If you’re anything like me, you have more than a few friends who got pregnant in their twenties, when nachos and margaritas were the diet du jour.
Their little ones are perfectly healthy, of course, but experts tell me that diet can play a huge role in optimizing your fertility if you’re hoping to join them in motherhood a few years from now.
“We can’t reverse time, and we can’t add eggs,” says Zev Williams, MD, PhD, Chief of the Division of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility and Associate Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Columbia University Medical Center. “We can, however, make changes in diet that can make the chances of having a healthy egg and a healthy pregnancy higher.” In fact, some experts believe that the preconception period is as crucial to a mom and baby’s health as what happens once a fetus is actually in utero.
This is especially important to consider because fertility is declining across the board, for both sexes, according to hormone expert and Well+Good Council member Alissa Vitti. And, in her opinion, it has nothing to do with a change in age for first-time moms. Instead, she blames our exposure to endocrine disruptors (hello, BPA), pro-inflammatory foods, and stress.
To Dr. Williams’ point, then, diet—which can impact the first two risk factors—should be a critical consideration, even for those who simply want to get pregnant someday. But what changes should you make to your grocery list right now to avoid fertility challenges down the line?
Below, find expert recommendations on what you should eat and avoid to optimize your body for pregnancy… eventually.
What to eliminate from your diet for fertility
First and foremost, Dr. Williams stresses that a balanced diet is key, which means he’s not too keen on any program that bans—or goes big on—a specific nutrient. “When you have a diverse source of foods in your diet, you’ll most likely be getting whatever nutrients are necessary and avoiding the risk of toxicity,” he says. “[On the other hand], extreme diets might be harmful.”
On the same note, Vitti warns against the paleo and ketogenic diets for those hoping to optimize their fertility. “If you’re eating a super high-fat diet, it can be problematic with ovulation,” she explains. (The type of fat, however, matters—excessive saturated or trans fats can have negative consequences, whereas polyunsaturated fats, like omega-3s, are beneficial.) The reverse is true, as well. Low-fat diets can also be detrimental to your fertility, says Vitti.
Too much coffee
Sorry, latte addicts—Vitti says that caffeine impairs fertility and can considerably increase your chances of miscarriage. “If you’re a heavy coffee drinker, limit it to two cups per day, which has been deemed safe,” she says. “Anything beyond that is going to make conception more difficult.”
Dr. Williams agrees with this threshold—one to two cups per day—and adds a caveat for anyone looking to quit altogether. “A lot of women will go cold turkey on coffee and develop really bad headaches, and then start taking potentially harmful medications to treat those headaches,” he says. “It’s definitely better to have the coffee than the medications.” Or you can minimize the withdrawal symptoms by breaking up with joe the gradual way.
The news isn’t as bad as you might think on this one. “When you’re contemplating pregnancy, alcohol in moderation doesn’t appear to do any harm,” Dr. Williams says. Emphasis on moderation—in other words, feel free to have a glass of wine here and there, but avoid binge drinking. “Three to five drinks per week is reasonable, three to five in a night is not,” he says.
According to Vitti, chronic inflammation may actually signal your body to suppress ovulation. So eliminating pro-inflammatory foods is critical. She specifically calls out conventionally farmed gluten and dairy, which she says may have endocrine-disrupting pesticides and antibiotic residue, respectively, on top of their other potential inflammatory properties.
Parsley Health‘s Jeffrey Egler, MD agrees and says to avoid them if you suspect you might be sensitive. (Here’s how to find out for sure.) Egler also recommends nixing processed and refined foods for this same reason—in fact, a recent study showed that women who eat fast food regularly were more likely to struggle with infertility as a result.
Excessive sugar or carbs
Though you may be familiar with the image of a pregnant woman going to town on ice cream and cookies, Dr. Williams tells me that large doses of sugar and carbohydrates are not good for fertility—especially if you’re suffering from obesity or type 2 diabetes.
