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The best diet for fertility

If you are looking to conceive, here are the best foods to eat—and avoid

Infertility affects an estimated 15% of couples in the United States. The inability to get pregnant can be very stressful for both men and women. While there is no magical fertility diet that works for everyone, Joel Batzofin, MD, FACOG, reproductive endocrinologist, infertility specialist, co-founder and medical director of Dreams Fertility, says a balanced, nutritious, and healthy diet, combined with exercise to improve blood flow, is an excellent way to approach nutrition during the preconception and pregnancy months. 

If you’re wondering what foods you should eat and which ones you should avoid when trying to get pregnant, keep reading to learn about the best diet to maximize fertility. 

What is the best diet for fertility?

“A balanced diet is the cornerstone of a holistic approach to fertility because it supplies the nutrients your body needs to work effectively,” says Tanmoy Mukherjee, MD, a board-certified OB-GYN, reproductive endocrinologist, and co-director of Reproductive Medicine Associates of New York. This kind of eating also limits your consumption of empty calories and focuses on foods rich in nutrients. 

The fertility diet is not a specific eating plan. Instead, it’s a roadmap to use during preconception to improve reproductive health. While it may not guarantee you’ll increase your chance of getting pregnant, it can boost overall women’s health. A 2019 study found that a higher adherence to a pro-fertility diet that includes high levels of folic acid, dairy, soy, vitamin B12, vitamin D, and low-pesticide produce was associated with increased live birth among people undergoing assisted reproductive technologies. 

Therefore, women trying to achieve pregnancy should focus on increasing omega-3 fatty acids, whole grains, fish, and soy while reducing trans fats and red meat, according to a 2018 review. This eating plan is similar to the Mediterranean diet, a heart-healthy plan focusing on plant-based foods, whole grains, vegetables, legumes, fruits, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices, fish, seafood, dairy, poultry, and olive oil.

13 foods that increase fertility

Foods that may help boost female fertility are part of a healthy eating plan. Several studies have looked at the connection between food choices and infertility and determined that certain dietary choices can affect fertility. Specifically, certain foods help decrease ovulatory dysfunction. 

For example, the Nurses’ Health Study II found that a fertility diet with a higher consumption of monounsaturated fats like olive oil, low-glycemic carbohydrates, plant-based foods, plant or vegetable protein rather than animal protein sources, and high-fat dairy during the preconception period resulted in a lower risk of infertility related to ovulatory disorders. 

Results from a review published by researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School found that women not using assistive reproductive technologies like in vitro fertilization (IVF) experienced positive effects on fertility when including vitamins and nutrients like folic acid, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, and eating an overall healthy diet.

And when it comes to men and fertility, Harvard Health Publishing says a healthy diet has a positive effect on semen quality, with antioxidants playing a role in helping male fertility. With that in mind, here are 13 foods and nutrients that may help increase fertility in both men and women. 

1. Folate-rich foods 

Results from a prospective cohort study found that a higher folate intake is associated with higher implantation rates, clinical pregnancy, and live birth, especially in people undergoing assisted reproductive technology treatments. Folate-rich foods include lentils, beans, citrus fruits, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and asparagus. 

RELATED: Why pregnant women need to take folic acid

2. Lycopene

Lycopene-rich foods like tomatoes, pink grapefruit, watermelon, guava, and papaya are high in antioxidants. Because of the antioxidant properties and its ability to reduce oxidative stress, some experts believe lycopene is a possible treatment option for male infertility. 

RELATED: How a dad’s health impacts his baby’s

3. Salmon

“Salmon is chock full of omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA and EPA that reduce inflammation, balance reproductive hormones, and build baby’s brain,” says Anna Bohnengel, a registered dietitian and creator of My Fertility Nutritionist. If you don’t like the flavor of this pink fish, sardines are another good alternative.

4. Dark leafy greens

Dark leafy greens are the ultimate superfood for fertility because they provide folate, magnesium, antioxidants, fiber, and so much more,” Bohnengel says. Consider adding dark leafy veggies of all varieties, including arugula, kale, spinach, bok choy, and collard greens. 

