Prenatal Spotlight 1: Fertility & Pregnancy Diet
Most people know that once you get pregnant, you need to start supplementing with a prenatal multivitamin. But did you know that you can optimize your fertility by focusing on specific nutrients in your diet?
This article will cover whole foods to incorporate to optimize fertility (as well as all stages of pregnancy), as well as a few herbs that could be used to improve both male and female fertility.
Ideal Fertility/Pregnancy Diet
One of the most important things we can do for our health is to consume whole foods. Whole foods like vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, wild seafood, pasture-raised meat, eggs, etc. contain all of the nutrition your body needs to optimize your hormones and your overall health. Whole foods not only supply a variety of vitamins and minerals that the body needs, but it will also optimize the functioning of important organ systems. Whole foods will help to regulate the menstrual cycle, improve liver health and digestion, support the reproductive organs, and much more. The following list gives categories of whole foods that you should be consuming daily, with specific fertility and pregnancy considerations.
Protein is necessary for many functions of the body, including producing healthy sperm, developing healthy eggs, and growing healthy babies in the womb. Around 50-80g of protein per day is a good goal for most women, and it can be a mix of animal proteins and plant-based ones. Note that animal proteins have quite a bit more available protein than plant-based sources, so if you are a vegetarian, you will need to be more careful with tracking your protein intake, and adding in lots of protein-rich snacks like protein bars, nuts, protein powders, etc. If eating animal proteins, ensure you are choosing free-range, organic selections with no antibiotics or hormones added. These add unnecessary burden to your liver to detoxify these toxins, which can transfer to your baby. Additionally, protein can be very helpful for preventing/managing morning sickness (see our Prenatal Spotlight #3 article). Examples of protein sources to mix in are as follows:
- Wild seafood and shellfish (salmon, shrimp, oysters, mackerel, rainbow trout, etc)
- Grass-fed, pasture raised meats and poultry (red meat, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, etc)
- Free-range, organic eggs
- Organic legumes (beans, lentils, peas, etc)
- Organic grains (brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, etc)
Some studies have been done on trans fats, saturated fats, and unsaturated fats on both male and female fertility, showing that higher trans fats affect both ovulation and lower semen quality (1), while unsaturated fats show improvement in egg quality and embryo implantation (1). In fact, diets high in fish have been associated with greater fertility among men and women (2), although mercury toxicity is a concern especially in pregnancy. Consuming 1-2 servings of fish per week would be a safe amount, as well as avoiding predatory fish higher in mercury such as shark, swordfish, etc. Other sources of healthy fats to incorporate include:
- Wild seafood, shellfish
- Raw, unseasoned nuts (almonds, walnuts, brazil nuts, etc)
- Raw, unseasoned seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, hemp, chia, etc)
- Fruits and their oils: coconut, avocado, olive
- Grass-fed, pastured dairy (milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, etc)
Specific Whole Foods Groups
Vegetables, Fruits, Herbs, etc.
It’s no surprise that vegetables and fruits are important for everyone to eat, all of the time – a variety of 30 different vegetables and fruits weekly supplies lots of variety of nutrients for the body, like antioxidants, water soluble vitamins like vitamin C, micronutrients, fibre, and so much more.
Aim to get a variety of different fruits and vegetables every week to supply your body and your gut microbiome with tons of vitamins and minerals. You can select some from the following groupings to try to hit your goals:
- Cruciferous vegetables: brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, etc
- Leafy Greens: kale, spinach, beet greens, swiss chard, etc
- Root Vegetables: sweet potatoes, carrots, celery, butternut squash, spaghetti squash, etc.
- Allium Family: onions, garlic, leeks, etc
- Berries: blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, etc
- Citrus and tropical fruits: lemon, oranges, lime, pineapple, banana, etc
- Stone and pome fruits: plums, peaches, cherries, apples, pears, etc
- Sea vegetables: kelp, nori, dulse, etc
Whole grains are great sources of fiber, which promote healthy digestion, cholesterol management, and help to balance hormones by improving excretion. Whole grains also contain a lot of B vitamins, which are necessary for fertility and pregnancy (B12, B6, folate, etc). These include foods like rice, quinoa, corn, buckwheat, millet, etc.
