Are There Specific Diets that Help with Fertility?


What the Research Says About Fertility and Diet

samples of various kinds of sprouts on spoons
A healthy diet may decrease your odds of facing infertility, but it's no cure. Patrizia Savarese / Getty Images

Let's be clear right away on the expectations of diet and fertility: no research has confirmed that a particular diet will actually cause your fertility to increase. No particular diet has been found to reverse infertility, and no specific food or set of foods has been shown to “cure” infertility.

Here is what we do know: fertility can improve from weight loss or weight gain in women who are under or overweight. 

We also know that men and women with specific kinds of dietary habits are more (or less) likely to face infertility. 

If the research isn’t clear, why change our dietary patterns based on them?

Primarily because it’s the best we’ve got. Many of the findings on fertility and diet confirm what we already know about eating healthy.

Since eating better has no negative side effects and may improve overall health along with fertility (maybe), why not try it?

How the Research Is Done

As you might imagine, conducting research on diet is tricky. You can’t exactly take a large group of people and control all their meals and activities without taking them completely outside of society. Also, it would be unethical to randomly assign some people to eat a junk-food diet while giving another group clearly healthier meals.

Most studies on diet and fertility look at a group of people (who may or may not be fertility patients) and their eating habits, and then, they separate the people into subgroups who have better or worse fertility (as compared inside the group).

The researchers analyze their eating habits by asking participants questions about their dietary habits (which is based on accurate recall and honesty). Sometimes, they may ask participants to keep a food diary for a period of time.

Next, they analyze their fertility by looking at pregnancy rates (rarely), infertility symptoms or diagnosis (most commonly), hormonal panels or semen analysis results, or reports of taking longer than a year to conceive. They may look at one of these fertility aspects or several of them.

With all that said, here are the diets that may possibly help with fertility according to the research.


Mediterranean Style Diets May Be Better for Fertility

Herbs, bread, and olive oil
Olive oil, herbs, and vegetables are key components to a Mediterranean style diet. © eleonora galli / Getty Images

Some 2011 research has found that those who eat a Mediterranean-style diet may be less likely to have difficulty getting pregnant. Other studies have found that people who eat Mediterranean style may also be less likely to die from heart disease or cancer, and may be less likely to develop Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease.

But what is meant by a Mediterranean-style diet?

A Mediterranean-style diet typically includes the following:

  • Their diet is primarily plant-based. The “star” of the meal is more likely to be food like beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruit, or whole grains.
  • They eat a lot of fruit and veggies, getting in possibly six or more servings daily.
  • They eat fish or seafood at least twice a week.
  • They are more likely to use healthier fats like olive oil. For example, instead of spreading butter, they may dip their bread into seasoned olive oil.
  • They go heavy on the herbs and spices, which allows them to go lighter on salt.
  • When it comes to animal protein sources, they eat them moderately (using them more like a side dish in a meal) and tend to choose proteins like chicken, eggs, cheeses, or yogurt.
  • They eat sweets and red meat sparingly.

A Mediterranean lifestyle may also include exercise and sharing meals with friends and family, both of which are also correlated with better health.


The Nurses' Health Study Fertility Diet

Woman holding a vitamin in hand with a glass of water
Talk to your doctor about taking a daily multivitamin, which has been shown to possibly decrease your risk of ovulatory infertility. Tom Merton / Getty Images

The Nurses’ Health Studies are the largest and longest running volunteer studies that have looked at women’s health. In 1989, the Nurses’ Health Study 2 recruited women (who worked as nurses) between the ages of 25 and 42.

Participants were followed for several years, with occasional questionnaires sent out to collect information on dietary habits, lifestyle, and overall health and well-being. 

If you’ve ever heard of "The Fertility Diet,” this diet was based on research collected via the Nurses’ Health Study 2 and published in 2007.

The study looked at a subgroup of 17,544 married women over a period of eight years. Researchers evaluated certain diet and lifestyle factors that previous research had found to have an effect on ovulatory infertility. They assigned each woman a score of one to five based on how many “fertility friendly” lifestyle factors the person followed.

When comparing women who followed five or more of the fertility-friendly lifestyle habits to women who followed none of them, the women who followed none of the fertility friendly practices were six times more likely to experience ovulatory fertility problems.  

The fertility friendly diet and lifestyle factors studied included:

  • Eating more monounsaturated fats (like olive oil or avocado) than trans fats (like in shortening and many margarines)
  • Getting more protein from plant sources (like beans and lentils) and less from animal sources
  • Getting more complex carbohydrates (like old fashioned oatmeal or whole grain breads) and less simple carbohydrates (like added sugars)
  • Eating full-fat dairy products more frequently than low-fat dairy products
  • Getting more iron and fiber in their diet
  • Taking a multivitamin on a consistent regular basis (best results seen when taken at least six times per week)
  • Having a healthy weight (or healthy BMI)
  • Engaging in regular exercise

Diets that Regulate Blood Sugar for PCOS

Bowl of fiber rich cereal with blueberries and dried cranberries
Add some fruit to a fiber rich cereal for a fertility friendly breakfast. Kirbus Edvard / Getty Images

Polycystic ovarian syndrome, or PCOS, is thought to be associated with insulin resistance. Many, but not all, women with PCOS are insulin resistant.

