Guest blog by Dr. Nicole Avena, a research neuroscientist, pioneer in the field of food addiction and author.
A growing baby relies entirely on the mother’s daily nutrient intake and body stores for healthy growth and development. Their little fingers, toes, eyes, and nose, as well as their nervous system and all other organ systems, are forming and require a continuous supply of “building blocks” for the ongoing “construction.” Therefore, consuming nutritious foods is essential to support this growth. So, why am I talking about this when you aren’t even pregnant yet? Because what you eat before you get pregnant also can have an impact on the baby’s development. Plus, we now know from scientific research that diet impacts fertility in many ways, so proper nutrition is essential to helping you get (and stay) pregnant.
Consuming a balanced diet not only helps us to improve fertility, but it also helps us to avoid negatively impacting fertility. For example, deficiencies in certain nutrients, which can happen when you don’t consume a balanced diet, have been linked to fertility problems. Studies in women with disorders that cause malabsorption, such as celiac disease, have also been shown to have decreased fertility, suggesting that key nutrients such as iron, folic acid, zinc, vitamin B12, and fat-soluble vitamins may all play an important role in reproduction. With that said, here are ten foods that help you get the fertility promoting nutrients you need.
Foods with Fertility Promoting Nutrients
Spinach is full of vitamins and minerals that you need for fertility and a healthy pregnancy, but it is an especially good source of folate. Folate (natural form present in foods) or folic acid (synthetic form present in supplements or fortified foods) is involved in making and repairing DNA as well as aiding in numerous biological reactions.
An adequate folate/folic acid intake is crucial before and during the early stages because of its fundamental role in cell division. Not only is an adequate folate intake needed to prevent neural tube defects (which forms and closes within four weeks of pregnancy), but it is important for the cell division of sperm cells too. One study found that low folate levels in semen were associated with poor sperm DNA stability, meaning that their viability and overall health may be poor, and this can be a factor in male infertility.
The moment you start trying, it is actually recommended to take a folic acid supplement (in addition to a diet rich in a variety of whole foods). Most prenatal vitamins contain folic acid or folate, and just a stand-alone folic acid supplement will do for your male partner.
Cooked salmon is an excellent source of vitamin B12, a nutrient that is vital to our health and your future baby. B12 is also closely related to folate and is crucial for brain and nervous system development, blood formation, and numerous other reactions that take place in just about every cell of a baby’s growing body. In fact, without enough B12, folate can’t be metabolized appropriately and used by the cells.
You can find B12 in other animal foods such as broiled beef sirloin, low-fat cow’s milk, eggs, clams, trout, and chicken breast, but if you’re vegan or vegetarian you may need to discuss supplementation with your doctor to make sure you’re getting the amount you need to stay healthy and support fertility.
- Firm Tofu
Not only is tofu a great plant-based source of protein, but it’s also a great way to get more iron in your diet, especially if you’re trying to cut back on meat. Iron helps your body make hemoglobin, which is needed for your blood to carry oxygen throughout your body. In one study, women who took iron supplements had a significantly lower risk of ovulatory infertility (an inability to produce healthy baby-making eggs). Additionally, iron is a mineral that your baby-to-be will take from your own stores, and too little at the start of pregnancy can put you at risk for anemia during pregnancy and afterward.
When getting iron from plant-based sources, it’s a good idea to pair it with vitamin C-rich foods like bell peppers or citrus fruits. Vitamin C helps the body absorb non-heme iron (the kind of iron found in plants), which is a bit more difficult for our bodies to absorb than heme iron (the kind found in animals).
- Canned light tuna
Canned tuna is a great example of how not all processed foods are bad for you! Canned tuna is a convenient source of fish for healthy meals and snacks, and it also provides us with essential nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids.
A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids may prolong reproductive function into an advanced maternal age, and may help improve egg quality. For men, higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids have been correlated with improved sperm morphology and motility. Omega-3s are also important for your baby’s healthy brain development and improved cognitive and intellectual abilities in childhood.
The majority of American women don’t consume enough calcium in their diet, which is why it’s so important to focus on adequate calcium intake at this time. Minerals like calcium create an alkaline environment in the reproductive tract, and this is needed to move the sperm toward the egg. Research also shows that calcium can trigger growth in embryos, so it’s important for there to be adequate calcium in the surrounding fluid.
