Knowing just what you should eat when you’re trying to conceive can feel very overwhelming when you approach it for the first time. With the internet ever-growing, we are bombarded with information on do’s and don’ts…with no way of knowing whether what you are reading is reliable or not. This article forms part of our conversation on The Fertility Podcast with the lovely Ro Huntriss – fertility dietician.
Diet and nutrition and their general impact on our health is underestimated. The food that we put into our bodies has a tremendous impact on our health, both from a positive and negative perspective.
The same goes for fertility. To make it less overwhelming, here’s a rundown of the latest expert advice on things you should consider when it comes to nutrition and fertility.
Where do you start with nutrition when trying to conceive?
With so much overwhelming content online, where is the starting point? It is important to remember that diet is only one piece of the puzzle. Activity levels, lifestyle, and physical and reproductive health all contribute alongside nutrition
Diet is such an individual thing. You need to look at you. Reflect on your diet and the changes you can make. Fertility nutrition is based around healthy eating principles. Keep a food diary to get a longer-term picture of what your diet is like and start to make those healthy changes yourself
How can you improve your egg health?
It takes around 3 months (90 days) for the egg to mature before ovulation. This window is a really important time, especially when it comes to nutrition. Every day in that time period can influence the health of the egg.
As a starting point, a key nutrient is vitamin B9, which is folate (folic acid). It is recommended to take folic acid supplements if you are trying to conceive. Folic acid has been linked to improving egg quality and environment. Even while taking supplements, there are still ways to increase your folic acid intake through your diet, such as green leafy vegetables.
Omega 3 is another nutrient to include in your diet. Omega 3 is present in oily fish and as a supplement. There are some studies which show that Omega 3 can also improve sperm quality, including randomised controlled trials, which are the robust research studies you really need to be looking at. Egg health studies do exist and show improvement, but more research still needs to take place in this area. That being said, the evidence so far is showing us that Omega 3 plays a role in egg improvement, so it is important to include it in your diet.
You also have antioxidants which are good to include in your diet for egg health. Antioxidants are found in fruits, veg, whole grains, nuts, seeds and even meat. They protect the egg from oxidative damage can even improve egg quality.
How can you improve your sperm health?
Many of the foods which contain these crucial nutrients for egg health are representative of a Mediterranean diet such as fish, nuts and seeds, grains, fruit and vegetables, and unsaturated fats such as olive oil. This type of diet is also beneficial for sperm health. Antioxidants in particular are beneficial for many sperm health parameters including vitamin C, E, zinc, selenium, and folate.
What about diets such as gluten and dairy free?
For the general population, there is no evidence to cut out gluten to support fertility. It is an important part of your diet that needs to be included, such as in wholegrains, which are shown to be beneficial for your health.
Of course, if you have been diagnosed with coeliac disease, then maintain your gluten-free diet. When you have coeliac disease but have been undiagnosed, this can affect the absorption of other nutrients. There is no harm in getting a test to check if you have coeliac disease, especially if you have been trying to conceive for a long time.
With dairy, unless it is absolutely necessary, then it should not be cut out because of the nutrients involved. Dairy products are high in protein and calcium. If you are unable to tolerate dairy, then your diet should be supported by healthy non-dairy plant-based alternatives and you need to check that you are getting all the vitamins and nutrients involved. Consider getting a plant-based milk fortified with calcium and iodine, for example.
Weight and fertility
Often weight loss in encouraged to improve fertility if you fall into the overweight category. However, for women who are underweight, gaining weight should also be considered.
NICE guidelines in the UK recommend having a BMI between 10 and 30. Having a low BMI can cause irregular cycles, ovulatory disorders, and on the whole make conception more difficult.
To increase weight, you can still maintain a healthy diet. Foods such as extra virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocado, and full fat dairy products are all higher in calories and can help you put on weight, but without compromising fertility.
Is it sensible to follow a vegan diet when trying to conceive?
A properly balanced vegan diet can provide you with the nutrients your body needs. If you are vegan and have any concerns about conceiving, then it is perhaps worth having a review with a dietician or nutritionist to see if you need to further supplement your diet, especially with the nutrients normally found in animal-based products.
What about restrictive diets?
With the BMI recommendations and online representations of health, some people do follow more restrictive diets and massively cut back on calories. Research shows that these diets are not beneficial for fertility and restrict important parts of your diet. Foods such as oil and nuts are higher in calories, but also have many health benefits. If you are concerned about weight or dieting, then have a review with a dietician or nutritionist to create a diet plan that is healthy for you and not too restrictive.
Nutritionist and dieticians – what’s the difference?
If you are looking for professional support regarding what to eat, you will come across nutritionists and dieticians. Both nutritionists and dieticians can work in the fertility industry and provide nutrition and diet support. However, there is a difference.
In the UK, all dieticians have to be registered and adhere to certain codes of conduct and rules to maintain their registration. Unlike nutritionists, dieticians are trained within a clinical setting such as hospitals and are able to help people with more complex health conditions, which nutritionists are not necessarily trained to do so.
That being said, this does not mean that nutritionists are not qualified to help you with fertility issues. If you are looking for a nutritionist, have a look for a registered nutritionist, which is a sign of credibility and that they are professionals in their field.
If you have ever felt overwhelmed or stressed over knowing what to eat when you are wanting to conceive, I hope this has given you some guidance you are looking for in a clear way.