Diet and Fertility: What's the Connection?

Kelsey Bonilla Health Guide
  • Pregnancy Tracker: 35 weeks, 2 days

    Size of the Baby: The baby weighs about 6 pounds!

    Biggest Obstacle: My belly is starting to hinder my movement more and more...


    For the past several months, my focus and interest has been squarely on babies, diabetes, a healthy diet and how all of these factors influence one another. Thus, I was excited to read something very new about the science of pregnancy and diet in a recent Newsweek article. It's something I'd never really considered before: how does a women's diet affect her fertility?


    Since we were blessed to conceive very quickly, I did not do much research into infertility. On the other hand, because my blood glucose control was of the utmost importance during conception, I was keenly aware of the type of diet that would stabilize my blood sugar and meet my nutritional needs.

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    According to the Newsweek article, Harvard researchers and the Nurses' Health Study worked together to explore how various kinds of diets affect ovulatory infertility, which accounts for nearly a quarter of all cases of infertility. Their findings reinforce many of the healthy diet traits that diabetics are encouraged to follow.


    First of all, researchers looked at the effect of high carbohydrate diets on ovulatory infertility. They discovered that quickly digested carbohydrates, what the article terms "fast carbs," are associated with an increased risk for ovulatory infertility. Diets rich in "slow carbs" such as brown rice and whole wheat bread were less likely to face infertility.


    It turns out that the total amount of carbohydrates in a person's diet is less important than the quality of those carbs. The article concluded: "Eating a lot of rapidly digested carbohydrates that continually boost your blood-sugar and insulin levels higher can lower your chances of getting pregnant... On the other hand, eating whole grains, beans, vegetables and whole fruits -- all of which are good sources of slowly digested carbohydrates -- can improve ovulation and your chances of getting pregnant." This news isn't all that surprising, but rather an affirmation that the kind of diet diabetics are encouraged to eat during pregnancy is also beneficial to conception.


    The study also notes that a diet rich in "slow carbs" offers protection against gestational diabetes. Thus, eating lots of whole grains and plant products can help women conceive and then remain healthy throughout pregnancy.


    Fats and proteins also influence ovulatory fertility. According to the study, the largest contributor to infertility due to the fat component of one's diet was trans fats. In part, the issue with trans fats is they typically replace healthy sources of polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats in a person's diet. Researchers declared, "Across the board, the more trans fat in the diet, the greater the likelihood of developing ovulatory infertility. We saw an effect even at daily trans fat intakes of about four grams a day. That's less than the amount the average American gets each day." Foods such as stick margarine, donuts, and fast food french fries are common sources of trans fat in the American diet. (I guess fries should have been on my "forbidden food" list even before we conceived!)


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    Lastly, the study looked at protein. Initially, the research showed that women who ate less overall protein experienced lower levels of ovulatory infertility. More specifically, however, the study distinguished between women who ate diets high in animal proteins versus those who ate primarily plant proteins. They found that "Ovulatory infertility was 39 percent more likely in women with the highest intake of animal protein than in those with the lowest. The reverse was true for women with the highest intake of plant protein, who were substantially less likely to have had ovulatory infertility than women with the lowest plant protein intake."


    This information is important for diabetics, especially if we follow a lower carbohydrate diet. Not all proteins are created equal. Plant proteins such as soy, lentils, and other beans will support conception more than diets full of chicken, beef, or fish, according to the article.


    All in all, the diet recommendations that would seem to come from this study are very much in line with a diabetic diet. We should eat whole grains, vegetables, fruits, plant products such as beans; while avoiding foods that spike your blood sugar such as white bread and other sources of refined carbohydrates.


    Trans fats are not healthy for anyone, and we should all try to incorporate more plant proteins into our diet.


    The article's last comment on diet and fertility put a different spin on the conventional thinking about dairy products. Health experts always advocate low-fat dairy such as skim milk, low fat yogurt, etc. When it comes to fertility, however, a regular dose of full fat dairy is beneficial, according to the article.


    I'd previously heard that ice cream was a proven fertility booster and these researchers have confirmed that advice. However, the amount of full-fat dairy one should consume to decrease their chance of ovulatory infertility is modest: one serving daily of whole milk or two weekly servings of regular ice cream. Still, any excuse to eat ice cream without guilt sounds good to me!


    I'll have to remember that when we try to conceive baby #2!

Published On: December 12, 2007