Dr. Batzofin always recommends spinach in a fertility diet because it is high in iron and folic acid, which are very important in pregnancy. 

5. Quinoa 

“Quinoa is an excellent dietary choice to help control blood sugar levels,” Dr. Batzofin says. This can be especially important for people with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which Dr. Batzofin says is partly caused by insulin resistance. “People with PCOS have significant disturbances in ovulation,” he says, “so anything that stabilizes blood sugar levels can be helpful.”

6. Avocado

Bohnengel includes avocados in fertility diets because they are rich in folate—which helps the spinal cord form correctly—and healthy fats to keep blood sugar, hormones, and appetite stable. They also give you a hearty dose of vitamin E, which Bohnengel says is a powerful antioxidant that protects your eggs and sperm from damage. Bonus points if you top them with another healthy fat, like extra virgin olive oil.

7. Eggs

Bohnengel says eggs, specifically the yolks, give you hard-to-get nutrients like vitamin D, omega-3s, and choline, which are as essential as folate for preventing neural tube defects. 

8. Kefir

Kefir is a drinkable high-protein yogurt with beneficial bacteria, which Bohnengel says is essential for gut health and estrogen balance. On top of that, animal studies show its potential for improving sperm quality.

9. Lentils and beans 

One cup of lentils has more protein than a 3-oz serving of ground beef. “Beans, and especially lentils, are a must-have in any fertility diet due to their iron, folic acid, and fiber content,” Dr. Batzofin says. Plus, according to research, replacing animal protein with plant protein may also reduce your risk of ovulatory infertility. 

10. Pumpkin seeds

Foods like pumpkin seeds that are high in zinc may help boost male fertility, according to a 2018 review. “Zinc promotes healthy sperm and improves ovulation,” Bohnengel says. 

11. Oysters

After liver, oysters are the best source of both iron and zinc. “Iron plays an essential role in delivering oxygen throughout the body while zinc boosts immunity and promotes both sperm and egg quality,” says Bohnengel. However, it’s important to avoid raw oysters, says Dr. Batzofin, because of the risk of gastroenteritis from contamination. Some research has found a link between consuming oysters—or seafood in general—on reproductive health.

12. Full-fat dairy

Research from the Nurses’ Health Study found that consuming full-fat dairy products like whole milk or whole milk yogurt instead of low-fat dairy foods may improve the chances of becoming pregnant. 

13. Fruit

Fruits like blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries are high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients. Other must-haves are citrus fruits like oranges because they are packed with vitamin C, calcium, potassium, and folate. Some research shows that vitamin C can improve chances of becoming pregnant.

4 foods to avoid when trying to get pregnant

A balanced, nutritious diet is always the best approach when trying to get pregnant. However, Dr. Batzofin says there should be no drastic changes when modifying your diet to improve fertility. Instead, focus on quality, portion sizes, and healthy food choices.

For example, Dr. Batzofin says fast food is a poor choice: In addition to having far too many calories and salt, it also has excess fat and cholesterol. On top of that, sodas contain large amounts of sugar. This can cause significant problems, especially with fat accumulation. 

“The fatty tissue can be a repository or ‘storehouse’ for hormones, which then enters the blood circulation at random times, thereby disrupting the fine-tuning of the hormones involved in the menstrual cycle,” he says. And since the menstrual cycle is part of the ovulation mechanism, Dr. Batzofin says a coordinated, well-timed ovulation is essential to conception. 

With that in mind, here are four ingredients and foods to avoid when trying to get pregnant. 

1. Certain animal protein

Dr. Batzofin says to avoid both red meat and processed meats. Red meat may decrease fertility by negatively impacting blastocyst formation during embryo development, according to a 2018 review by the Nurses’ Health Study II. The researchers also point out that saturated fat, which is high in red meat, can lower semen quality in males. When it comes to processed meat, Dr. Batzofin says it has too many preservatives. Plus, a 2014 study found that a higher processed meat intake was associated with a lower percentage of morphologically normal sperm, especially compared to fish intake. 

