Dietary choices are so important when it comes to improving your chances of conception. Some foods hinder your chances of falling pregnant, while others improve hormone health and balance, ovulation and menstrual cycle regularity, sperm and egg health and quality, and general fertility. If you’re wanting to try for a baby, the small swaps and shifts could be the thing that helps you get there! Here are six critical nutrition tips to help you optimise your fertility and conception.
1. Consider your protein choices.
When you’re looking to optimise your chances of conception, it’s important to consider your protein choices carefully. Some sources of protein have been shown to support fertility, while others can be incredibly damaging to your chances of conceiving.
Firstly, limit your intake of processed red meat if you’re trying for a baby. Processed meats can negatively impact fertility when eaten regularly, with men who eat excessive amounts having 23% fewer healthy, normal sperm, and women at 40% greater risk of ovulatory dysfunction. In fact, one extra serving of processed meat daily led to a 32% increase in ovulation complications, and if you’re not ovulating regularly and consistently, you’re much less likely to be able to conceive! Processed red meats, including bacon and salami, often contain nitrates, harmful chemicals used to preserve these foods and keep them fresh for longer, as well as trans (or “bad”) fats. Both of these can have inflammatory effects on the body, and compromise your reproductive health, so it’s important to limit them as much as possible when trying to conceive.
On the other hand, eating plant-based sources of protein can support ovulatory fertility and the health of vaginal mucus, improving your chances of conception. Swapping out animal proteins and refined carbohydrates for vegetarian foods high in protein, including tofu, tempeh, beans, legumes and whole grains, can reduce female ovulatory infertility by up to 50%, so it’s an extremely beneficial shift to make to improve your chances of falling pregnant!
Another conception-friendly protein choice is oily fish! Aim to eat fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines two or three times each week while you’re trying to conceive, as fish and seafood (particularly those varieties rich in omega-3 fatty acids) are incredible for improving egg and sperm quality, as well as reducing inflammation in the body and supporting the implantation of an embryo. The high quantities of zinc, iodine, and selenium contained in seafood further support fertility and reproductive health too. Just be mindful of limiting your intake of mercury-rich species of fish, such as shark, swordfish, and marlin, as mercury can negatively impact the shape, motility, quality, and quantity of sperm, as well as libido and ejaculation in men, and compromise female fertility and production of oestrogen in women.
When it comes to protein intake, your best bet is to include plenty of plant-based sources of protein, as well as regular servings of fish and seafood, prioritising those high in omega-3s and avoiding mercury-rich varieties.
2. Eat your veggies
Fruit and veggies should be eaten in abundance if you’re looking to conceive. Packed with antioxidants, which help protect your cells from free radical damage, they also help protect eggs and sperm from the same harm. Each different colour of fruit and veg contains a different nutrient profile, so aim to include as many different colourful varieties in each of your meals as possible, for maximum benefit. For example:
- Red vegetables and fruits contain phytochemicals such as lycopene and ellagic acid, which have anti-cancer properties, protect against diabetes and cardiovascular disease, support skin health and more. Some, like watermelon, are rich in citrulline, a phytonutrient which may help treat mild erectile dysfunction, improving your chances of conceiving.
- Yellow and orange fruits and veg such as carrots, pumpkins and oranges, support immune system function, eye health, heart health, blood flow and healthy cell growth.
- Green varieties of fruit and veg, such as spinach, kale, green apples and Brussels sprouts, boost immune function, support natural detoxification processes and energy production, and protect blood and bone health. Plus, they’re rich in folate – a nutrient incredibly important for anyone pregnant or trying to conceive to prevent congenital defects in their unborn baby.
- Purple and blue fruits and veggies can reduce cancer and heart disease risk, support brain and skin health, and decrease inflammation in the body, thanks to their rich resveratrol and anthocyanins content. Berries, in particular, contain phytochemicals which repair damage from oxidative stress and inflammation, making them a great inclusion in your diet if you’re wanting to fall pregnant.
As you can see, each different colour of fruit and veg has its own nutrient profile, meaning they all offer different health benefits which can be incredibly supportive of your fertility and chances of conceiving. The more you can include in your diet each day, the better!
In particular, dark leafy green vegetables should be a priority for anyone trying to conceive. Foods like spinach, broccoli and Brussels sprouts support the health and fertility of cervical mucus and help support sperm’s passage through this mucus to improve its chances of fertilising an egg. These vegetables are rich in zinc, potassium, iron, fibre, folate, antioxidants, calcium and vitamins C and K – all of which play a key role in supporting healthy conception and improving fertility. And it’s important to note they don’t only benefit female fertility, they also support sperm health and male fertility too.
3. Include plenty of healthy fats
Healthy fats have been shown to support reproductive health in both men and women, while “bad” fats, like saturated and trans fats, have the opposite impact, thanks to their inflammatory effects on the body.
