly impact a woman’s ability to conceive.
It's important to realize that eating well does not fall on women alone—the way a man eats directly impacts his production of testosterone and semen, which influences fertility. “Men are 50 percent of this equation and they need to eat well to ensure their sperm swim well,” says Lizzy Swick, a registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in pre-conception and fertility nutrition.
So to help you eat right as you try to conceive, we’ve outlined some of the best fertility foods, along with some foods you may want to stay away from.
Salmon, sardines, and other fatty fish are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, which play an important role in contraception.
“Studies have shown that these fats specifically promote ovulation, which is a key component of fertility,” Swick says. “DHA [docosahexaenoic acid] from fatty fish can increase progesterone, which is one of the most important hormones women need to maintain a pregnancy post-conception.”
Besides salmon, trout, sardines, and other fatty fish, you’ll also find omega-3s in walnuts, flaxseed, grass-fed beef, chia seeds, and more.
Healthy fats are an important component to any diet, including when you’re trying to conceive, as they provide energy, help us regulate hormones, maintain stable blood sugar levels, absorb important nutrients, and build the membranes that surround and protect our cells.
“When it comes to fertility, it is important that women are eating monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats,” says Sarah Rueven, a registered dietitian and founder of Rooted Wellness. “I recommend including a serving of unsaturated fat (about 2 tbsp), like nuts, seeds, fatty fish, olives or avocados, at every meal for their fertility-boosting benefits.”
Full-fat dairy is the way to go if you’re trying to get pregnant. Results of a popular study published by researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health showed that women who ate more than two servings of low-fat dairy each day had a higher risk of infertility than women who ate more than one serving of full-fat dairy each day.
“The exact mechanism is unknown but it is believed that when full-fat dairy is processed to low-fat dairy, additives such as whey protein are added to improve the taste,” Rueven explains. “These additives can disrupt hormonal balance and interfere with fertility.”
High-quality, complex carbohydrates such as whole grains are said to boost fertility.
“Complex carbohydrates, like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes, are a great source of fiber and are digested more slowly than refined carbohydrates like white bread, white rice, sweets and soda,” Rueven says. “Slower digestion stabilizes blood sugar and increases satiety, which can in turn balance reproductive hormone levels, lead to weight loss (if warranted), and optimize fertility.”
Iron may lower the risk of ovulatory infertility, says Dara Godfrey, a New York CIty-based registered dietitian. You’ll find iron in foods like lean grass-fed beef, shrimp, organic chicken, fish, and eggs. To boost absorption, pair these iron-rich foods with foods high in vitamin C.
Plant-based proteins like quinoa, lentils, nuts, beans, and seeds may be helpful to contraception, Rueven says. She points out that you don’t need to eat a completely plant-based diet to reap the benefits of plant-based proteins.
“Plant-based diets are higher in antioxidants, which deactivate free radicals in the body,” Rueven says. “If left active, free radicals can damage sperm and egg cells.”
Foods High in Folate
As you’re trying to conceive, it’s important to consume folate-rich foods like citrus, dark leafy greens, sunflower seeds, and lentils. This is one recommendation you definitely want to pay close attention to, as this vitamin is needed to protect your baby from neural tube defects.
Sometimes women assume they can wait until they’re pregnant before making sure their diet is high in folate, but the American Pregnancy Association stresses that it’s important to consume folate as you are trying to conceive. This is because most neural tube defects develop during the first month of pregnancy when many women aren’t yet aware they are pregnant. In addition to folate-rich foods, it’s also important to take a prenatal vitamin containing folic acid.
Fiber is a crucial component to a healthy diet, including when you're trying to conceive. “Estrogen dominance is a state where women have too much estrogen compared to progesterone, which throws off fertility,” Swick says. “By increasing fiber, and thus estrogen elimination, we help to not just establish a healthy weight—a key for fertility, but we can rid the body of extra estrogen through bowel movements.”
Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans are all great sources of fiber.
And now, foods to avoid:
What to Avoid: Fried and Processed Foods
Fried and processed foods like donuts, french fries, fried chicken, and other foods high in added sugars aren’t your best option as you’re trying to get pregnant. Godfrey explains that they’ve been linked to lower fertility because they can lead to insulin resistance and inflammation in the body.
What to Avoid: Excessive Amounts of Alcohol
Consuming large amounts of alcohol isn’t healthy in any scenario, but research shows that it interferes with conception and can slow the rate of fertility, Swick says.
Alcohol can be an issue for men, too, harming sperm production. The amount of alcohol that’s ok to consume while trying to conceive can vary, but Rueven suggests women stick to one drink per day, and men stick to two.
What to Avoid: Frequent Snacking
Snacks are fine in moderation, but eating too often “increases insulin, which can lead to disruptions in ovulation,” Swick says. Instead, she recommends trying to eat enough at each meal so you don’t need to snack between meals.
What to Avoid: Restricted Food Intake
“Many women tend to restrict food and can over-stress their system,” Swick says. “Over stressing our delicate female system means we can throw off our adrenal and thyroid function which is a major element of conception.”
She adds that it’s important to consider the mind-body connection and to remember that your feelings about your body and your relationship to food play a big role in health and fertility.
“Feeling confident and secure in [yourself] will decrease stress which improves ovulation,” Swick says.
What to Avoid: High Amounts of Caffeine
The research here varies, but results from one study showed that a woman is more likely to experience a miscarriage if she drinks more than two caffeinated drinks each day during the first seven weeks of pregnancy, or if she and her partner consume more than two caffeinated drinks per day in the weeks prior to conception.
“Since caffeine is a stimulant, it’s a good idea to cut back prior to pregnancy to make it easier, with less withdrawals symptoms, to avoid during pregnancy,” Godfrey says.
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Harvard School of Public Health. Folate (Folic Acid) – Vitamin B9. The Nutrition Source, 2 July 2019.
Salas-huetos A, Bulló M, Salas-salvadó J. Dietary patterns, foods and nutrients in male fertility parameters and fecundability: a systematic review of observational studies. Hum Reprod Update. 2017;23(4):371-389. doi:10.1093/humupd/dmx006
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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Couples' Pre-Pregnancy Caffeine Consumption Linked to Miscarriage Risk. National Institutes of Health. 24 Mar. 2016.