2. Alcohol

It doesn’t have to be completely off-limits, but Bohnengel says it definitely needs to be in moderation. “Excessive alcohol can impair both egg and sperm quality and throw reproductive hormones out of balance,” she says. The recommendation is to stick to one drink per day or less for women and two drinks per day or less for men.

3. Trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils 

Eating foods high in trans fats may constitute a risk factor for infertility in both males and females, according to a 2019 review. Trans fats turn liquid oil into a solid at room temperature, which Bohnengel says is great for keeping food shelf-stable, but terrible for your fertility and even worse for your heart health. Trans fat is in fried foods, margarine, spreads, cookies, crackers, shortening, salad dressing, frozen foods, cookies, and chips. “Partially hydrogenated oils are a tricky way of getting trans fats into a product while still being able to claim zero trans fats,” says Bohnengel. Typical foods where you might find this on the ingredients list include peanut butter, crackers, and pre-packaged pastries like Twinkies.

4. ​Processed sugar and refined carbohydrates 

Reducing your intake of foods and drinks loaded with processed sugar like sodas, refined carbohydrates with high-fructose corn syrup like white breads, and other carbs high in added sugars is recommended for all people, especially those with PCOS. That’s because PCOS causes blood sugar issues, which can affect ovulation according to the Office on Women’s Health. Cutting your intake of these high-sugar items also helps with weight loss. Often even a small amount of weight loss can boost fertility and increase your chances of getting pregnant.

Other ways to increase fertility 

Diet is just one tool to help improve your chances of getting pregnant. There are several other ways to increase fertility. While the tips listed below are general recommendations, it’s best to work with your healthcare provider on a plan that meets your specific fertility needs. 

Take a prenatal vitamin 

Since a perfect diet is difficult to achieve, Dr. Mukherjee recommends supplements like a multivitamin or prenatal vitamin support to fill in any potential nutritional gaps. “A woman’s daily multivitamin will have 800 mcg of folic acid and a B12 complex,” he says. It also contains vitamin C, other B vitamins, calcium, vitamin D, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids. For men, Dr. Mukherjee says a regular multivitamin will be sufficient. Roughly half of all conceptions are unplanned. Additionally, most women do not know they have missed a period until the fetal spinal cord forms. All reproductive-age women should take prenatal vitamins until they are done childbearing and have effective contraception on board.

Avoid environmental pollutants

Dry cleaning solvents, pesticides, heavy metals, and possibly BPA (which can be found in some plastics) can have adverse effects on fertility and pregnancy. You should avoid smoking tobacco as this is associated with subfertility. Smoking cigarettes may also constrict blood flow to the embryo and increase early miscarriage rate. But it’s important to note: Subfertility associated with smoking can be reversed within a year of stopping smoking. Marijuana users undergoing fertility treatment reported a higher risk of pregnancy loss than people who had never used marijuana. Excessive heat, like in a sauna, may cause transient changes but does not decrease fertility in either men or women.

Maintain a healthy weight

A BMI of greater than 27 is associated with increased ovulatory dysfunction. In fact, both men and women should maintain a healthy weight to help boost fertility. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, men being overweight can alter hormone levels, cause poor sperm motility, and result in low sperm count. Exercise is beneficial, but if you have a BMI less than 25, limit vigorous exercise to five hours or less per week.

Consider a medical intervention

Your healthcare provider may discuss fertility treatment if you’re struggling to conceive. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some common medical interventions include:

Work closely with your healthcare provider

One critical component of increasing fertility is to work closely with your healthcare provider and to do your best to take their advice. According to the Office on Women’s Health, you should talk to your healthcare provider if you’re younger than 35 and haven’t conceived after one year of frequent sex without birth control.

If you’re over 35, this timespan decreases to six months. It’s also a good idea to make an appointment with your OB-GYN if you suspect fertility problems or decreased sexual function or libido.