When you look back on your earlier years as a baby-seeking adult, you realize how hard you had to work just to NOT get pregnant. The nightly pill. The awkward condom. The dreaded walk to the pharmacy for Plan B. But when the stars align, and the baby bug bites (or we just get fed up with our mother-in-law begging for her grandchild), we do a 180.
Suddenly, we’re reading every baby blog, peeing on ovulation sticks, and meticulously tracking days to determine when to baby dance, not when to avoid it. Hopefully, it’s an easy (and fun) ride. But for one in eight couples, making a baby isn’t as simple as just getting busy when the mood strikes. Some will need medications, surgeries, and years of heartbreak to ever get a chance at parenthood.
While you can’t completely control your fertility, countless blogs, Facebook pages, and online forums swear that diet makes a difference. Can your food baby help you get your forever baby? I spoke with my fellow dietitian colleague, blogger at BumpstoBaby.com, and co-author of the upcoming book Fertility Foods Elizabeth Shaw to help you distinguish fertility fiction from fact.
Does a slice of pineapple a day keep the embryologist away?
Read any fertility forum and you’ll hear about people carting home whole pineapples, cutting them into five even pieces, and eating them daily when trying to conceive. Sounds easy and tasty, right? Not so fast. The pineapple flesh is just for funsies; it’s the hard, bland, fibrous core that apparently contains the magical baby-making ingredients. Pineapple core is a good source of the nutrient bromelain, a digestive enzyme that thins blood much the same way that a carefully controlled dose of aspirin would.
The theory (which lacks any real credible research) is that it can help drive blood to the uterus to encourage a thicker, stickier lining for the embryo to latch onto. The challenge is that depending on where you are in your cycle, excessive levels of bromelain (or any blood thinner for that matter) may cause uterine contractions that may actually impair embryo implantation. If this theory even checks out (I've yet to find the science to back this up), that gives you a very tight two-week window each month when eating pineapple core is "safe."
Eeek—isn’t trying to have a baby stressful enough?! My opinion? Just eat normally... and hopefully, that means a well-balanced diet. If you do or don’t eat pineapple core at any point in the month, it’s unlikely to have a huge impact on your reproductive success.
Should you do a McDonald's run for fries after IVF retrieval?
For those one-in-eight couples who are struggling to conceive, assisted reproductive technologies (ART) like in vitro fertilization (IVF) may be their best bet. And if you’ve ever stumbled on an IVF Facebook group, you’ll see selfies of women in hospital gowns and a supersized McDonald’s fry. (Am I the only one seeing this turn into a wickedly successful ad campaign?) Seriously though, fries aren’t just a common treat for undergoing surgery. Women who are having their eggs retrieved for fertilization or freezing are recommended to consume a high-salt diet to help reduce bloating.
Wait, whaaa? Doesn’t salt cause bloat? Generally, yes, but we’re trying to pull the fluid away from the tender ovaries to redistribute it all around the body. That way you look like a proportionately bloated blimp, and not like you’re already seven months pregnant (ah, the joys).
So why are fries the treatment du jour? I guess if you’re going to eat salt, you might as well make sure it’s damn delicious. But we know there are healthier ways to get your sodium fix that are lower in saturated fats, which we know may actually impair conception rates (more on that later). Instead, try roasting Brussels sprouts and sprinkling them liberally with fancy pink Himalayan salt, make a batch of homemade soup with full-sodium broth, or whip up my healthier version of mac and cheese with lots of cheesy gold.
Will pricey pomegranate juice make you a mom?
Man, the pomegranate commodity board must love this one. It’s not uncommon for women struggling with infertility to hear they should down a glass of pomegranate juice each day to help thicken their uterine lining. Some acupuncturists and naturopathic experts even suggest this recommendation applies to any and all red foods.
While I haven’t been able to find anything even remotely scientific that would explain how red foods like pomegranates would thicken lining, Shaw pointed out that colorful foods pack in the antioxidants, and that's a good thing for your baby journey.
Will Brazil nuts lead to baby?
