Getting started with your fertility diet
Trying to conceive and going through fertility treatments can be incredibly trying – mentally, physically, and emotionally. So much of the process feels as though your fertility is out of your control and left to chance… but the good news is, there are actually so many things that are in your control that can make a huge impact on your fertility… and it starts with the food we eat!
In this blog post, I will walk you through 4 simple steps to incorporate dietary changes that have been scientifically shown to support your fertility—meaning they’ve been researched and are backed by evidence. The goals aren’t only to help you optimize your chances of getting pregnant, but also to optimize your health during pregnancy and postpartum.
And great news…these dietary changes have also been shown to be beneficial for men’s sperm parameters as well (1)! We know it takes two- and making these changes as a team can definitely make things easier for you both!
An easy place to get started is to build your fertility foods plate: make half of your plate non-starchy veggies, ¼ plate high-quality carbohydrates and ¼ plate some source of protein. Need a little sweet? We love fresh fruit and dark chocolate with almost every meal… even breakfast! And the more colorful the plate the better
As you read through this, don’t be overwhelmed! The goal isn’t for you to feel like you have to make some drastic, dietary overhaul. The goal is to make small, sustainable, enjoyable changes that over time will add up to something big.
You may have also heard it takes 90 days of changes to make a real difference… which is scientifically untrue. The changes you make today will have an impact tomorrow, but the sooner you start, the more they all add up!
But how do you know where to even start? Fear not! Let’s dive in!
Fertility Diet Step #1: Choose Smarter Carbs
There’s a lot of misinformation out there regarding the need to go no-carb or keto for fertility… all of which, while maybe beneficial in some individual circumstances… have not been shown to be beneficial for the purposes of fertility.
When it comes to carbohydrates, you not only need to consider the quantity consumed, but also the quality. Two terms used to describe carbohydrate quality include glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load (GL). Both of these essentially tell you how a carbohydrate impacts your blood sugar over time. High GI/GL foods spike your blood sugar which spikes your insulin levels, which chronically over time, can contribute to a vicious feedback loop that ultimately drives inflammation and increased androgen (male-type hormone) production.
Data has shown that increased intake of whole grains (which are naturally lower GI/GL, and are rich in antioxidants, micronutrients, vitamins, and fiber) over our typical refined grains which are stripped of most of their nutritional value has been associated with a higher likelihood of pregnancy, and taking home a baby after undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF) with embryo transfer (2). Data has also shown that increased intake of lower GL carbs has been associated with a lower risk of ovulatory infertility (infertility due to irregular release of an egg each month) and a faster time to pregnancy (3, 4).
So where do you start?
Try swapping out your most commonly consumed high GL carbs for their low to medium-GL counterparts.
- Cold breakfast cereal → try whole oats with some fresh fruit and nuts
- White rice → brown rice
- White potato → sweet potato
- Traditional Italian pasta → veggie noodles or a wheat pasta
- White bread → whole grain bread
It’s not about giving up carbs. It’s about choosing your carbs wisely. In general, aim for consuming carbohydrates with a GL < 20 or low to moderate GI. Check out our quick reference guide for other easy swaps!
Fertility Diet Step #2: Incorporate anti-inflammatory fats
Fats makeup nearly every cell in our bodies. They contribute to the formation of hormones, and are critically important for both early embryo development and our brain function—so we definitely shouldn’t leave them out of our diets! (5)
Some fats promote inflammation and others help minimize it. And higher intake of the anti-inflammatory type fats may actually improve your odds of getting pregnant!
Increased intake of trans fats has been associated with a higher risk of infertility due to not releasing an egg each month (ovulatory infertility) and endometriosis (6). Thankfully the FDA banned the addition of man-made trans fats in 2018 but they can still be found in deep-fried foods, doughnuts, and some sweets. And while we’re not saying you can’t have the occasional doughnut or french fry while TTC—we would simply recommend consuming these foods sparingly.
