Infertility affects about nine percent 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 of 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.
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 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 poor sperm 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.
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 (18.5 to 24.9 signifies a normal weight), may experience irregular menstrual cycles or stop ovulating altogether. Those who regularly participate in high-intensity exercise — 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.
An eating pattern rich in iron 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.
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.
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 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:
In general, eating more vegetables and a variety of types, eating healthy 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.
While it won't make you more fertile, it is crucial that women trying to conceive obtain 400 micrograms per day of folic acid from supplements (if considering taking any supplements, including folic acid, talk to your health care provider first) and include foods such as 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 three to four weeks after conception, before most women even realize they're pregnant.
For more information on foods for fertility and creating a personalized eating plan, consult a registered dietitian nutritionist.
Caroline Kaufman, MS, RDN, is a Los Angeles-based nutrition expert and freelance writer in private practice.