Higher intakes of “good” fats such as omega-3s, and poly- and monounsaturated fatty acids have been linked to improved sperm morphology in men, and higher pregnancy rates in women, compared to people consuming lower amounts of these nutrients.
Foods such as nuts, seeds, avocados, and extra virgin olive oil are excellent sources of monounsaturated fats, which can also improve fertility and facilitate regular ovulation to improve your chances of conception. The anti-inflammatory effects of these monounsaturated fatty acids do wonders for your reproductive health, hormone production, and fertility.
However, saturated fat, often contained in high amounts in red meat, has been linked to lower semen concentration and volume in men, making it more difficult to conceive.
Omega-3s are essential fatty acids with antioxidative properties, which help decrease inflammation around key reproductive organs, supporting your chances of conceiving. They’re crucial for both egg and sperm health and quality. While oily fish including salmon, trout, sardines, and mackerel are excellent sources of omega-3, supplementation has also been found to have positive impacts on sperm count, motility, and mobility, as well as increasing a woman’s probability of conceiving by more than 1.5 times those not using omega-3 supplements.
Of course, if you can obtain your healthy fats through food sources, this is ideal. In fact, couples who ate fish at least twice weekly had a much higher chance of falling pregnant, and in a shorter time frame, than those who ate it less frequently. In fact, eating a diet rich in omega-3s over the long term can also extend a female’s reproductive function, meaning you may be able to fall pregnant later in life than if you ate a diet lacking in this essential nutrient. Studies also suggest that men and women both consider their omega-3 intake well before beginning to try to conceive, giving these fats similar attention to what we give folate.
So choose your fats wisely, and prioritise rich sources of mono- and polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids, such as oily fish, nuts and seeds, avocado, and extra virgin olive oil.
4. Increase your intake of key nutrients: Vitamin D, Zinc, and B vitamins.
While we’ve covered the importance of healthy fats for conception, there are a few other nutrients that are crucial to consider in your dietary choices if you’re hoping to conceive. Vitamin D, Zinc and B vitamins in particular can improve your chances of a healthy conception.
Vitamin D plays a pivotal role in regulating and supporting the production of important reproductive hormones, required for the successful fertilisation of an egg. It’s also involved in oestrogen synthesis, meaning it’s essential for healthy cervical mucus, which further supports your chances of conception. Studies found women with adequate vitamin D levels in their follicular fluid had improved pregnancy rates, while a deficiency in vitamin D was linked to reduced fertility and adverse pregnancy outcomes. This fat-soluble vitamin is found in foods like mushrooms (particularly after exposing them to sunlight for a few hours before eating/cooking), egg yolks, salmon and sardines, however, we also make vitamin D in our skin when we’re exposed to natural sunlight. So whether you’re using supplements (under the guidance of a dietitian or health professional), natural sunlight or food sources to meet your vitamin D requirements, it’s an important nutrient to prioritise when trying for a baby.
Another nutrient of note is Zinc, a mineral required for early embryo development, and egg fertilisation. It’s also needed to regulate ovulation and support the quality of a woman’s eggs, giving you an improved chance of conception. Zinc can be found in foods including oysters, pork and poultry, as well as quinoa, beans, whole grains and lentils.
Lastly, B vitamins play an important role in facilitating the production of oestrogen in women, helping to improve the texture of cervical mucus to support fertility and implantation. In particular, higher intakes of vitamin B6 have been linked to improved pregnancy rates and fertility, while B9 (or folate) is essential for both male and female fertility and fetal development, with deficiencies linked to a greater risk of neural tube defects in babies, and reduced fertility. Good food sources include fish, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds, dark leafy greens, bananas, citrus and poultry.
5. Go organic where possible.
While it may not be possible for everyone, opting for organic vegetables, fruits and grains where you can to help support your chances of conceiving in several ways. Firstly, organic produce tends to contain more antioxidants than conventional produce, meaning you’re getting more nutrients from the food you’re eating when you choose organic.
Secondly, non-organic produce is riddled with chemicals and pesticides which have hormone-mimicking effects on the body, and interfere with natural hormone production. They’re known as endocrine system disruptors (EDCs) because they interrupt the endocrine system – which responsible for controlling and manufacturing your hormones. Any interference with this system can create hormonal imbalances, and reduce your fertility and chances of falling pregnant for both men and women. EDCs can also make menstrual cycles longer, as well as accelerate menopause or shorten a woman’s reproductive lifespan, compromising her chances of conception
However, going organic often comes with an added cost, and given today’s current cost increase, it’s important to be aware of which foods are most important to eat organic, and which are of lesser concern. Meats like pork and beef are often fed synthetic growth hormones to accelerate their growth and increase their size, so when you eat these meats you’re essentially consuming the synthetic hormones yourself. This means, when shopping for meat and poultry, go for the grass-fed, hormone-free varieties whenever you can.