Whole grains (as opposed to refined grains) are important because they contain all three parts of the grain: the bran (the fibre-filled layer), the germ (the core, which contains fats and B vitamins), and the endosperm (which contains the starch). Refined grains remove the bran and germ, meaning you lose many vitamins, minerals and healthy fats, and are simply consuming starch! Therefore, opt for products marked “whole grain” rice, “whole grain” oats, etc.
Many nutritionists will promote a gluten-free diet, however, as gluten can be quite destructive to the digestive tract. For most people, gluten-containing grains in moderation (i.e. not daily) and in whole grain form will not cause major health issues, but there are many gluten-free options available if this is of concern to you. You can also have a practitioner order a food sensitivity test to check if a gluten-free diet might benefit you.
Foods like lentils, beans, soy, and peanuts fall into this category. They are excellent sources of protein especially for a vegetarian/plant-based eater, and provide loads of fiber, B vitamins, and more.
Nuts and Seeds
Raw, unseasoned nuts and seeds supply tons of fiber and healthy fats to the body. They are also rich in zinc, which is an important mineral for both male and female fertility. In females, deficiency in zinc reduces egg quality (3). Therefore, a diet rich in zinc is a great idea for fertility – and nuts and seeds are an easy addition to the diet.
Sample Meal Plans for Fertility and Pregnancy
Something resembling a Mediterranean, whole foods diet rich in healthy fats, protein, and loads of fiber is best for fertility and pregnancy.
- 1 or 2 hard-boiled eggs with sauteed greens
- Mixed berry smoothie with protein powder, almond milk, and spinach
- Steelcut oatmeal with nuts and seeds, fresh berries, and a dollop of greek yogurt
- Cup of green tea
- Spinach salad with raw vegetables, quinoa, avocados, cheese, pumpkin seeds and olive oil/balsamic dressing
- Stir-fried vegetables with brown rice and shrimp (coconut aminos instead of soy sauce)
- Homemade chicken and vegetable soup with sourdough bread
- Turkey/chicken breast with roasted vegetables (sweet potatoes, carrots, brussels sprouts, etc)
- Baked salmon, with steamed broccoli and baked sweet potato
- Lentil and vegetable curry topped with brown rice
- Slow cooker pork tenderloin with roast potatoes and salad
- Pasta sauce (ground beef or lentils) with spaghetti squash noodles
Greek yogurt with berries
Hummus with raw vegetables
Nuts, seeds, dark chocolate chips and dried cranberries
Apple/banana with almond butter
Carrots, celery sticks with guacamole
Herbs for Fertility
This herb has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries to improve male fertility and reproductive health. While the focus is most often on women for fertility, male infertility is a growing concern. In Canada, as many as 30% of cases of infertility can be traced to men (4).
Ashwagandha has a range of health benefits for both men and women, especially with stress and adrenal health, but it could be a helpful herb to support male infertility, improving low sperm count, sperm motility, and semen volume (5). This is a popular herb, and therefore low quality supplements populate the market, so ensure you are purchasing a high quality supplement which will be more potent.
Vitex (Chaste Tree)
While we don’t recommend simply jumping into supplementation of this herb without guidance, vitex (AKA chaste tree) has been used for centuries to improve female fertility. This is because it can balance out hormones especially after ovulation, including prolactin and progesterone (6), the latter being necessary for preparing the uterus for implantation and maintaining pregnancy. Taking this herb for a minimum of 3 months can be a helpful option for women if they’ve had hormonal testing that shows indication for it.
Many herbalists will use this herb to promote male fertility as saw palmetto is said to enhance male reproductive function, improve sperm count, and as a tonic for the prostate (7). There are no clinical trials known to study saw palmetto’s effect on male fertility, but it is certainly used by many herbalists.
Nutrition can be an extremely beneficial tool for improving fertility and growing a healthy baby. There are other considerations other than nutrition – of course, quitting smoking is very important for preparing for pregnancy. If you plan to get pregnant, consider cutting back on or cutting out alcohol completely, lowering your overall sugar intake, upping your whole foods, and increasing exercise like walking, stretching, and stress-relieving practices like tai chi, yoga, etc. Consult a holistic nutritionist or health practitioner to discuss other lifestyle changes that might benefit you and your baby-to-be!
Blog Written by: Jennifer Costello
Jan 2023 Nutrition Dispensary Inc.
Advice and/or information provided is not intended to diagnose, cure, treat or prevent disease.
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