In contrast, diets rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids (such as omega-3s) have been associated with a lower risk of ovulatory infertility and endometriosis and have been associated with a faster time to pregnancy and a higher likelihood of getting pregnant after undergoing IVF (6-9).
Foods naturally rich in omega-3s include certain nuts, seeds, and seafood (think chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and fatty fish like salmon).
How do you incorporate these daily? Top off your smoothie, or breakfast with a handful of walnuts or stir in some chia or hemp seeds for some extra plant based protein too! Try subbing in salmon or seafood for your typical steak or chicken dish. Top off your salad with some yummy avocado. Use olive oil instead of vegetable oil.
Fertility Diet Step #3: Eat more plant and seafood sources of protein
When we think of getting our daily protein intake, we primarily think of chicken, turkey, steak, and processed meat… the usual suspects. The reality is that protein sources can vary WIDELY in terms of quality and nutritional value… so just like carbs and fat, not all protein is created equal.
When looking at what research has shown in regard to protein intake and fertility, some interesting trends emerge. Increased intake of plant-based sources of protein (think: beans, nuts, legumes, tofu, tempeh, etc.) has been associated with a lower risk of difficulties getting pregnant due to irregular ovulation whereas higher animal protein intake was associated with the exact opposite (10). In considering data on seafood consumption, the LIFE study showed that couples who consumed 2 servings of seafood per week on average got pregnant much faster than those who consume < 1 serving per cycle (7).
These findings were similar in couples undergoing IVF with embryo transfer in terms of those who consumed more plant-based and seafood sources of protein had higher pregnancy rates and the likelihood of taking home a baby (9).
For seafood, the American College of OBGYN (ACOG) encourages pregnant women and those who may become pregnant to eat two to three servings of a variety of fish per week, with no more than one serving per week of fish such as albacore tuna, and to avoid fish (e.g., bigeye tuna, king mackerel, swordfish) with the highest mercury concentrations.
Does this mean you need to become a vegetarian or pescatarian?
If you eat animal meat 3 meals per day, try swapping it out for a plant-based protein for one meal. Maybe give meatless Monday a try. Or consider using half as much meat as usual in your typical spaghetti dish by mixing in some black lentils for an additional plant-based nutrient and protein boost. The goal is to make sustainable changes that are enjoyable for you (and your partner).
If you are vegetarian or vegan, that’s totally ok too- consider speaking with your healthcare provider about checking a B12 and iron level and supplementing as needed as it can be difficult to get adequate intake from plants alone.
Fertility Diet Step #4: Ditch Those Sugary Drinks!
When we hear the word “diet” we mostly think about the different types of food we eat. But what we drink matters too and can be one of the easiest places to make some impactful changes.
Sugar-sweetened sodas and energy drinks are often dominated by high fructose corn syrup which can wreak havoc on our sugar levels and insulin sensitivity which can not only be problematic for getting pregnant but maintaining a healthy pregnancy too.
Consuming as little as one sugar-sweetened soda per day has been associated with a 25% lower probability of getting pregnant in a single menstrual cycle for women (and that’s regardless of caffeine content) (11). For couples undergoing IVF, findings were similar- consuming as little as 1 sugar-sweetened beverage per day was associated with a 12% reduction in cycles resulting in a live birth (taking home a baby) (12).
But sugary drinks don’t stop with soda. Many of our favorite latte’s and go-to coffee beverages have more sugar in one drink than is recommended in an entire week! So be mindful of your everyday go-to’s and make water your primary beverage of choice.
Love the fizz? Try club soda with a squeeze of fresh juice instead.
Gotta have the soda? At the very least go with a diet soda (although it would be best to avoid the additional chemicals and additives).
Love coffee? No problem. Just don’t go for those extra pumps of vanilla or pumpkin spice on the daily.
In general, ACOG recommends consuming < 200mg of caffeine per day during pregnancy so consider keeping that goal in mind as well.
Eating a “Fertility Diet” is about making sustainable lifestyle changes and choosing foods that will support both your overall health and fertility and leave you feeling better than when you started.
