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Fertility-Boosting Nutrition: How to Eat for Optimal Fertility

What if the best diet wasn't actually a diet at all? A nutritionist explains how to eat to boost your chances of conceiving.

March 4th, 2024 | 13 min. read

By Jill Hickey, RDN

Keto, Whole 30, paleo, cleanses, the Mediterranean diet...we are bombarded by a constant flow of new food fads each year. For fertility patients in particular, this can be stressful. If you're wondering how to find that one "perfect" diet for fertility, this guide is for you.

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What is the best diet for fertility? 

As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at a fertility clinic, my goal is to supply each patient with as much useful information as possible. When it's so easy to fall prey to diet trends - which are incredibly difficult to sustain and aren’t necessarily good for your bodies or your fertility, it's important to have a source of evidence-based information about nutrition.

Having a trained professional by your side as you sort through all the fallacies and food myths can really help you cut through the noise and support your goal of establishing a healthier way of eating. For those who are trying to conceive, good nutrition can not only boost your fertility, but also lay the groundwork for a healthy pregnancy and baby.

So, why are these fad diets not a good idea when trying to conceive? Why should we always prioritize moderation and balance over elimination and restriction? Why does what we eat play such a large role in our fertility?

Most importantly, is there a single nutrition plan that will actually boost your fertility?

Good news: The answer is much simpler than you think!

Working with a Nutritionist

When it comes to working with healthcare professionals, patients are often afraid to say what they really eat, what diet they are actually following, or what supplements they’re secretly taking. If you want to seek support making diet and lifestyle changes, but feel nervous that a nutritionist might judge your choices, remember that they are simply there to help you.

Here at Illume Fertility, our Nutrition Team abides by the motto: "Everything in moderation."

If you choose to work with us, we consider it our responsibility to steer you away from food guilt, diet fads, and unbalanced eating. We focus on empowering you with tools that will help you achieve your goals - whether that be managing PCOS symptoms, optimizing your fertility, or preparing your body for a healthy pregnancy and baby. 

Remember: Your nutritionist should offer you real options and helpful guidance that fits your lifestyle - not to make you feel guilty about past or current food choices.

Your Fertility-Friendly Nutrition Plan

For me and the rest of your Care Team at Illume Fertility, it’s not about adhering to a specific diet – it’s about embracing a sustainably healthy lifestyle.

That’s why all those fad diets like keto, paleo, and cleanses aren’t ideal for your overall wellbeing. These diets are based on eliminating certain foods (or entire food groups) from your diet, and as you can probably tell by now, we typically want to stay away from eliminating and restricting food groups.

A great fertility-friendly nutrition plan starts with balance and inclusion. In order to find that balance, it's helpful to base your meals around three main food groups. Let's explore what they are!

#1 Complex Carbohydrates

What this means:

The first thing to include in your diet are complex carbohydrates:

  • Whole grains
  • Ancient grains
  • Fruits and vegetables that are high in fiber (without added sugar)

Want an example? Think lentils, legumes, quinoa, barley, bulgur, oats, winter squash, farro, and fresh or frozen fruits and veggies.

How do complex carbs help?

A car needs gas to go, right? Carbohydrates are like gas for the human body! Carbs are the main source of energy our body needs to function. However, like with most things, the type we choose and how much we put in our bodies matters.

Complex or whole-grain choices (as opposed to their refined alternatives) are loaded with fiber which helps fill you up, slows the absorption of glucose into your bloodstream, and provides your body with lots of micronutrients like B vitamins (including folate!) that will be beneficial to you and your baby.

Where fad diets fail: A diet without complex carbs (i.e. a diet like Keto and Whole 30) leaves you missing out big time on important nutrients and energy your body needs.

How to include complex carbs in your diet:

Adding 1/3 to 1/2 cup of whole grains or starchy veggies with each meal can help give your body the energy it needs to fuel your brain, ovulation, baby, and more. Serve it as a side dish or add it to your salad (yes, they taste good cold too!) to help make a more balanced meal.

#2 Healthy Fats

What this means:

Yes, it's important to include fats…but mostly the heart-healthy fats like omega 3s and monounsaturated fats. 

Want an example? Think low-mercury fish (like salmon), nuts (walnuts are great), nut butters, olive oil, and avocado.

How do healthy fats help?

