Infertility is a disease that affects millions of people. In fact, one in eight couples experience some form of infertility.1 First though, what exactly is infertility?
RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association, defines infertility as “the inability to conceive after one year of unprotected intercourse (six months if the woman is over age 35) or the inability to carry a pregnancy to live birth.”1 Now, when looking at the terms as defined by the National Survey of Family Growth, you’ll often see the term “infertility” used to refer to married or cohabitating couples, while “impaired fecundity” is used for all women who struggle to carry a baby to full term or have experienced miscarriage or a stillbirth.1
As a health care practioner, you likely have multiple patients (depending on your specific clientele) who suffer from infertility. In fact, you may already provide nutrition education to some of the 7.5 million women who are actively seeking treatment to achieve their family building goals.1 As research continues to point in the direction of dietary interventions for preventing disease states, it’s important we ensure we’re providing the most recent evidence-based information to clients struggling with infertility.
As an RDN who struggles with infertility, I recognize firsthand the need for nutrition intervention to help individuals, both male and female, regain a sense of control in a situation that’s so out of their control. By providing proper nutrition knowledge, you can help make changes in your clients’ total health, as well as hopefully increase their chances of achieving their future family building goals.
Without question food plays an important role for anyone struggling with infertility. Food provides nourishment, and that nourishment can help with the creation of a new life. It’s exciting that we as dietetics professionals can help our clients recognize nutrition’s powerful role in conception and help equip them with the tools they need to balance their diet with those fertility-fueling foods.
After review of the constantly evolving scientific literature, there are three dietary takeaways every RD should know. These five recommendations provide the backbone of a fertility-fueling way of eating.
1. Focus on fruits and vegetables.2,3 It’s no surprise that our fabulous plant friends reign supreme in terms of fertility. Research has shown that higher intakes of produce help reduce oxidation in the body by functioning as antioxidants that rid our bodies of free radicals, those bad guys that can interfere with fertility.4
Apply it: For a delicious salute to those amazing vegetables, try this Chickpea Tahini Salad.
2. Amp up your plant–based protein. Don’t stop at just adding fruits and vegetables as side dishes; encourage your clients to make the switch to plant-based protein too. Consistent with studies that promote heart health, fertility-related research has proven that higher intakes of animal-based proteins in one’s diet coincide with decreased fertility.3,5 Remember, it’s important to show clients the benefit of small changes in their total diet instead of asking them to overhaul their love for meat overnight.
Apply it: Try this Falafel Beet Burger to satisfy even the manliest of meat lovers.
3. Make your grains whole. This is crucial for fertility, and frankly, optimum health, too.3 Whole grains help to provide satiety through the fiber and protein they provide in addition to several other nutrients like B vitamins, iron, zinc, magnesium, and copper). Even males who struggle with infertility have demonstrated significant benefits from increasing their intakes of whole grains.6 I strongly encourage clients to focus on consuming high-quality carbohydrates as part of a nutrient-dense diet to help keep glucose and insulin levels balanced.
Apply it: Try these delicious Whole Wheat Pumpkin Muffins to get in the holiday spirit.
4. Meet your dairy requirements, and switch to whole milk dairy for now. Contrary to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), researchers found women who consumed the highest (more than three servings per day) amounts of dairy had a 21% greater chance of having a live birth than those consuming the least dairy (less than 1.34 servings per day).7 Furthermore, the type of dairy has shown to affect conception as well, indicating that contrary to the DGA recommendations, including one to two servings of whole milk dairy also will aid in increasing one’s chance of conception.3,8 What’s important to remember is the calorie difference in whole milk products, thus client education is crucial to demonstrate how to include whole milk dairy without exceeding calorie needs.
Apply it: For a hearty breakfast on the go, this Amaranth Granola is an excellent addition to a cool, crisp glass of whole milk in the morning.
5. Choose the right fats. Yep, fat is our friend, as you know. But the type of dietary fat is extremely important not only for general health but also for fertility. Research continues to recommend consuming omega-3-rich fish at least twice per week.9 Though consumption of the ideal omega-3 to omega-6 ratio varies depending on which study you read, one thing’s for certain: Humans now experience higher rates of infertility than in the past.10 Some say this is due to current dietary habits; however, this finding remains limited in the research.
Apply it: Lightened Up Tuna Casserole is a great way to increase your omega-3s.
In the end, the most important thing for dietitians is to remind our clients and patients that they’re not alone. You’re there to help make them the most well-nourished mama to be, and every small change can create a big difference in their total health. It’s a team effort, but you can help reduce their stress and realize the important role nutrition can play in fueling their fertility.
— Elizabeth Shaw, MS, RDN, CLT, is a nutrition communications consultant and adjunct professor of nutrition in San Diego, California. She’s the recipe creator behind the popular blog ShawSimpleSwaps.com, freelance writer for Shape and Fitness magazines and coauthor of Fueling Fertility.
- Fast facts about infertility. RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association website. http://www.resolve.org/about/fast-facts-about-fertility.html. Updated April 19, 2015. Accessed October 8, 2016.
- Homan GF, Davies M, Norman R. The impact of lifestyle factors on reproductive performance in the general population and those undergoing infertility treatment: a review. Human Reprod. 2007;13(3):209-223.
- Chavarro JE, Willett WC, Skerrett PJ. The Fertility Diet: Groundbreaking Research Reveals Natural Ways to Boost Ovulation and Improve Your Chances of Getting Pregnant. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2008.
- Rink SM, Mendola P, Mumford SL, et al. Self-report of fruit and vegetable intake that meets the 5 a day recommendation is associated with reduced levels of oxidative stress biomarkers and increased levels of antioxidant defense in premenopausal women. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2013;113(6):776-785.
- Chavarro JE, Rich-Edwards JW, Rosner BA, Willett WC. Diet and lifestyle in the prevention of ovulatory disorder infertility. Obstet Gynecol. 2007;110(5):1050-1058.
- Gaskins AJ, Colaci DS, Mendiola J, Swan SH, Chavarro JE. Dietary patterns and semen quality in young men. Hum Reprod. 2012;27(10):2899-2907.
- Klein J. High dairy intake improves reproductive health outcomes. ObGyn.net website. http://www.obgyn.net/asrm-2014/high-dairy-intake-improves-reproductive-outcomes. Published November 1, 2014. Accessed on July 22, 2016.
- Chavarro JE, Rich-Edwards JW, Rosner B, Willett WC. A prospective study of dairy foods intake and anovulatory infertility. Hum Reprod. 2007;22(5):1340-1347.
- Hammiche F, Vujkovic M, Wijburg W, et al. Increased preconception omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid intake improves embryo morphology. Fertil Steril. 2011;95(5):1820-1823.
- Wathes DC, Abayasekara DR, Aitken RJ. Polyunsaturated fatty acids in male and female reproduction. Biol Reprod. 2007;77(2):190-201.