Similarly, the “Dirty Dozen and Clean 15” guidelines offer a good starting point when you’re trying to decide where to spend your money on organic produce. They’re created and based on US produce, but the general principle is the same: those fruits and veggies which have thin skins, or skins which you eat, are more important to shop organic, as you’re directly consuming the part of the food which is saturated by chemicals, herbicides, and pesticides. Foods with thicker skins or skins you discard before eating are less important to shop organic. This year, the Dirty Dozen lists a dozen foods you should buy organic where possible, including strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apple grapes and cherries. The Clean 15 comprises 15 foods less important to buy organic, including avocados, corn, pineapple, onions, asparagus and broccoli.
Bear in mind, that if purchasing organic puts your financial situation under stress, then try and ensure you wash your produce in a solution consisting of three parts water and one part vinegar. Your food should be soaked for 15 to 60 minutes to decrease exposure to chemicals and pesticides and to get rid of extra microorganisms. Dry off completely before storing in the refrigerator.
While technically not a nutrition tip, be aware of your exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals when preparing your food too. Dietary exposure to endocrine disruptors is one of the biggest interferences to hormone function in both males and females, impacting egg and sperm quality and general fertility too. Using plastics to prepare, store or reheat your food is one of the key ways these microplastics and chemicals can enter your body. Reducing your use of plastic containers and wrappings, as well as chemical cleaning supplies, personal care products and cosmetics, reduces your exposure to these chemicals. Also, try to use steel or glass containers and utensils as much as possible, and reduce your use of commercial cleaning products to support your chances of conceiving if you can.
6. Supplement to meet increased nutrient requirements.
Often, when you’re trying to conceive, your diet alone isn’t enough to meet increased or changing requirements for certain nutrients, such as iron, iodine, or folate. During this preconception period, working with a dietitian to ensure you understand increased needs for specific vitamins and minerals, and finding a prenatal supplement that meets your individual needs is so important. Remember, both men and women should start planning and adjusting their diet and lifestyle choices at least three months prior to trying for a baby, as this is the length of time it takes for an egg to mature and for sperm to develop. It’s always best to prepare in advance, because often if you leave it until you’re already pregnant to address these nutrient needs, it’s too late! This can cause serious complications, for example, inadequate folate consumption in the very first weeks of pregnancy can cause neural tube defects in your unborn baby, and by the time you realise you’re pregnant, it’s usually past the point of correcting this deficiency. So give yourself and your unborn baby the best chance at a happy and healthy life by making sure you’re meeting all your nutritional needs, with the help of a professional.
Most importantly, getting the right balance of nutrients from your diet and supplements gives your body the best chances at optimal health and function, which in turn impacts your fertility and chances of conceiving. If your diet supports hormone health, production and balance, menstrual cycle and ovulation regularity, sperm and egg health and quality, and cervical mucus, you’re giving yourself the greatest chance at conception.
7. Bonus: Consider your beverages of choice too!
A little bonus for you, given it’s not technically a food tip, consider your choice of drinks when trying to conceive. Ideally, you want to significantly reduce (or eliminate) your alcohol consumption for at least three months before trying to conceive, as alcohol has a negative impact on both sperm and egg health (that’s right men, you’re not off the hook!). Alcohol has an inflammatory effect on your body and can impact sperm quality and sexual performance in men. Even as little as one alcoholic drink daily can lead to fertility complications for women, impairing ovulation and menstrual cycle regularity and reproductive hormone production, compromising your chances of conceiving. To date, no “safe level” of alcohol consumption has been identified for those trying to fall pregnant, so it’s best to go cold turkey if you can in the lead-up to trying for a baby.
Similarly, sugary drinks and sodas can harm your chances of conception. Even one of these drinks (or energy drinks) per day has been linked to reduced chances of conception, by a significant 20% per month on average for both men and women. The high refined sugar content can lead to insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome, and cause weight gain, which may contribute to inflammation and poorer chances of conceiving. So consider this in your food choices too – excessive amounts of refined sugars and carbohydrates aren’t doing your fertility any favours!
Water, on the other hand, is crucial for conception. Staying hydrated and drinking enough water is essential for the health and production of cervical mucus (most of which is actually water, so it makes sense!), and the transport of reproductive hormones around the body. This means water is vital for conception, as it allows the production of critical hormones and lets sperm get to their final destination: the egg!
So stay hydrated – on the good stuff! Swap the sodas and cocktails for good old water.
There you have it, six (or seven!) important nutrition tips to help optimise your chances of conception. Small dietary tweaks really can make all the difference in allowing you to fall pregnant with your future baby, so stay vigilant and be prepared to give yourself the best odds.
Want some guidance and help in understanding how to tweak your diet, or looking to devise a personalised supplement regime to optimise your fertility and support conception? Book a consultation with me today!