Pregnancy: Does your diet affect fertility?

7 min read

"The importance of male health and nutrition to reproduction is overlooked," says nutritionist Shelley Wilkinson. 

If you go to any online chat room where fertility is discussed, you will find that one of the main topics of discussion is what foods to eat that increase the chances of conception. Various types of supplements or complementary foods are promoted in these chatrooms to increase the ability to conceive. Various types of food are also mentioned here for a healthy pregnancy.

All this talk about pregnancy, all kinds of things being marketed – how much evidence is there that eating certain foods actually increases male and female fertility, helps the fetus develop?

At the outset, some nutrients actually help maintain a healthy pregnancy, ensuring fetal development – such as folic acid. Regular intake of folic acid before and after pregnancy prevents anencephaly (a type of brain defect in the baby) and spina bifida, a disease of the baby’s spine.

Because these diseases occur very early in pregnancy, when a woman may not even know she is pregnant, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends that all women of childbearing age consume 400 micrograms of folic acid daily.

Adding folic acid to foods we eat every day, such as breakfast cereal, can provide even stronger protection. Because most pregnancies happen unplanned.

It is estimated that in 2019, 22 percent of potential cases of spina bifida or anencephaly could be prevented by adding folic acid to the daily diet.

Folic acid has another added benefit: When women take folic acid as a supplement while trying to conceive, it may increase their chances of conceiving. But more tests are needed to confirm this.

But how effective are other foods and supplements? Are there any ‘fertility enhancing foods’ that can increase the chances of conception?

Studies have shown that what men eat affects their fertility.
Studies have shown that what men eat affects their fertility.

To answer this question it is necessary to first know about the main causes of infertility. 15 percent of men in the United States have not been able to conceive after having sex without some form of birth control. There are many possible reasons for this. In the case of women, their ovaries may not have produced a healthy egg, or the egg may not have traveled from the ovary to the uterus—because it may have been stuck in the fallopian tube.

And even if the egg successfully completed this journey, it may not have stuck itself in the fallopian tube, or survived after being stuck, warned Dr. Ian Hardy. He completed his Internal Medicine Internship at The Christ Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio, and his Residency in Gynecology and Obstetrics at Stanford University Medical Center. Dr. Hardy’s Fellowship in Reproductive Endocrinology & Infertility was at Harvard Medical School’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.

When it comes to men, how healthy the sperm is is very important. How efficiently these sperm are moving, their size and shape, and how many sperm are in a given amount of semen, etc.

Sperm quality depends on many factors, including environmental issues such as pollution.

Sometimes the cause of infertility may not be clearly known even after many physical examinations. 15% of infertility is unexplained.

It is not possible to deal with such potential problems by eating certain foods or taking supplements. Experts say there are huge benefits to eating a healthy diet throughout the process from the start of trying to conceive.

It goes without saying that eating nutritious food is very important. The consequences of malnutrition can be very serious for the unborn child.

Diet for both men and women is very important for a successful pregnancy
Diet for both men and women is very important for a successful pregnancy

One of the most well-known studies in this regard was conducted in 1944 in the Netherlands. The study was conducted on children born after conception during a food crisis known as the ‘Dutch Hunger Winter’. When the Nazis cut off food supplies to the Netherlands at the end of World War II, the food shortage lasted for eight months. Back then, women who were about to become mothers could eat only 400 calories a day. This is far less than the number of calories required for a healthy pregnancy.

Babies born during this time face a variety of adverse health problems. These babies were shorter and shorter, with smaller heads compared to babies born before and after this period. They were also more likely to be obese in adulthood, and were more likely to suffer from diseases such as diabetes and schizophrenia. They were also dying at a very young age.

For those who have the opportunity to eat enough food, it is very important to eat all kinds of food in the right amount. When talking about such beneficial foods, the focus is only on increasing the fertility of women. But the awareness that food is very important for male fertility is also increasing.

A 2015 study was conducted on couples undergoing IVF treatment. It shows that when men eat meat, especially what kind of meat they eat, affects their fertility. Eating more poultry has a positive effect on fertilization rates, while eating more processed meat like bacon or sausage has a negative effect.

An advertisement at a bus stop in Poland warns against drinking alcohol during pregnancy
An advertisement at a bus stop in Poland warns against drinking alcohol during pregnancy

Men who ate the least amount of processed meat had an 82 percent chance of impregnating their partner. And men who ate the most processed meats were 54 percent more likely.

Even after conception, what a father eats can indirectly affect his unborn child.

A group of researchers from the University of Queensland in Australia has shown that the type of food a father eats has an impact on the health of his unborn child. The research team reviewed the daily dietary intake of nearly two hundred couples who were caring for their unborn babies at one of the largest maternal health clinics in Brisbane, Australia. Researchers have found that what men eat has a strong impact on the health of their female partners, which in turn affects the woman’s unborn child. Other studies have shown that a father’s body weight can have an effect on the weight of the child in the next generation.

A nutritionist should be consulted on what can be a balanced diet during pregnancy
A nutritionist should be consulted on what can be a balanced diet during pregnancy

“The importance of male health and nutrition to reproduction is overlooked,” says nutritionist Shelley Wilkinson. He was also associated with research at the University of Queensland. Now she works in a private clinic in Australia called Lifestyle Maternity.

A man’s health and diet can actually affect the health of his grandson or granddaughter, he says.

Shelley Wilkinson says couples should work through any problems together.

“If one adheres to a dietary regimen, the other probably will as well. We need to focus on both men and women to bring about healthy change. Otherwise, we are half losing this fight.”

A beneficial change can be to increase the amount of fat in couples’ daily diet—but it must be the right kind of fat. For example: nuts, seeds, salmon, avocado and olive oil. But trans fatty acids, which come from both natural and synthetic sources—are said to increase the risk of infertility. Such foods include margarine, doughnuts, fried foods and other processed foods.

Eating lots of vegetables and fruits is also very beneficial. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health reviewed the eating habits of 18,555 women over eight years. These women were trying to conceive or had conceived. Researchers found that those who ate plant-based meats (such as beans, pulses) rather than animal-based meats (such as red meat) had a nearly 50 percent lower risk of endometrial-related infertility.

A group of researchers investigating the possible relationship between diet and female infertility concluded in their 2021 study that “diet and nutrition undoubtedly play an important role in fertility in both men and women.”

The researchers detailed all the nutrients and the foods in which they are found in their review. When obese, they emphasize eating vegetables, fruits, pasta, red flour or red rice, oily fish, beans, pulses, eggs and lean meat. They also mention iodine, which is very important for fetal development.

Eating lots of vegetables during pregnancy is very beneficial
Eating lots of vegetables during pregnancy is very beneficial

All researchers have pretty much agreed on alcohol consumption. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there is no such thing as a safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy or while trying to conceive. This applies to all types of liquor, from wine to beer. Their advice is to avoid it altogether.

If you have any concerns about your diet and how it affects fertility, it is best to contact your health care provider. And while some foods are said to have great effects on fertility, it’s not fair to overstate their benefits.

Infertility is complex, its causes are also complex. If you think about your diet unnecessarily, it will increase the pressure on your mind and also make you feel guilty. For those trying to conceive, it’s safe to say that infertility problems are very unlikely to be related to what they ate or didn’t eat.

Shelley Wilkinson says that people with fertility problems are always looking for a diet that will solve the problem. But they should focus on an overall healthy balanced diet.

“In reproductive health chat rooms, there is a lot of talk that pineapple is a magic food for those trying to conceive. But there really isn’t a single diet or supplement that will work.”

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