As cliché as it may sound, we are what we eat – or, at least, we are in great part. Eating healthily not only makes us feel and look better, but it affects our body in ways we may not see. A poor diet can have a negative effect on your hormonal function, disrupting ovulation and reducing your chances to conceive. Yet, with a few simple changes, you can improve your chances of becoming pregnant and pave the path for a healthy pregnancy and a healthier future.
Here are some facts to help you understand why what you eat makes a difference to your fertility.
The Good: Nutrients that support a healthy ovulation
- Healthy fatty acids, like Omega-3 (found in oily fish and flaxseed, for example), can help improve the quality of your eggs and delay their aging. It is also thought that they may benefit your developing baby by helping nerve development.
- Increased intake of vegetable protein has been associated with improved fertility in women, whilst high intake of animal protein is linked to decreased fertility. Although it is still unclear exactly how protein affects ovulation, it is thought to play an important role in reducing hyperinsulinemia (excessive levels of insulin). Vegetable protein is mostly found in beans and legumes, ancient grains like quinoa or amaranth, in nuts and seeds and in smaller quantities in some vegetables. Popular foods rich in vegetable protein include tofu and tempeh (made from soy beans), hummus (made with chickpeas), all dishes containing beans or legumes (stews, soups, veggie burgers), all nut butters and salads, soups or curries prepared with or accompanied by grains like quinoa. You can still consume animal protein whilst reducing the amount and frequency in which you do.
- Folate is an essential B-vitamin that plays a crucial role in your overall health, helping with cell metabolism and the formation of new cells. Adequate amounts help to counteract the effects of stress in the body, in turn improving fertility. It is also of great importance for the healthy development of your baby in the early weeks of pregnancy. Foods rich in folate include dark leafy greens (broccoli, kale, Brussel sprouts), asparagus, legumes, beets, citrus fruits and nuts, as well as some fortified grains. Together with diet, supplements containing folic acid (its synthetic form) can help achieve and maintain optimal levels of folate in your body.
- Antioxidants protect your cells from oxidative stress, which can cause damage, premature aging and inflammation in all your body systems, including your reproductive system. Berries, herbs and spices rank highest in concentration of antioxidants. Other antioxidant-rich foods include nuts, vegetables and dark chocolate.
- Complex carbohydrates and other foods with a low glycaemic index (GI) help prevent the peaks and troughs in blood sugar provoked by simple carbohydrates (such as white flour, sugary foods, white potatoes, etc.) and foods high in trans fats. Low GI foods release energy slowly, maintaining your blood sugar and, thus, your insulin levels steady and stable. Whole grains and wholemeal cereals, beans, legumes, some fruits and most non-starchy vegetables - and some starchy vegetables such as sweet potato - are examples of complex carbohydrates. As well as increasing your chances of conceiving, a diet based on low GI foods will reduce your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease and help you maintain a healthy weight
The Bad: How diet affects your hormones
Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas to help metabolise what we eat. When we eat too many of the “wrong” foods, our pancreas produces excessive amounts of insulin and it is mostly excessive levels of this hormone which play havoc with ovulation.
Cutting back on processed foods, sugar (including sugary drinks), white flours (white bread, cakes, biscuits) and foods that are high in trans fats will help maintain healthier levels of insulin in your body, in turn supporting adequate hormone function.
Switching back to simple, ‘real’ foods and cooking our meals from scratch can have a big, positive impact on your health and your fertility.
Consumption of certain pesticides has been linked with reduced fertility in women and men, as well as poorer pregnancy outcomes. Pesticides can lead to disruption of bodily functions, including hormonal function.
Trying to buy organic whenever possible will significantly reduce your exposure to pesticides. Yet, when this is not possible, washing all fresh produce thoroughly under running water (no soap!) and drying it, peeling or removing the outer leaves/layers of foods such as cabbage or lettuce, and trimming the fat and skin from meat, poultry and fish will help minimize the pesticide residue on the foods you eat.
What you eat can have a significant impact on your chances to conceive a baby. There are easy changes you can make to boost your fertility and improve your health, in preparation for pregnancy and motherhood. For more information on trying to conceive, visit our Trying to Conceive Hub.