When couples are trying to conceive, they’re focusing on everything they can do to make the, ahem, process easier and more successful. Some of these lifestyle changes include getting more sleep, exercising, and taking prenatal vitamins. But diet plays an important part in the fertility game.
What Is a Fertility Diet?
No, it’s not all oysters and champagne—sorry! The fertility diet is essentially a healthy, balanced diet that can help improve many aspects of health, including healthy weight loss and maintenance (which, if menstrual cycles are irregular or nonexistent, is a key part of promoting fertility), better heart health, and yes, your chances of conception.
Following a healthy diet, like the fertility diet, isn’t just helpful for women trying to conceive. Their male partners can improve semen quality and motility by eating vegetables, fruits, lean protein, healthy fat, and complex carbohydrates, too (1).
In 2007, a team of Harvard researchers published a study called the “Fertility Diet” and in 2009 came out with a book by the same title. The findings were significant: women with ovulatory infertility who followed this eating plan had a 66 percent lower risk of ovulatory fertility and a 27 percent reduced risk of non-ovulatory infertility (infertility caused by something other than ovulation) compared to women who did not follow the diet closely (2).
Women following the fertility diet in this study opted for less trans fat and more monounsaturated fat, less animal protein and more plant protein, more high-fiber, low-glycemic carbohydrates, high-fat dairy instead of low-fat dairy, fewer meat sources, and multivitamins.
And according to a 2018 study from the Harvard Medical School and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, certain foods can improve ovulatory function, which you need to successfully conceive (3).
Once a woman is pregnant, the pillars of the fertility diet can be carried through the pregnancy (and beyond) because the focus is on eating whole foods: healthy fats, lean protein, lots of fruits and veggies, and complex carbs.
While there’s no magic bullet to guarantee conception, making changes to your diet can certainly help.
The Best Fertility Foods
We already hinted at it, but we’ll say it again: The fertility diet is really just focusing on eating a balanced diet of complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, lean protein, and fruits and veggies. That said, here’s a closer look of how to stack your plate (and your male partner’s).
“Most people need to hone in on the balance of carbs and fats because those are the two nutrients we’re still afraid of,” says Heather Caplan, a registered dietitian.
Fruits and Vegetables
You didn’t think these wouldn’t be on the list, did you? Fruits and veggies are excellent sources of antioxidants, which fight inflammation. Specifically, up your intake of asparagus, citrus, and even pomegranate seeds and juice.
Asparagus has more than 60 percent of your recommended daily intake of folate, the natural version of folic acid. Folic acid supplements are highly recommended for women to take even before they conceive to reduce the risk of neural tube defects in the fetus. Asparagus also has 8 percent and 16 percent of your recommended daily intake for zinc and selenium, respectively, which can improve male fertility.
Citrus, like grapefruit and orange, is an excellent source of vitamin C, which may help support female hormonal balance. Orange juice is also often fortified with folic acid, but don’t overdo it on your liquid calories: Maintaining a healthy weight is extremely important for improved fertility. And downing juice versus the whole fruit doesn’t get you important nutrients like fiber.
Pomegranate seeds and juice is an extremely powerful antioxidant. A small study found that men who had unhealthy sperm took pills with pomegranate fruit extract and powder of galanga root and after three months found their sperm motility increased by 60 percent (4).
Don’t fear the fat: Studies have found that women who increased their intake of fat experienced positive effects on their fertility. Healthy fats are those unsaturated fats found in nuts, fish, olive oil, and avocados.
Omega-3 fatty acids, which are associated with improved brain function, are also tied to improved fertility (5).
The high-fat avocado is also a great source of vitamin E, which has been shown to increase male fertility. And the fat in avocado may also improve IFV success rate.
The fat found in dairy products is saturated fat, which has been linked with high cholesterol and heart disease. That said, a 2018 study found that consuming full-fat dairy—whole milk, yogurt, cheese, and ice cream—was not tied with heart disease, and actually may help prevent it (6).
When it comes to fertility, a Harvard report found that women who ate full-fat dairy products were less likely to have ovulation issues compared with women who ate primarily low-fat dairy foods (7).
Like everything, full-fat dairy should be consumed in moderation. By moderation we mean: swap out your fat-free or low-fat milk for whole milk in your cereal or coffee; opt for full-fat yogurt; treat yourself to a scoop of real, whole milk ice cream.
Walnuts and Brazil Nuts
Not only are these nuts high in good-for-your-brain omega-3 fatty acids, walnuts are a good source of vitamin E, which may increase sperm health. And Brazil nuts are an incredibly good source of selenium, which has also been found to increase sperm health. What’s more, low selenium status has been tied to recurrent miscarriage (8).
The antioxidant can also help prevent inflammation and damage to the egg.
But go easy on Brazil nuts. Each nut has about 50 mcg to 90 mcg of selenium, and eating 1,000 mcg of selenium can lead to poisoning (9). Aim for one, maybe two, per day.
According to the Nurses’ Health Study II, which looked at 18,500 nurses trying to get pregnant, a diet rich in vegetarian iron and iron supplements may lower the risk of ovulatory infertility.
Vegetarian sources of iron include beans, eggs, lentils, spinach, fortified cereals, and enriched rice and whole grains. Consuming iron-rich foods with vitamin C foods can boost iron absorption.
Iron is especially high in beef, but beef is also high in saturated fat.
What to Avoid When Trying to Get Pregnant
There are a handful of foods that won’t do you any favors when it comes to improving fertility, for men and women. According to that 2018 report from Harvard, diets high in trans fat, red and processed meats, potatoes, sweets, and sweetened beverages were found to have negative effects on fertility (3, 5).
It’s not totally clear on why diets high in trans and saturated fats, and highly processed foods may be linked to decreased fertility. One thought is if the bulk of your calories come from low-nutrient foods, you’re missing out on nutrient-dense foods, which have been shown to promote fertility, says Caplan.
What to Consider Before Starting a Fertility Diet
There aren’t any risks to consider before starting a fertility diet. In fact, it doesn’t do the lifestyle adjustment any justice by relegating it to the “diet” category. Eating healthy fats, lean protein, fruits and vegetables, and complex carbohydrates can only do good things for your overall health, says Caplan.
Fertility Diet Meals
The key to planning your meals is to include a variety of foods. Caplan shares some of her favorite meals but notes that her preferences do not have to be yours—just follow the general principle.
Full-fat yogurt with fruit and granola
Salad with greens and grains, and either a plant or animal protein
Trail mix, snack bars, or cheese and crackers
Vegetable stir-fry with egg, tofu, or chickpeas over rice
Whole-wheat pasta with chicken or beef meatballs
Roasted fish with sweet potatoes and rice or couscous
Homemade whole-wheat pizza with roasted veggies and whole-milk mozzarella