It’s not a short-term fix, and it’s not about eliminating entire food groups.
Start simple. Swap out your higher GL carbs for low to medium GL carbs. Incorporate those healthy anti-inflammatory fats along with more plant-based and seafood sources of protein. Buy a cute water bottle and make it your best companion! Cut out sugar-sweetened beverages and don’t forget to take your daily prenatal vitamin!
These changes can make a difference no matter where you are on your fertility journey, whether you’re just getting started or have been at it for some time.
Looking for more actionable resources?
Download a copy of your own Fertility Foods Pyramid here as a quick reference guide to optimize your daily food choices, or check out our 28-day Nourish Your Fertility program for a detailed implementation plan including daily recipes, shopping lists and more to get you started!
With love + empowerment,
Ashley Eskew, MD, MSCI
Dr. Eskew is double board certified in both Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility by the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology and is in clinical practice in Charlotte, NC. Dr. Eskew’s clinical interests and areas of research in which she is widely published have focused on assessing the impact of diet, lifestyle, and the reproductive tract microbiome on fertility and reproductive outcomes. She is also co-founder of OvulifeMD, a digital education company that provides women and men with evidence-based information regarding lifestyle factors that influence fertility and reproductive outcomes. If you’re looking for more tangible tips and free resources on how to make lifestyle changes that will boost your fertility- start here!
- Nassan, FL, Chavarro JE, Tanrikut C. Diet and men’s fertility: does diet affect sperm quality? Fertil Steril 2018;110:570-7
- Gaskins AJ, Chiu Y-H, Williams PL, et al. Maternal whole grain intake and outcomes of in vitro fertilization. Fertility and Sterility. 2016;105(6). doi:10.1016/j.fertnstert.2016.02.015
- Chavarro JE, Rich-Edwards JW, Rosner BA, Willett WC. A prospective study of dietary carbohydrate quantity and quality in relation to risk of ovulatory infertility. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2007;63(1):78-86. doi:10.1038/sj.ejcn.1602904
- Willis SK, Wise LA, Wesselink AK, et al. Glycemic load, dietary fiber, and added sugar and fecundability in 2 preconception cohorts. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2020;112(1):27-38. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqz312
- Sturmey R, Reis A, Leese H, Mcevoy T. Role of Fatty Acids in Energy Provision During Oocyte Maturation and Early Embryo Development. Reproduction in Domestic Animals. 2009;44:50-58. doi:10.1111/j.1439-0531.2009.01402
- Chavarro JE R-EJ, Rosner BA, Willett WC. Dietary fatty acid intakes and the risk of ovulatory infertility. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006;85(1):231-7.
- Wise LA, Wesselink AK, Tucker KL, et al. Dietary Fat Intake and Fecundability in 2 Preconception Cohort Studies. American Journal of Epidemiology. 2017;187(1):60-74. doi:10.1093/aje/kwx204
- Gaskins AJ, Sundaram R, Louis GMB, Chavarro JE. Seafood Intake, Sexual Activity, and Time to Pregnancy. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. 2018;103(7):2680-2688. doi:10.1210/jc.2018-00385
- Gaskins AJ, Nassan FL, Chiu Y-H, et al. Dietary patterns and outcomes of assisted reproduction. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. 2019;220(6). doi:10.1016/j.ajog.2019.02.004
- Chavarro JE, Rich-Edwards JW, Rosner BA, Willett WC. Protein intake and ovulatory infertility. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. 2008;198(2). doi:10.1016/j.ajog.2007.06.057
- Hatch EE, Wesselink AK, Hahn KA, et al. Intake of Sugar-sweetened Beverages and Fecundability in a North American Preconception Cohort. Epidemiology. 2018;29(3):369-378. doi:10.1097/ede.0000000000000812
- Machtinger R, Gaskins AJ, Mansur A, et al. Association between preconception maternal beverage intake and in vitro fertilization outcomes. Fertility and Sterility. 2017;108(6):1026-1033. doi:10.1016/j.fertnstert.2017.09.007