Nutrition and Fertility: Can the Right Foods Really Improve Your Chances of Having a Child?

A pregnant woman eating.

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  • Author, Jessica Mudditt
  • Role, Journalist

A study of couples undergoing in vitro fertilization showed that men’s meat consumption, and in particular the type of meat they eat, affects the results.

To answer this question, it is worth analyzing the main reasons for infertility. In the United States, after one year of unprotected sex, 15% of couples fail to have a child. The potential causes are many.

On the female side, the ovaries may be unable to produce healthy eggs, or the egg may not be able to travel from the ovaries to the uterus – for example, due to blockage in the fallopian tubes. Even if the egg succeeds on this journey, it may not attach to the wall of the uterus or survive once it attaches.

On the men’s side, sperm quality is crucial for fertility. This includes their ability to move efficiently (motility), their shape and size (morphology), and their number in a given amount of semen (sperm count).

A range of factors can threaten sperm quality, including environmental issues such as pollution (read BBC Future’s report on the global decline in sperm quality). Even after testing, the cause of infertility is not always clear: about 15% of infertility cases remain unexplained.

While no single food or supplement can provide a silver bullet to these potential issues, experts say diet can play a beneficial role throughout the trial conception process and beyond.

Obviously, it is essential to be well nourished. The consequences of malnutrition can be devastating for prenatal health.

Perhaps the best-known findings in this area come from a study of babies conceived during what was called the “Dutch Hunger Winter” of 1944, an eight-month-old famine that occurred when the Nazis cut off the food supply to the Netherlands at the end of World War II.

Expectant mothers were surviving on just 400 calories a day, a fraction of the intake needed for a healthy pregnancy. Babies conceived at this time suffered a host of adverse health consequences: they were smaller and thinner than those born before or after them, and their heads were smaller. As adults, they had higher rates of obesity, diabetes and schizophrenia, and tended to die younger.

For those on a satisfying diet, getting the right mix of nutrients is always important. While discussions of beneficial foods often focus on female fertility, there is a growing awareness of how diet can affect male fertility as well.

A 2015 study of couples undergoing IVF found that men’s meat consumption, and specifically the type of meat they ate, affected outcomes, as measured by fertilization rates. Eating more poultry had a positive impact on fertilization rates, while eating processed meats (like bacon and sausages) had a negative impact.

Men who ate the least processed meat, or less than 1.5 servings per week on average, had an 82% chance of conceiving a child with their partner, while men who ate the most processed meat, or 4, 3 servings per week on average, only had a 54% chance.

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Men who ate the least amount of processed meat, less than 1.5 servings per week on average, had an 82% chance of conceiving a child with their partner.

A study by researchers at the University of Queensland, Australia, showed that what dads eat has a lasting effect on the future health of their unborn children. The team analyzed dietary data from nearly 200 couples receiving prenatal care at Australia’s largest maternity hospital, Mater Mothers’ Hospital in Brisbane.

The study found that men’s food intake strongly influenced women’s food intake, which affected the baby’s development. Other studies suggest that the weight of the father may have an intergenerational effect, by influencing the weight of the child.

“Men’s health and nutrition in fertility is overlooked, when it’s so important,” says Shelley Wilkinson, a dietician who was one of the study’s writers from the University of Queensland and works today. at Lifestyle Maternity, a private clinic in Australia specializing in fertility assistance. “It can have an impact on the health of their children.”

Ms Wilkinson also stresses the importance of tackling any changes within a couple. “If one person follows the dietary recommendations, the other is more likely to follow suit,” she says. “We should focus on helping women and men adopt healthy habits. Otherwise, we lose half the battle.”

A beneficial change can be to increase the amount of fat in the couple’s diet – provided it is the right kind of fat. Healthy fats are found in nuts, seeds, salmon, avocado and olive oil.

In contrast, trans fatty acids – which can be of natural or industrial origin and found for example in margarine, doughnuts, fried foods and other processed foods – are associated with a higher risk. high infertility.

A plant-rich diet can also be beneficial. Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health evaluated the diets of a group of 18,555 women over an eight-year period while they were trying to get pregnant or were already pregnant.

They found that eating plant-based protein, such as legumes, instead of animal-based protein, such as red meat, was associated with a more than 50% lower risk of ovulatory infertility.

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The authors of a 2021 study on the possible link between diet and female fertility concluded that, although their recommendations are focused on women, “diet and nutritional patterns are undoubtedly important for the male and female fertility”.

The researchers gave a detailed overview of the effects of different nutrients and the foods that contain them. They also stressed the importance of involving a clinical dietitian in the follow-up of couples who are planning a new pregnancy.

Generally speaking, their summary recommends foods such as vegetables, fruits, wholegrain pasta and bread (for carbs), sources of healthy fats such as oily fish, and legumes, eggs and lean meats for protein.

They also highlighted the important role of certain nutrients that can sometimes be overlooked: these include iodine, which contributes to the proper development of the fetus and the thyroid function of the future mother.

With regard to alcohol, the recommendations are clear and consistent from one study to another. The CDC states, “There is no known safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy or while trying to get pregnant.” This is valid for all types of alcohol, including wines and beers. The advice is to avoid it altogether.

If you have any concerns or questions about your diet and how it may affect your fertility, the best thing you can do is talk to your doctor. Although certain foods seem to play a positive role in fertility, it is important not to overstate their importance. Infertility is complex, and so are its causes.

Worrying about what you eat can lead to unnecessary stress as well as feelings of guilt and shame. People struggling to conceive can be reassured that the problem is unlikely to be related to a specific thing they did or did not use.

Wilkinson says people with fertility issues are often looking for a one-size-fits-all fertility food, when it’s best to eat an overall healthy diet.

“In fertility discussion forums, there is a lot of talk about pineapple as some kind of magic fertility food if you are trying to get pregnant. However, there is no single food or supplement which works “.

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