Diet plays an important role in fertility. Here’s a closer look at 3 diets that may be detrimental to becoming pregnant, and foods that can help.
Just as we may adopt different fashion styles during different phases of our life, we should also consider adopting different dietary approaches based on our life stage. What’s appropriate for one stage of your life may not be appropriate for others… a truth that applies to many of the popular dietary trends out there when it comes to the pre-pregnancy and pregnancy periods.
Let’s look at 3 diets that may seem healthy, but are, in fact, not the most ‘fertility friendly’:
1. Low-Fat Diets
Dietary fat has been maligned in the media for years. We were told that “fat would make us fat” or that “fat would clog our arteries”. But, the real story isn’t quite that simple. And, it’s certainly not the most nutritionally sound advice for fertility and pregnancy.
In fact, one groundbreaking study showed that high intake of low-fat dairy foods was associated with infertility. Consuming a lot of low-fat dairy products (e.g., skim milk, 0% yogurt) may interfere with regular ovulation, therefore increasing the risk of infertility. This was not the case for study participants who consumed high-fat dairy. One can conclude that it was the ‘low-fat’ component of their diets that contributed to the ovulatory challenges, rather than the ‘dairy’ component of their diets. Given this, we may consider that low-fat dairy isn’t necessarily the health beacon that it’s been hailed to be; in fact, it could be interfering with your efforts to get and stay pregnant.
Beyond dairy, adequate levels of healthy fats are absolutely critical for maintaining a regular menstrual cycle.
Animal studies have confirmed that low dietary fat intake can interfere with ovulation. Other studies have shown that low-fat diets can lead to reduced estrogen and progesterone levels. This may be helpful for post-menopausal women facing breast-cancer risk but are less helpful for pre-menopausal women hoping to make babies).
The most important nuance in the fat discussion, however, is that the variety and quality of fat is what really matters when it comes to overall health and reproduction. Similar to low-fat dairy, consumption of trans fats (in items like packaged snacks and fast food) has been associated with infertility because trans fats mess with hormone signaling which is counterproductive when it comes to baby-making.
Instead of trans fats, opt for a balance of saturated fats (e.g. dairy and animal meat) and unsaturated fats (e.g. olive oil and avocados), both of which are needed for healthy hormone production and signaling. And when it comes to quantity, aim for the Goldilocks principle: not too much, not too little, just right.
2. Vegetarian Diets
Often associated with lower overall hormone levels and increased menstrual problems, vegetarian diets have can result in menstrual problems for women, such as irregular periods, heavy periods, and period pain, more so than experienced by their non-vegetarian peers. In small-scale studies, vegetarian diets have also been shown to induce ovulatory challenges.
Vegetarians have also regularly been shown to have lower hormone levels than their meat-eating counterparts; not surprisingly, adequate hormone levels are essential for healthy menstrual cycles. Since the menstrual cycle is the foundation of fertility, menstrual cycle problems are a harbinger for fertility problems down the road.
The reasons for these hormonal discrepancies between vegetarians and non-vegetarians are three-fold.
First, you need cholesterol, a form of saturated fat, to make hormones.
This is an extension of the point we discussed above, but it is important to understand that all sex hormones are made from cholesterol, which is mainly found in animal products. In other words, cholesterol is a precursor in the production of estrogen, progesterone and testosterone, all of which are needed for reproduction. Without adequate cholesterol, your body does not have the raw materials necessary to make sufficient sex hormones.
Granted, plants do contain sterols — the plant-equivalent of cholesterol — and your body does make its own cholesterol internally, but your body generally needs more than these two sources to create the optimal level of sex hormones needed for successful reproduction.
Next, certain nutrients are only available and/or are more bioavailable in animals than they are in plants.
For example, despite the many sources of plant protein (e.g., beans, nuts), animal protein is more easily digested and assimilated than plant protein. Similarly, certain nutrients are converted more easily from animal sources than from plant sources (e.g., omega 3 fats, iron). And finally, certain nutrients, such as retinoids (vitamin A), vitamin D and vitamin B12 are only naturally-occurring in animal foods. All of these nutrients are critical for pre-pregnancy and pregnancy.
Lastly, many vegetarian diets are laden with soy products.
Soy is a phytoestrogen which means it mimics the functions of naturally-occurring estrogen in our bodies and can therefore interfere with our natural hormone levels. The last thing we want when trying to get pregnant is to have a large, external source of hormones interrupting our own natural supply and throwing everything out of whack.
The bottom line is that even the most well-intentioned vegan and vegetarian diets are associated with vitamin and mineral deficiencies which can increase the risk of unfavorable fertility and pregnancy outcomes. What might be an acceptable trade-off at other points in your life can become a barrier to success when planning for pregnancy.
3. Ketogenic Diets
As with fats, the Goldilocks principle applies to carbohydrates as well. Too many carbohydrates can contribute to blood sugar and insulin dysregulation issues, which can ultimately interfere with ovulation. This is often seen in cases of PCOS.
Too few carbohydrates can signal scarcity and survival to your body, which then shuttles resources from making your sex hormones to making your stress hormones.
When this happens, your body doesn’t have adequate sex hormones to menstruate regularly or reproduce. Adequate slow carbohydrate intake (e.g., high fiber carbs like vegetables and whole grains are necessary to signal to your body that it’s safe and stable enough to reproduce.
Now that we’ve covered all of the ways NOT to eat for optimal fertility, what should you be focusing on?
- High-quality sources of saturated fat (e.g., animal fats such as dairy, eggs, beef, pork, and lamb.
- Plant fats (e.g., coconut, cocoa butter, palm products).
- Plant proteins ((e.g., avocados, nuts and seeds).
- Unsaturated fats (e.g., animal fats such as oily fish).
- Clean sources of animal protein (e.g., grass-fed, pastured, organic, wild)
- Slow carbohydrates (including lots of colorful, organic produce)
These real foods will provide your body with the necessary macronutrients (protein, carbs, fats) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients) to make the appropriate levels of sex hormones to sustain a regular period and a successful pregnancy.
[Disclaimer: Health-based content published by Best Self Media is not intended to be interpreted as medical advice, nor to replace the recommendations or counsel of a medical professional. Rather it is our intent to present valuable perspectives from the experiences or research of our contributors.]
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