Maybe you’ve already been told by a doctor to switch up your diet, or maybe you’re just starting to think about trying to get pregnant and want to treat your body like the temple that it is. The question is, where do you start? Don’t freak out; we’ve got the lowdown on the nutrients you need to support your fertility mission, and where to find them.
Dara Godfrey, a registered dietitian at Reproductive Medicine Associates of New York, notes that there’s no one-size-fits-all nutrition guide. We’re all different, but there are some foods that can help support the body to hopefully function more optimally. But before you make any significant changes to your diet (especially if you have PCOS, any thyroid issues, or autoimmune diseases), be sure to speak with your doctor and maybe a registered dietitian, who can tailor an individualized diet for your body’s specific needs.
Five A+ foods for fertility
Godfrey’s top five foods that she recommends to support clients’ fertility goals include:
- Green veggies
- Wild salmon
- Black beans
Fertility-friendly nutrients FTW
If you hate kale and omelettes aren’t your thing, here’s a breakdown of the seven nutrients Godfrey says your fertile body needs, and a wide variety of foods where you can find them:
- OMG! Omega 3s are known to help with hormone regulation, having good quality cervical mucus, and ovulation. To get those good juices flowing, look for high-fat fish like sardines, anchovies and wild salmon. You can also find Omega 3-enriched eggs (which also have protein bonus points). Godfrey mentions that recent research also suggests that Omega 3s can improve embryo quality, reduce inflammation and can even help with sperm quality. If you’re vegetarian, vegan, or just not that into fish, you can get Omega 3s from walnuts, flax seeds, and chia seeds.
- D-lightful! Some recent research shows that Vitamin D can increase IVF success, as well as potentially help regulate blood sugar. Keep in mind that Vitamin D supplementation may be especially needed during the winter months, when we’re not getting as much sunlight. There aren’t too many foods that are naturally fortified with Vitamin D, but Godfrey suggests include wild salmon, sardines, eggs and milk (yep, those guys are gonna come up a lot).
- Pump some iron! During pregnancy, iron helps deliver oxygen to the baby and prevent anemia in the mother. While supplements in prenatal vitamins are great, you can also find iron naturally in lean beef, shrimp, chicken, and fish. Animal-free iron sources include oatmeal, organic tofu, enriched whole grains (Godfrey loves cereals like All Bran or Shreddies), which are also high in fiber. Iron loves to hang out with Vitamin C—meaning, Vitamin C helps to absorb non-heme iron—so if you’re consuming an iron source, Godfrey suggests throwing in some red peppers. In the morning and for snacks, sprinkle strawberries on your iron-rich cereal.
- Folate fo’sho’! The first trimester is the most important time to prevent neural tube defects, and folate and folic acid are shown to have a protective effect, according to an American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study. This is the main reason doctors and dietitians recommend you take prenatal vitamins. The food form of folic acid is folate and it’s super easy to find it in dark leafy greens like brussels sprouts, kale, asparagus, avocado, black beans, kidney beans, lentils, oranges and sunflower seeds.
- I can C clearly now! Vitamin C, especially during food and cold season, is super important while trying to conceive. Most people think of citrus right off the bat, and yes, oranges and grapefruit are great, but Godfrey also suggests red peppers and broccoli. Other fruits include strawberries, papaya, kiwis, pineapple, mango and watermelon. Keep frozen fruits (ideally organic) in mind when they’re out of season. Apparently, according to Godfrey, they’re actually more concentrated in nutrients, since they’re picked and frozen at peak ripeness. Mind blown.
- Cozy up! Vitamin C’s best friend is calcium. Try pairing strawberries with yogurt to help with each others’ absorption, or a stir-fry with peppers sprinkled with some Parmesan cheese. One note on dairy: go for organic and keep in mind that men and women have opposite needs here in regards to fat content. Women need whole fat: “the fat in milk is where the female hormones like estrogen are found,” explains Godfrey. So when that fat is taken out, what’s left are the male hormones (like androgen) which aren’t helpful to a female body seeking to conceive. Contrastingly, men should avoid whole fat yogurt for the same reason: their fertility could be adversely affected by the higher concentration of female hormones. If you’re dairy-free, you can get calcium from broccoli, bok choy, collard greens, kale, almonds, organic tofu, and black beans.
- Make a splash! Hydrating with water is important year-round. In the winter months, it helps to clear your body of mucus, getting rid of viruses and airborne infections more rapidly. This may not sound like it relates to fertility, but as Godfrey points out, “if your immune system is strong, your body is working more efficiently.” And that’s always a good thing.
Men can use a boost, too
For men seeking to improve their fertility, Godfrey adds zinc and selenium to this list.
- Zinc is shown to increase testosterone levels, improve quality and quantity of sperm and help prevent sperm from clumping together. It can be found in seafood like oysters, crab and shrimp, as well as pork, beef, chicken and venison. Vegetarian sources include sesame seeds, raw pumpkin seeds and low-fat yogurt.
- Selenium is necessary for the creation of sperm, and is best sourced from Brazil nuts, liver, snapper, cod, halibut, tuna, salmon, sardines, shrimp, turkey and broccoli.
Every time is snack time
If you’re looking for healthy ways to get your snack on, Godfrey also serves up these easy, on-the-go ideas:
- Bag up a mix of walnuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and flax. Grab a cup of full-fat, organic yogurt and sprinkle your healthy mix on top.
- Ladle some black beans (or kidney beans, or chickpeas) into a glass jar as a wholesome, satisfying snack at your desk.
- Pack your commuter bag with an iron-enriched cereal and some strawberries and almonds.
- When you’re traveling, you can sometimes find ready-made hard-boiled eggs in airport cafes.
The bottom line on fertility foods
Beyond diet, Godfrey stresses that improving your body’s fertility has to include changes to your overall habits and environment. Bottom line: you can eat a perfect diet, but if you’re not taking care of yourself in other ways, the foods you eat can’t work as efficiently. Godfrey suggests improving your sleep by going to bed before midnight, eliminating screens an hour before bedtime, not eating within two to three hours before bed, and trying to limit your use of plastics for food storage and water bottles.