“Certain conditions, like insulin resistance, are very significant causes of poor egg quality and miscarriage,” he says. “The first step is to maintain a lower carbohydrate intake and a lower sugar diet, which can be very helpful.” (Carbs are converted to sugar in the body, and have a similar effect on insulin levels.) Even so-called healthy foods can be blood sugar saboteurs, he says—so he recommends nixing all-fruit smoothies and high-sugar juices, too.
Dr. Egler believes that it’s more important to cut back on toxic foods than it is to eat a greater number of healthy foods. And when it comes to fertility and pregnancy, mercury is a key contaminant to avoid. He says to be wary of the mercury content in unsustainably-sourced fish and says moderation with your seafood consumption is critical, regardless of where it comes from. Specifically, Dr. Williams advises no more than three servings of seafood per week.
What to eat if you want to get pregnant in the future
Pesticides in food, says Vitti, are massively endocrine-disrupting—which means they can potentially have a negative impact on your fertility. “If you don’t want to go green with every product in your life, go organic with your food,” she urges. At the very least, seek out organic versions of the foods on the Dirty Dozen list—including strawberries and spinach.
This is what the perfect, anti-inflammatory meal looks like—but there are some other ingredients you can add to the mix as well. Turmeric, for one, has anti-inflammatory properties, which makes it an all-star ingredient in any fertility-boosting diet. (Not only that, but one study also showed that it helps improve blood flow to the uterus, says Vitti.) She also recommends antioxidant-rich foods such as berries, as there’s evidence that they lower inflammation, too.
Foods rich in folate
Dr. Williams stresses the importance of folic acid for the health of your eggs. He recommends eating foods rich in folate—AKA vitamin B9—in the years leading up to conception. Such foods include citrus fruits, beans, rice, and leafy green vegetables. (Kale and bok choi have a few added bonuses, says Vitti—both of these foods contain calcium and magnesium, which help your body use estrogen and progesterone more efficiently.)
According to Vitti, omega-3s help to regulate hormones, increase cervical mucus, promote ovulation, and improve blood flow to the reproductive organs. New research shows that eating fish and legumes two to three times per week can actually delay the start of menopause, which means it will increase your fertility window—and Vitti attributes this to the foods’ omega-3 content.
She also recommends eating an avocado a day when you’re trying to conceive, and it certainly can’t hurt to start that practice as early as possible. “A study from Harvard discovered that avocados contain the best kind of fat that boosts the health of your eggs,” she says. Finally, an excuse to always spring for extra guac.
While Dr. Williams says there’s evidence that a plant-based diet is helpful for overall health, he believes it’s important for women to get diverse sources of protein when they’re trying to conceive. And often, this means keeping animal protein in the mix.
Vitti adds that the meat/no meat decision depends on your body’s ability to metabolize vegan protein sources—not all of us can truly thrive on a plant-based diet. “Animal proteins are more bioavailable and easier to absorb, and they have a more complete amino acid profile,” she explains. “This is so important for your fertility because hormones are manufactured from amino acids.” If you’re vegan or vegetarian and having a healthy period that includes ovulation, then she says you’re safe to stick with your plant-based diet. “If, however, your period is struggling, then your endocrine system is not able to perform optimally without animal protein and you want to add it back in,” she explains.
If you’re showing signs of estrogen deficiency—which is common as we age—Vitti recommends adding chickpeas to your meal-prep rotation. They’re high in natural estrogen, which can help create hormonal balance for optimal fertility. Hummus FTW!
Vitti tells me that royal jelly has a lot of fertility-boosting benefits. A source of nutrition for bees, it can help to maintain healthy gut bacteria—which may be tied to fertility—plus it has vitamin B6 for boosting progesterone, fatty acids for egg quality, and protein for hormonal balance. The easiest way to get your fix is in supplement form.
A big breakfast
When it comes to keeping your blood sugar in check, Vitti says you should never skip your a.m. meal. “Have something that has protein, healthy fats, and a little bit of carbohydrates that will set you up for stable blood sugar,” she says. “This allows your endocrine system a chance at supporting your fertility throughout the day.” And yes, pie totally counts.
Already knocked up? (That was fast!) Here’s what to eat when you’re expecting. Plus, find out what the experts have to say about *all* of the most common pregnancy questions.
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