Choosing more mono and polyunsaturated fats can help improve insulin sensitivity and decrease inflammation. They can also improve your cholesterol levels, which we know can reduce time to pregnancy.

The rich and creamy taste and textures they often bring to a meal can help increase your satiety, which means we’re less likely to overeat too.

Where fad diets fail: Yes, fat is fat; all are equally high in calories which can add up if we're not mindful, but not all fats are equal. If we lose focus on the healthier choices, we potentially allow trans fats in – and these guys have actually been shown to increase the likelihood of infertility.

Trans fats contribute to more insulin resistance, increased inflammation, and do a number on our arteries, all of which are the opposite of what we are going for in our quest for fertility and overall good health.

How to include healthy fats in your diet:

  • Drizzle some olive oil on your veggies to boost the flavor
  • Sprinkle some nuts or avocado slices on your salad for extra crunch and texture
  • Spread some nut butter on your apple for a nutrient-dense snack

Fertility Superfoods 101

Trying to conceive? Optimize your preconception nutrition with these delicious, dietitian-approved fertility superfoods.

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#3 Protein

What this means:

Protein is paramount. Super important for cellular growth, development, repair, and metabolism. Kind of a big deal! So where do we get it? That depends on your dietary restrictions and preferences, but here are some examples:

  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Other meat
  • Beans
  • Cheese
  • Eggs
  • Nuts
  • Low-mercury fish

How does protein help?

In a well-renowned study cohort, known as the Nurses’ Health Study, they found that getting more protein from plant sources rather than animal sources had positive impacts on ovulatory infertility.

Pairing your starchy grains with a protein can help slow the absorption of glucose into your bloodstream, which is great for glucose/insulin control.

Where fad diets fail: Again…not all sources are created equal! Following a high-protein diet typically has us consuming higher amounts of saturated fats and cholesterol coming from animal protein sources. That means loading up on these choices “shifts your balanced plate,” therefore, the intake of all the other healthy stuff we’ve been talking about falls short.  

How to include protein in your diet:

Keep your servings in check (for example, three ounces of meat is equivalent to a deck of cards), choose lean cuts of meat, trim the fat from the edges, and include plant-based choices like lentils, legumes, nuts, and seeds often.

Best Fertility Nutrition Tips

Beyond the three pillars of a great meal (complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and lean protein), here are some additional never-fail tips on nutrition.

I live by these rules myself, and I truly believe in their ability to offer a high-quality life. Wondering how to eat for PCOS specifically? Check out our Nurse Practitioner's complete guide. 

Eat the Rainbow

Imagine a beautifully colored rainbow…that’s what your dream plate should look like! Try your best to have a variety of colors on your plate at as many meals as possible. Greens, reds, yellows, etc.

Including colorful fruits and vegetables can help keep your calorie level in check while providing you with a variety of vitamins and minerals beneficial for fertility.

For instance, vitamin C rich sources (i.e. broccoli, kale, oranges, peppers) can help with iron absorption, and vitamin A rich sources (i.e. spinach, sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkin, eggs) can help with vision and cellular growth, egg quality, and embryo development. All good things, especially if you're trying to prepare your body for a healthy pregnancy and baby.

Don’t Forget the (Whole) Milk

Yes, FULL-fat dairy! I know what you are thinking…we have just been talking about staying away from saturated fats found in animal products, and you have probably always heard that low-fat dairy is the healthier choice…and it is for the general population.

However, another Nurses Health Study found that a serving or two of whole milk or full-fat dairy can actually have a beneficial effect on ovulatory infertility! That means enjoying a serving or two a day of whole milk, full-fat yogurt, cottage cheese, and yes, ice cream can not only be delicious, but helpful to fertility.   

Equally beneficial is the calcium and Vitamin D you will be getting from that dairy to keep your muscles, bones, and heart healthy. Additionally, higher vitamin D levels are associated with better egg quality and healthier pregnancies. It’s a win-win-win!

Not a dairy milk drinker? There are many lactose-free alternatives and fortified almond/nut milks to help you get the calcium you need. 

It's All About Balance

That means pairing your complex starchy grains with heart-healthy fats and lean protein sources with vitamin-rich veggies. In addition to your colorful plate, make sure there is a wide variety of different types of food on that plate.

