by Nicole Saliba
Planning to grow your family is an exciting time. Just as it takes time to plan and prepare a baby friendly space at home, it takes time and effort to create a healthy and nourishing ‘first home’ (your uterus!) for your new bub to grow. Although we might think that it all starts at conception, it actually takes three months for an egg to develop to full maturity and be ready to pair with a sperm cell. Therefore what you eat in the months leading up to conception is extremely important for both mum and dad.
Nutrition plays a key role in whether or not we develop healthy, good quality eggs and how nurturing our uterine environment will be, so it’s vital to clean up your diet in the months leading up to conception. If you are struggling with infertility, which affects 1 in 6 Australian couples of reproductive age, there may be good news for you here too. Studies have shown that some causes of infertility, such as irregular or absent ovulation, can be significantly improved through dietary alterations. We may not be in control of all the factors impacting on our situation, such as age, genetics or certain diseases, but nutrition is one of the things we can change.
So what are the top tips for choosing a fertility-boosting diet?
1 Choose to ‘eat the rainbow’
Aim to eat a colourful and varied selection of fruit and vegetables. Antioxidants are a key ingredient for fighting cell damage in our bodies, protecting us from the ‘free radicals’ that can cause oxidative harm in our reproductive organs.
Antioxidants are abundant in our fruit and veggies, with each different colour generally indicating a different type of antioxidant. Very few Australians meet the intake targets for fruit and vegetables, so make an extra effort to actually get your two serves of fruit and five serves of veg every day. Let every meal be an opportunity for getting in some veggies (not just adding them as an after-thought) and keep your fruit bowl topped up with fresh, seasonal fruit.
Need some inspiration?
- Add mushrooms and wilted spinach to an egg on toast
- Add strawberries and blueberries to your breakfast bowl
- Snack on chopped veggies with hommpus
- Choose meals that champion veggies more often, such as stir fries, bulked up salads or Mexican meals with plenty of fresh veg
- Prep veggies in advance if you find you are short of time during the week. For example, cube and roast sweet potato and beetroot to add to salads, pre-chop a container of healthy slaw (add the dressing as you go), or pre-make some veggie patties to cook later in the week.
2 Get enough zinc
Zinc is vital for cell division and for making new protein tissue, so staying well stocked in this nutrient is essential for healthy eggs and in preparation for pregnancy. Shellfish, such as oysters, prawns and mussels are all a great source of zinc that can be included regularly in your diet. Another substantial source is red meat.
Small portions of high quality meat a few times weekly is all that’s needed to keep your zinc intake topped up. Choose lean cuts and opt away from processed or particularly fatty meats such as ham, salami, mince or sausages.
Zinc is also available from a variety of plant sources, including legumes (such as chickpeas or lentils), pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, nuts and whole- grains such as rolled oats, bran, seeded bread, quinoa and brown rice. Include these regularly in your diet by choosing whole grain breads and cereals rather than white or refined options, sprinkling seeds on salads or porridge and choosing legume based meals a few times per week.
3 Cut out the added processed sugars
Studies have shown that by consuming just one can of soft drink daily, women are 25% less likely to conceive. The reason for this is three-pronged. Not only do excess sugars in our diet contribute to weight gain which reduces fertility, but they also cause a hormone called insulin to be released.
The more sugar we eat, the more insulin enters our blood stream, which in turn disrupts the release and function of our reproductive hormones. Excess sugars are also known to be inflammatory, and are known to inflame the tissue around the eggs causing damage.
It’s recommended that all soft drinks are cut out of the diet as soon as possible, but then working to reduce other added sugars – some of which may not be as obvious.
Choose to replace muffins, cakes, lollies and other desserts or sweets with healthier options such as fruit, nuts, yoghurt, cheese and grainy crackers or a slice of fruit toast.
Get in the habit of checking food labels for added sugars – if one of the first ingredients is sugar or syrup of some kind, chances are it’s going to be a high sugar product.
Just a quick note: the artificial sweeteners used in ‘diet’ or ‘sugar-free’ soft drinks have also been shown to reduce egg quality, so switching to these products is not recommended.
4 Swap your fats
Many processed meats and packaged snacks, like crisps and cream biscuits, can be pretty potent sources of saturated fats.
Best known for their negative impact on heart health, these saturated fats also contribute to inflammation around our maturing eggs and can cause damage.
In place of these saturated fats, include foods that offer poly- and mono-unsaturated fats, especially those omega 3 fatty acids found in fish. Omega 3 fats have an anti-inflammatory effect, contribute to healthy egg development and may assist in normalising menstrual cycles in women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). As saturated fats are found in so many processed foods, it can be best to avoid these foods where possible.
Try to following swaps to make sure you choose healthy fats more often:
- Swap potato chips or soy crisps for a handful of unsalted almonds, walnuts and cashews
- Swap croissants and pastries for whole grain toast with natural peanut butter
- Swap commercial biscuits and cakes for homemade baking, using healthy fats such as olive oil or peanut/almond butters
- Swap processed deli meats for tinned tuna, salmon or sardines
- Add oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel and trout to your menu two to three times per week
- Add a sprinkle of chia seeds to your next smoothie, bowl of muesli or porridge.
5 Find YOUR healthiest weight
Whether you are carrying too much or too little body fat, it is so important to move towards a healthy weight. If you are much further above the healthy range than you’d like to be, don’t despair – studies show that losing just 5% of your body weight can significantly improve your chances of conceiving.
Create healthy habits by eating and enjoying nutritious foods, and choosing to be more active on a daily basis in ways that are enjoyable to you. Keep accountable to your partner (a healthy diet will only benefit his fertility too!) or a trusted friend. If you ever find your motivation waning, just remember what you are doing this all for!
The bottom line
Opting for a ‘whole foods’ eating plan, with a regular balance of colourful veggies, fruit, whole-grains, legumes, oily fish and lean meats is the best place to start when it comes to eating for fertility.
If you would like more specific advice, or have a restrictive diet (such as gluten free or vegetarian) speak to an Accredited Practicing Dietitian can assist with personalised strategies.
Remember that it is recommended that an iodine and folate supplement are also taken before and during pregnancy and that it is important to speak to
your dietitian or GP
Nicole is a passionate sports nutritionist and Accredited Practising Dietitian who established her practice Eatsense in 2013 as she has a burning desire to help people, see them happy and watch them thrive. Her vision is to help as many people learn to prioritise themselves, feel their best, enjoy delicious and nourishing food and live a healthy, happy and fulfilling life through her one on one consultations and seminars. Contact Nicole at her West Gosford Clinic on 4323 9100.