Infertility affects 12 percent of individuals of reproductive age in the United States, which is about 7.3 million women and their partners. And contrary to popular belief, it affects men and women equally.
While individuals can't control many of the issues that contribute to infertility, and every situation is different and unique, adequate nourishment will increase the likelihood of conceiving in most, if not all, cases. Research shows balanced and consistent nutrition gives men and women the best shot at meeting all the nutritional requirements for hormone production, adequate sperm count and to support ovulation.
As a dietitian, I would define balanced and consistent nutrition to be eating balanced meals or snacks every three to five hours. A balanced meal would be one that includes complex carbohydrates, a protein source, some fat and a fruit and/or vegetable. Snacks can fill in the gaps between meals but need to utilize two of those food groups.
If eating habits are haphazard, chaotic or unbalanced, this would be the place to start. Our reproductive health requires a variety of vitamins and minerals and energy which is best achieved with a variety of food groups eaten regularly.
Having said that, as with any other area of nutrition, there can be conflicting messages to men and women about what dietary patterns are best for supporting fertility and reproduction. Nutrition is not a one-size-fits-all, given we have different nutritional needs, food preferences and health concerns.
This is especially true when we see the wide variety of causes of infertility. It's well-established that maintaining a weight outside of someone's genetically predetermined set point, at either extreme, may increase the likelihood of infertility. It wise to assess the size and build of family members and not try to force someone into a weight that isn't where their body naturally functions at it's best.
For example, hypothalamic amenorrheaaffects 3 to 5 percent of the population and is often caused by low energy availability due to undereating. This is particularly common in athletes, known as Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S), when energy intake doesn't match the intensity of training. While there are more side effects of RED-S than just hormonal imbalances and reproductive issues, that can often be the first sign that something is out of balance.
On the other hand, there are correlational studies linking individuals at higher weights to risk of infertility. However, we need to remember that correlation doesn't mean causation. The issue with obesity research, in general, is very rarely are they controlling for healthy behaviors. Is weight the culprit or would someone at a higher weight engaging in self-care behaviors (nutritious food patterns, physical activity, stress reduction, etc) have less risk for infertility?
It's important we recognize this since the most common recommendation for someone classified as obese is weight loss through dieting, which has not been shown to be successful beyond two years and is only associated with weight cycling and weight gain, likely further perpetuating the cycle.
Infertility can feel overwhelming, exhausting, frustrating and confusing, so here are a few resources for couples who may be struggling.
1. Infertility Foods Cookbook: This is a beautiful cookbook, written by two registered dietitians, filled with well-researched nutrition recommendations. These recipes are inclusive of variety, flavor and satisfaction and would be great for anyone — trying to conceive or not.
Polycystic ovary syndrome is a common diagnosis, which is definitely one to leave a woman confused about what to eat. PCOS and Food Peace are run by registered dietitian Julie Duffy Dillon, and I can't recommend her enough. You'll find her help invaluable as well as sensitive and sincere.
This is also a great resource for those wanting help with a diagnosis of polycystic ovary syndrome.
4. No Period, Now What? is a book I've recommended to many clients who struggle with hypothalamic amenorrhea. If that's you, you are sure to find answers there.
5. The Nurtured Mama Podcast: If you like podcasts, here's a great one for prenatal or postnatal women and will include infertility topics from time to time:
Please note: None of these resources are to replace your doctor's medical advice since they will know your unique situation the best, but these resources can supplement the help you are already receiving.