Of course it’s the most expensive (and arguably the most bitter) nut at the bulk store that gets called out as the fertility superstar. But maybe it’s for good reason. Brazil nuts are rich in selenium and vitamin E, two antioxidants with reproductive roles in the body. Adequate levels of selenium are crucial in the development of healthy ovarian follicles and a balanced thyroid, which is essential to ovulation and reproductive health.
Vitamin E has been shown to help improve endometrial thickness, which may help the embryo properly implant. While adding selenium and vitamin E-rich foods to your diet may help, they’re not the only option. Reach for fish, seeds, and a variety of other nuts to get a solid dose of both nutrients.
Should you swap your morning coffee for red raspberry leaf tea?
Red raspberry leaf tea has been recommended by midwives for centuries as a natural aid for helping the uterine walls relax for implantation. Raspberry leaf--should it be recommended to pregnant women? Holst L, Haavik S, Nordeng H. Complementary therapies in clinical practice, 2009, Jun.;15(4):1873-6947. The challenge is that most of the research has been done on rats or in a petri dish, and the evidence was mixed at best. What’s potentially more problematic is that some rat studies have found it causes uterine contractions, so if it does have a clinical impact, precise timing would be imperative.
I say enjoy it while trying to conceive if you’re a fan of the (tannic bitter) taste, but I don’t think it will magically make that double line appear on your home pregnancy test.
Bottom line, ladies and gents: Singling out certain foods can’t transform a woman into a Fertile Myrtle. They might not do anything at all or, if not timed precisely, they might have adverse effects. We really just don’t know. So rather than OD-ing on any one food specifically, your better bet is to focus on how larger dietary habits influence reproductive health. Here’s what research has proven and what we do know.
1. Make that skinny latte a decaf.
We know that too much java isn’t good during pregnancy, but what you do before conception matters too. Research has found that women are more likely to miscarry if she and her partner down more than two caffeinated bevies during the weeks prior to getting busy. Another study found that caffeine may interfere with the natural contractions that help carry a woman’s eggs from her ovaries to her womb. Cut back on caffeine when you cut the birth control routine to give yourself the best chance at a strong, healthy pregnancy.
2. Go virgin (with your drink, not your sex life).
Sorry ladies. The dry spell might need to be longer than those precious nine months. A large Danish study of more than 6,000 women found that those who consumed more than 14 drinks each week (a solid two drinks per day) cut their chances of conceiving by 18 percent within one year. Best to start weaning your way off the fun juice a bit early.
3. Scream for ice cream! (Well, kind of… )
The tables are turning for dairy, and full fat is finally back in vogue. A massive eight-year study of more than 100,000 American nurses found that women who ate two or more weekly servings of low-fat dairy increased their risk of ovulatory failure by 85 percent. A prospective study of dairy foods intake and anovulatory infertility. Chavarro JE, Rich-Edwards JW, Rosner B. Human reproduction (Oxford, England), 2007, Feb.;22(5):0268-1161. In contrast, including full-fat dairy products such as whole milk or yogurt reduced infertility risk by 27 percent. Finally, we can skip the skim and go for the real thing! YAS!
4. Beans, beans, the magical fruit (you know the rest).
Protein is imperative at any life stage, but where you get your protein may impact your infertility risk. One large study found that women who consumed 5 percent of their total energy from vegetable protein instead of animal protein reduced their risk of ovulatory infertility by 50 percent. Time to make Meatless Monday a more regular event? Maybe.
5. Folate FTW.
I’ll never forget my nutrition professor pointing at every woman in our Nutrition 101 course and telling us that we ALL need to be taking a folate supplement because “mistakes happen.” Why? Well, if there was any nutrient you’re going to want to make sure you’re getting enough of during and even before pregnancy, in my opinion, it’s folate. Folate is responsible for helping prevent neural tube defects, devastating birth defects that can affect the developing spinal cord and brain. Research has also shown that getting enough folate can reduce women’s risk of challenges related to egg production by 40 percent. So in addition to your supplement, reach for folate-rich foods such as cooked asparagus, cooked spinach, beans, lentils, and sunflower seeds.
