It seems that infertility is on the rise, according to statistics published by the Infertility Awareness Association of South Africa, with at least one in six couples of reproductive age experiencing fertility problems. And although there are many causes of infertility – including issues with sperm or egg production, the fallopian tubes and the uterus, or female diseases such as endometriosis – for 20% of couples there’s no proven medical cause, which is also known as unexplained infertility. Not being able to conceive a baby and not knowing why can be extremely frustrating and demotivating for couples.
The good news is that no matter what fertility journey you’re on, there are positive dietary steps you can take so your body is in the optimal “baby-making” zone.
The benefits of a plant-based diet
While it’s not advisable to cut out entire food groups (such as animal protein, dairy or carbohydrates) while trying to conceive, there is evidence of the benefits of a plant-based diet for fertility. “Eating a well-balanced diet (rich in wholegrains, fruits and vegetables) enhanced with supplements that boost levels of all essential nutrients, is the best route to achieving good health and maximising your fertility,” says nutritionist Patrick Holford. In his latest book, Optimum Nutrition Before, During and After Pregnancy, co-authored with Susannah Lawson, Patrick gives the following guidelines:
- Eat regular sources of the key fertility nutrients – in particular zinc (in nuts, rye and oats), B6 (in cauliflower, watercress, bananas and broccoli) and essential fats (in fish oils and unsalted seeds).
- Boost your intake of antioxidant nutrients – aim to eat at least five portions of different coloured fruits and vegetables a day, plus a handful of nuts and seeds.
- Supplement a good diet with a daily multivitamin and mineral formula.
- Reduce your intake of antinutrients, including alcohol, caffeine and refined foods made with sugar and white flour, and try to limit your use of industrial chemicals and pharmaceutical drugs.
From extensive research and case studies, Juliet Gellatley from vegan organisation VivaHealth also believes that one of the best ways to boost your fertility is to eat a highly nutritious diet that includes complex carbohydrates, fibre, protein, omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. A balanced plant-based diet is packed with disease-busting, body- and brain-nurturing nutrients, and is ideal for boosting fertility and for a healthy pregnancy, she explains.
A diet that’s primarily focused on plant-based foods also lacks nasties you need to avoid, such as saturated animal fats, cholesterol, concentrated pesticides, dioxins and mercury that are often found in processed meats, some types of fish and dairy products. But rather than focusing on what you can’t eat, focus on what you can eat, and eat more of it. Find inspiration in cookbooks and experiment with different herbs, spices and flavour combinations. Try a new vegetable every other day and use grains in different ways. For example, quinoa is delicious as a breakfast porridge served with honey, cinnamon and almond milk.
Maintain a healthy weight
A study published in the journal Lancet suggests that soaring levels of obesity may have triggered an infertility crisis among women. This is because obesity is linked to fertility-related problems and menstrual disorders such as polycystic ovarian syndrome, explains Emma Cannon, complimentary fertility specialist and author of the Baby Making Bible. In her experience, one of the most effective diets for weight control is the glycaemic index (GI) diet, which focuses on the effects of certain foods on blood glucose levels. The aim is to keep blood glucose levels stable throughout the day to avoid energy dips and spikes, as well as cravings and overeating. Emma’s suggestions for a healthy fertility diet include foods with a low GI, such as:
- Porridge, rice, bran and multigrain breads
- Legumes, including beans and lentils
- Low GI fruits, such as apples, pears, berries, oranges and kiwi fruit.
When it comes to maintaining a healthy weight before, during and after pregnancy, Emma also believes that it’s important to address any underlying emotional issues, because those who work on their mental outlook and the way they view themselves have far more success battling weight issues than those who purely concentrate on diet.
A fertility success story
Doctors and researchers of the Forks Over Knives movement, Dr T Colin Campbell and Dr Caldwell Esselstyn, say a healthy plant-based diet can help women overcome fertility issues. One of their success story candidates, Lisa Silvius, credits a whole food, plant-based diet for helping her overcome her fertility problems. “I always believed that I ate a healthy diet with little processed food and lots of fruits and vegetables, but I still ate meat and dairy. I hadn’t had monthly cycles in almost 10 years, though no doctor could figure out why. Because of this, both my seven-year-old daughter and three-year-old son were conceived through in-vitro fertilisation (IVF). We did eight rounds of IVF and were in debt for years. Some time after my son was born, I decided to remove meat from our diets, because I was concerned about the antibiotics used in meat production. After watching the Forks Over Knives documentary, I decided to give up dairy as well. I thought it would be difficult, but it really wasn’t. We all had more energy and slept better. We also rarely got sick.
“Shortly after adopting a plant-based diet, my monthly cycles returned. I thought the dream of another child was out of my reach, but my husband and I decided to try for one more pregnancy without using fertility treatments. After two cycles, I was pregnant at the age of 41. I never thought I would know the joy of another child, but my baby, Leo Flynn, was born on 20 July, and is doing great!”
Tammy is a wife, mom and freelance writer with 15 years’ experience in the media industry. She specialises in general lifestyle topics related to health, wellness and parenting. Tammy has a passion for fitness and the great outdoors. If she’s not running around after her daughter, you’ll find her off the beaten track, running, hiking or riding her bike.