This helps keep blood sugar in check and helps manage weight, leaving you satisfied and less likely to feel the need to add more or snack later. Plus, it helps to ensure you are getting all of the nutrients you need to foster fertility.

Which Foods to Limit

You’ve made it this far in your fertility nutrition research, you may as well get the whole story! 

For the record, I really dislike the word "avoid," because I know we all live real lives, and it’s not always feasible to 100% avoid certain food products/groups. So instead of "foods to avoid," let’s go with "foods to limit."

So, here are a few things to try to limit, as best you can:

  • Highly processed foods, refined carbohydrates (like white bread), and simple sugars.
  • Trans/hydrogenated fat and limiting saturated fats - these guys can be pro-inflammatory, and eating less of these, including less red meat, has been found to be beneficial for pregnancy, not to mention healthier for your heart in general. 
  • The unknowns - artificial sweeteners, environmental contaminants (BPA), etc.

Long story short? It’s best to stick with whole foods and ingredients you can pronounce.

Nutrition + Physical Activity = A Winning Combo

Another big professional and personal motto for me (in addition to "everything in moderation") is it all comes down to good self-care. You know, put your own oxygen mask on first type of stuff.

In addition to eating healthfully, good self-care includes exercising. Of course, this isn’t the first time you’ve heard that, and it will certainly not be the last, but this time around, let’s try and think of exercise as a positive:

You get to exercise! You get to improve your health simply by devoting 15, 20, 30, or however many minutes to moving your body. You get the opportunity to build muscle, feel stronger, give your body more energy, clear your mind, and improve your wellbeing.

Note: When you are navigating fertility struggles, it can be helpful to celebrate the processes in your body that function perfectly…like walking, stretching, running, or any other movement that feels good. It can also be a nice distraction, having something else to focus on besides your next two-week wait!

The Benefits of Exercise on Fertility 

Let’s break it down: why do we actually need physical activity? Why is it such an important part of a healthy mind/body equation?

Regular physical activity can help with the following:

  • Achieving or maintaining a healthy body weight
  • Improving glucose/insulin sensitivity
  • Improving cholesterol levels
  • Reducing the risk of diabetes during pregnancy
  • Improving our mental health and reducing stress 

Be Proactive

Want to increase your chances of a healthy pregnancy? Get our 3-month checklist and learn what steps you can take today. 

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Your Next Steps to Improve Fertility & Health

If any of these recommendations feel like a struggle for you, take baby steps (pun intended) and break things down into various categories, then incorporate each of them into your life.

  • Add in one new change each day (or week!) instead of doing it all at once. Try a new whole grain or veggie, walk slightly longer or faster more days this week, or sign up for that yoga class you’ve been eyeing.
  • Eat mindfully! Enjoy your food knowing you're making healthy changes to take care of yourself and your future baby.
  • Practice journaling – this can help in practical ways (like keeping you accountable with your progress) and with overall mindfulness (helping you reflect on your progress). Grab our free gratitude journal to get started.
  • Set aside 5 minutes for reflection and appreciation – what sort of progress are you making, and do you see areas to build upon? More importantly, how you are feeling? Maybe this is through meditation, the aforementioned journaling, or a phone call with a fertility advocate. You deserve to take a moment to appreciate how hard you are working for yourself and your future family.  
  • Take advantage of offerings at your fertility clinic like acupuncture and counseling! These will undoubtedly help you embody wellness. At the end of the day, your diet is just one piece of the wellness picture (albeit a big one!) so it’s important to factor in other ways of caring for yourself and optimizing your fertility.   

You're Not Alone on This Journey

So, step into my office, a judgment-free zone. We are in this together, bite by bite, step by step. Taking care of your nutrition and overall health now will help put some of the control back in your hands - a feeling that often gets lost when you're dealing with infertility.

It all comes down to giving yourself the odds at conception, whether that’s with the help of fertility treatment or all on your own. Either way, working towards a healthy mind and body will improve your chances of success.

Let's embark on the road to optimal health together! 

Jill Hickey, RDN

Jill is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who has been providing nutrition guidance to children and adults for over 20 years. She currently supports both PCOS and fertility patients at Illume Fertility with her broad experience and unique perspective. Jill is passionate about helping people work towards their healthiest selves by providing evidence-based, sustainable, personalized diet and lifestyle guidance.

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