Insulin resistance is when the body’s cells become less resistant to insulin, causing the body to produce more insulin than is needed.

Several studies have looked into the connection between PCOS, diet, and insulin resistance. Diets that help control blood sugar and improve insulin resistance may improve irregular cycles and other symptoms related to PCOS, even in women who are not diagnosed as insulin resistant.

Some dietary habits that may help include:

  • Including more foods in your diet that are considered to be low on the glycemic index
  • Eating more complex carbohydrates (like whole grain breads) and less simple carbohydrates
  • Including more calories from proteins (like meat, eggs, fish, and dairy products) while decreasing the daily calories taken in from carbohydrates (like breads or pasta)
  • Eating a bigger breakfast and smaller dinner, while not increasing your daily calorie intake
  • Pairing foods that are higher on the glycemic index with proteins or fat, which lowers the overall glycemic impact (for example, instead of eating just two slices of bread, eating some cheese or meat with the bread)
  • Losing weight and adding in regular exercise, which is the only proven dietary method found to improve fertility rates

While some small studies have found that diet may improve symptoms in women with PCOS, more research needs to be done to show whether these changes can also improve pregnancy rates. 


Nutrient Rich Foods for Fertility

Salmon with green asparagus
Fish is an excellent fertility food for both men and women. svariophoto / Getty Images

Could our “Western” eating habits be to blame for poor fertility?

One 2012 study looked at a group of young men, ages 18 to 22, from the University of Rochester. Using questionnaires, researchers looked at overall dietary habits of the men and separated them into two groups: those who ate what they labeled a “Western Diet” and those who followed a “Prudent Diet.”

The Western Diet was defined as including:

  • High intakes of red and processed meats
  • Abundant in refined grains (like white bread)
  • Pizza and snacks
  • High energy drinks
  • Sweets.

The men who followed the Prudent Diet tended to have a higher percentage of progressively motile sperm – meaning the sperm made progress and swam in the right direction – than the men following the Western Diet.

The Prudent Diet pattern included:

  • A higher intake of fish and chicken
  • More fruits and vegetables
  • More legumes, like beans and lentils
  • More whole grains

Endometriosis and Diet

Woman holds avocado halves in her hands
Avocados are rich in omegas. Jupiterimages / Getty Images

While the impact of diet on endometriosis has been studied for quite some time, most of the research focuses on risk (as in what dietary habits are most associated with women who develop endometriosis) and symptom reduction (as in what dietary habits reduces painful menstruation.)

There are few to no studies looking at the effect of diet on pregnancy rates in women with endometriosis.

Also, in these studies, it’s difficult to know what came first.

For example, does coffee drinking lead to endometriosis? Or does fatigue caused by endometriosis lead women to drink more coffee? No one can say.

Another thing to know is that many studies on diet and endometriosis contradict each other.

For example, while one study may find that eating more green vegetables helps, another may find that there’s no statistical impact. One study may find coffee drinking increases risk, while another finds no effect.

With that said, a discussion of fertility and diet would be incomplete without at least touching on the research on endometriosis.

Keeping all these caveats, here’s what some of the research has found:

  • Eating several servings of red meat or ham per week was associated with an increased risk of endometriosis
  • Eating more trans fatty acids (as in some margarines and manufactured food products) was associated with an increased risk
  • Drinking two or more cups of coffee per day was associated with an increased risk (though some studies found no correlation)
  • Eating more green vegetables was associated with a decreased risk of endometriosis (though some studies found no difference)
  • Eating more fruit was also associated with a decreased risk (though some studies found no difference)
  • Getting more omega-3 fatty acids seemed to reduce risk, and fish oil intake seemed to reduce painful menstruation in some women
  • Getting three or more servings of dairy daily seemed to decrease the risk of endometriosis

A note on eating dairy: There is anecdotal evidence that taking dairy out of the diet may improve symptoms of endometriosis, which has caused this particular bit of research to raise controversy. It showed women whose painful menstruation symptoms improved when taking out dairy actually were lactose intolerant.

In other words, it wasn’t that the endometriosis was improved, but that the lactose intolerance was resolved, and this decreased pelvic pain and discomfort.

Why might dairy improve endometriosis? The theory is that it’s related to calcium and vitamin-D levels.

If you’re sensitive to milk, talk to your doctor about taking calcium and vitamin-D supplements to replace the lack of dairy in your diet.

More on health and fertility:

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