6. Suns out, buns (in the oven) out.
While the recommendations and research on vitamin D are consistently controversial and constantly evolving, many experts can agree that most North Americans aren’t getting enough. Research from the University of Carolina looked at its impacts on reproduction, suggesting that those with sufficient vitamin D levels had higher rates of pregnancy compared with those whose levels were lagging. For that reason, aim to get at least two servings of dairy or fortified alternatives, and consider taking a supplement for an extra boost.
7. Eat (better) carbs.
No matter what stage we're at in life, we know that cutting back on sugar is probably a good thing. This is particularly true when trying to grow a babe. Research has linked high-glycemic index foods such as sugary breakfast cereals and white bread to higher rates of ovulatory infertility, while carbs on the other end of the spectrum (the whole grain kind) helped reduce the risk. Simply focus on a balanced diet with whole grains, healthy fats, and lots of fiber-rich vegetables.
8. Fatty acids are your friend.
Popular fertility forums will often suggest women put flax in their morning meals, a suggestion which surprisingly holds some weight. Research has found that women with higher levels of omega-3 fats were less likely to have inflammatory fertility issues like endometriosis compared to women with lower levels of omega-3s. Serum Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and Endometriosis. Hopeman MM, Riley JK, Frolova AI. Reproductive sciences (Thousand Oaks, Calif.), 2014, Dec.;22(9):1933-7205. Likewise, other research has found that omega-3 supplementation may help improve sperm count and motility so those swimmers have a better shot at the pot of gold. Effect of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation on semen profile and enzymatic anti-oxidant capacity of seminal plasma in infertile men with idiopathic oligoasthenoteratospermia: a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomised study. Safarinejad MR. Andrologia, 2010, Dec.;43(1):1439-0272.
While flax does contain a shorter-chain omega-3 fat called ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), the longer chain EPA and DHA compounds found in fatty fish are where the magic happens. Aim to eat at least five ounces of low-mercury fatty fish (salmon or trout) every week or consider taking a fish-oil supplement before and during pregnancy.
9. Good fats equal good eggs.
Not to reduce us women down to egg-laying hens, but I think we can learn a lot from the chicken coop. (Or I guess we can just look to science instead.) Research looking specifically at women undergoing fertility treatments found that those with the higher intake of saturated fats (largely found in animal protein) have fewer quality embryos to work with. Those women who consumed higher amounts of polyunsaturated fats had the most high-quality embryos, and those with higher intakes of monounsaturated fats had the best chance of a live birth. Aim to cut back on fatty cuts of meats and fried food and incorporate more olive oil, fatty fish, avocados, nuts, and seeds into your day.
10. Consume more color.
It's safe to say that antioxidants are good stuff at any age, but they may play a significant role when you’re trying to conceive. One large systematic review concluded that antioxidants helped improve pregnancy outcome by enhancing sperm quality or general pregnancy rates. Another study concurred, noting that the combination of vitamin C, vitamin E, and CoQ10 was the perfect recipe to get that bun baking in the oven. Try eating citrus, bell peppers, and broccoli for vitamin C; nuts, avocado, and spinach for vitamin E; and lean beef, sardines, or mackerel for CoQ10. You can also speak to your doctor about the right supplement dose for you.
11. Eat like the Italians do (but maybe go easy on the vino).
While diet trends seem to disappear faster than a melting snow cone in hell, praise for the Mediterranean diet has remained strong. In a study comparing the diets of women undergoing ART, the Mediterranean diet came out on top for pregnancy success rates. In fact, consuming a diet rich in antioxidant vegetables, fish, and legumes, and low in saturated fat and sugar was linked to a 40 percent greater probability of getting knocked up. And is that really surprising? If you summarize all of the recommendations above, you’ll land on a diet best characterized as Mediterranean inspired. We say buon appetito to that!
Double Bottom Line
They say you are what you eat, so it makes sense that the human you’re growing inside of you is likely being shaped by your dietary habits too. But it’s important to note that sometimes diet just isn’t enough. While we all love to believe we have full control over our reproductive destiny, the reality is some things are way more complicated than eating more pomegranates and drinking less wine. So if you’re struggling with infertility, speak to your doctor about seeing a specialist to help you find the best solution for your family.