Although a serving of almonds may not have as much calcium as a good old glass of milk, almonds are also a great source of unsaturated fat (whereas milk contains the less healthy saturated fat). Additionally, most almond milks are fortified with calcium, which can make for a healthy, low-calorie alternative to cow’s milk.
Eggs, specifically the egg yolk, are a great source of vitamin D, a vitamin that is crucial to reproductive health and fertility. The active form of vitamin D (calcitrol) is able to control the genes involved in making estrogen as well as several genes involved in embryo implantation. Once a woman becomes pregnant, the uterus and placenta continue to make calcitrol, which helps organize immune cells in the uterus so that infections can be fought without harming the baby. Low vitamin D levels or deficiency has been associated with certain pregnancy complications, such as hypertension and diabetes.
Although we can naturally get vitamin D through exposure to sunshine, it’s a good idea to include vitamin D-rich foods in your diet, especially if you don’t live in a place that has year-round sunshine.
- Sweet potato (with the skin)
Sweet potatoes get their orange color from beta-carotene, which our body can turn into vitamin A if needed (this is also true of carrots, another great source of vitamin A). Vitamin A is essential for healthy development of a baby’s organs during the embryonic period, and most of this period will occur before you know you are pregnant. Vitamin A also plays a role in sperm health, making it important for both women and men to make sure they’re getting plenty of vitamin A when trying to conceive.
You may have guessed it, but oranges are on here due to their vitamin C content. Vitamin C helps you absorb non-heme iron from plants, and it is particularly helpful for fertility in women whose progesterone levels are low. For example, supplementing with vitamin C if you have low progesterone levels may increase your chances of getting pregnant. It’s also crucial for a developing baby, as it is involved in collagen synthesis, an essential component of healthy growth and development.
Lamb is a great source of zinc, which is particularly important for male fertility. Zinc helps the body utilize the male sexual hormones and estrogen in an efficient manner. Zinc also makes up the coating and the tail of the sperm, and if there is a deficiency of zinc in the system, the quality of the sperm will be inferior.
Since the body doesn’t store zinc, it’s important to make sure you get plenty of zinc-rich foods on a regular basis. In addition to lamb, you can try Alaskan king crab, canned baked beans, fortified breakfast cereals, turkey, tofu, pumpkin seeds, and garbanzo beans.
- Pumpkin and Sunflower Seeds
Not only are pumpkin seeds a great source of zinc, but pumpkin and sunflower seeds provide us with a lot of magnesium. Magnesium is important for healthy egg production, and it also plays a role in male fertility. Magnesium is an essential component of sperm production and function, and studies have found that a reduction of magnesium concentration in seminal fluid may lead to male infertility.
Including everything on this list in your diet can feel overwhelming, but at the end of the day, the best thing you can do is aim for a varied diet with plenty of whole foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and lean proteins. Variety is the key to making sure you get plenty of each nutrient, but it’s also important to learn where you might be deficient, especially with nutrients that aren’t always so easy to get like vitamin D, vitamin B12, or even iron. By understanding which nutrients you need and where to find them, you’ll be that much more likely to make healthy choices and be on the path to improving your fertility.
Dr. Nicole Avena is a research neuroscientist and a pioneer in the field of food addiction. She is also an expert in diet during pregnancy, and childhood nutrition. Dr. Avena received a Ph.D. in Psychology and Neuroscience from Princeton University in 2006. She completed her postdoctoral fellowship in 2010 at the prestigious Rockefeller University in New York City, an all-research institution that lays claim to having had 24 Nobel Prize winners on its staff over the years.
Dr. Avena is Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City and a Visiting Professor in Health Psychology at Princeton University. She has published over 90 scholarly journal articles on topics related to diet, nutrition and overeating, and she frequently presents her research findings at scientific conferences and University symposia. Her research achievements have been honored by awards from several groups including the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She has received research funding from prestigious sources, including the National Institutes of Health and the National Eating Disorders Association.
Dr. Avena is the author of What to Eat When You Want to Get Pregnant (2021, Kensington Books), Why Diets Fail (2014, Ten Speed Press) and the bestselling book What to Eat When You’re Pregnant (2015, Ten Speed Press).