Welcome to The Fertility Spectrum, Refinery29's ongoing effort to educate women on their reproductive health, change the language surrounding fertility, and open up the conversation about the many paths to parenthood.
When you're trying to get pregnant, it's very easy to get swayed into trying or buying whatever product, holistic treatment, or lifestyle claims it will help you conceive. Getting pregnant and figuring out your fertility status is often a confusing and stressful process, so it makes sense why you'd gravitate toward certain plans or programs, including so-called "fertility diets." But can eating certain foods increase your fertility, or boost your chances of getting pregnant? It's not so simple.
Diet is one piece of the fertility puzzle, and it happens to be a piece that you can control, along with your alcohol consumption, smoking habits, and stress levels. But, "you're not going to unblock a fallopian tube or cure a lack of sperm with just diet alone," explains Rachelle LaCroix Mallik, MA, RD, LDN. Rather, your nutrition matters for your overall health, and there's good research that it can affect your fertility as well.
It's almost impossible to say that one particular diet is better than others for fertility, because everyone has specific health concerns and food allergies, explains Serena Dovey, MD, a reproductive endocrinologist with KindBody, a women's health and fertility clinic in New York City. Not to mention, there are so many diverse health conditions that affect a person's ability to get pregnant. In recent years, research has examined how adopting a "pro fertility" diet can affect women who are having trouble ovulating properly, specifically, Mallik says. And we know that ovulatory issues account for most cases of infertility.
This "pro fertility diet" was developed by researchers, and includes a few key strategies from other studies and diets that are believed to help people with ovulatory concerns. For example, the diet suggests prioritizing eating whole grains, dairy, soy or plant-based protein, fish, and organic produce. It also encourages people to take folic acid, B12, and vitamin D supplements. "Researchers showed that the more likely people were sticking to these kind of dietary patterns, the more likely they were to have live births if they were undergoing assisted reproductive technology or fertility treatments," Mallik says. But again, this is just one fraction of the population of people with fertility issues.
Although this diet has been shown to be promising, it's important to take the suggestions with a grain of salt. "Nutrition isn’t necessarily a silver bullet," Mallik says. "It's not the only thing that's going to improve your fertility, but it can certainly make a difference in conjunction with some of these other modalities." Along with your diet, you might be experimenting with acupuncture, Traditional Chinese Medicine, stress-reduction techniques, and other holistic treatments that are meant to help with fertility. And when you're trying so many things to get pregnant, it's impossible to say which one actually "worked" for you.
To that same point, it's important to be wary of any "diet plan" that makes sweeping promises, or guarantees that it'll get you pregnant. Those are often not backed by scientific evidence or good quality research, Dr. Dovey says. "It makes me roll my eyes to a degree," she adds. If a diet is overly restrictive, or focuses on weight loss, that's also a red flag, Mallik says. "I think diets can be harmful, because there ends up being guilt and blame, and [the advice] may not even be relevant," she says.
Sometimes, your doctor or reproductive endocrinologist might suggest losing weight before undergoing IVF — and technically, obesity is a factor that leads to decreased success with IVF. But, in that case, it'd be wise to work with an RD who can provide personalized nutrition advice for you and your health needs. For anyone else, focusing on weight alone instead of prioritizing health-promoting behaviors may not lead to the ideal outcome — in this case, getting pregnant, Mallik says. Or, even if it does, it could leave you with some negative feelings about certain foods.
Overall, while a "fertility diet" might seem like the quick fix you need that's standing between you and your pregnancy, it's important to focus on habits that are sustainable in the long-term.
DESIGN AND ART DIRECTION ANDREINA CARRILLO. ANIMATION BY MISHA TOWNSEND.