Approximately 12% of women of childbearing age, or 7.3 million women in the U.S. have impaired ability to become pregnant, and 10-17% of couples experience infertility or subfertility at some time.
Fortunately, there are a number of diet and lifestyle behaviors that can positively affect fertility in women:
1. Avoid refined carbohydrates
Women whose diets were high in glycemic load, indicative of more refined carbohydrate — white flour, sugar, white pasta, etc. — were almost twice as likely to experience ovulatory infertility. Similarly, consumption of soft drinks is associated with compromised fertility. This is likely because insulin serves a number of functions in the ovary, including production of hormones and hormone receptors — hyperinsulinemia, caused by excessive refined carbohydrate intake, can interfere with normal ovulation.
2. Consume plant sources of protein and iron
Protein intake is thought to affect hormone levels, and these hormonal effects are likely to influence fertility. Researchers have found that women with high animal protein intakes were 39% more likely to experience infertility than women with lower animal protein intake. In contrast, women with high plant protein intake were 22% less likely to experience infertility than women with lower plant protein intake. Similarly, intake of nonheme iron (the type of iron found in plant foods and supplements) is associated with a reduced risk of infertility, whereas heme iron (found in animal foods) intake showed no association.
3. Get adequate micronutrients
Micronutrient adequacy is crucial for optimal fertility and during pregnancy for overall maternal, fetal, and child health. B vitamins are important for development of sperm and egg cells. Folate, a B vitamin, is crucial for preventing neural tube defects, and may also help to maintain regular ovulation. It is important to note that the synthetic folic acid found in supplements is not the same as natural folate from green vegetables and other plant foods, and may increase the risk of breast cancer. Comprehensive micronutrient adequacy promotes fertility and this is most effectively achieved by eating a variety of colorful, natural plant foods. Combining a micronutrient-rich eating style with a high quality supplement to assure adequate, Vitamin D, iodine, zinc and B12 also helps to protect against deficiencies. Multivitamins should be chosen carefully, since most contain potentially harmful ingredients. Read Dr. Fuhrman’s recommendations on supplement use for women who are planning to become pregnant.
4. Avoid dairy products
Two or more servings per day (compared to 1 or less per week) of low fat dairy foods was associated with an 85% increased risk of infertility. Apparently it was the dairy protein that had the most detrimental effects because the decreased fertility was seen only for low fat dairy. Galactose, a component of lactose, is known to interfere with ovulation, and dairy foods are also thought to contribute to polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a common cause of infertility.11
A sedentary lifestyle is likely a risk factor for infertility. Each hour per week of vigorous exercise is associated with a 5% decrease in risk of ovulatory infertility. Although moderate intensity exercise is not associated with fertility, of course it is still beneficial for overall health and weight maintenance.
6. Maintain a healthy weight
Veronica overcame infertility with a nutritarian lifestyle:
“…Eleven months into my new way of eating, I met Dr. Fuhrman at one of his conferences. I couldn’t wait to share my story with him. I had to tell him how he saved my life, how he made me healthy and best of all how he made me get pregnant! So, I told him, ‘Dr. Fuhrman, you are the reason I am now pregnant!’ I’m sure this came as a little surprise to him being that I was an unknown beaming pregnant lady standing next to her her husband. So, he cleverly said, ‘I’m sure your husband had something to do with this too.”
*Image of “pregnant belly” via Shutterstock