Food, Fitness, And Fertility: What The Research Says
By Michelle Strong & Lyndsey Clabby
Infertility feels like you are underwater and can see the surface, but can’t get there fast enough to take a breath.
It’s like playing a game of basketball with a blindfold on.
For those who are trudging down the often rocky road that is infertility, navigating the physical, financial, and emotional hurdles can feel daunting and like you have little to no control. It’s like we have heard over and over again from our community: “Infertility is like being on the wrong side of a baseball pitching machine without a bat.”
As a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and fellow fertility warrior, I spent several years prior to my first pregnancy sifting through journal articles looking for that extra edge, the secret sauce to getting pregnant. It was overwhelming trying to piece it all together.
Exactly how much omega 3 fatty acids did I need? Was I getting enough folate through my diet and prenatal supplement? Could I exercise safely while TTC? What kinds of foods and movements were best during IVF? My questions were endless.
So, I thought I would break down some key nutritional concepts to pay attention to while TTC:
Plants are King
And I’m not just talking about consuming an abundance of colorful, fresh, antioxidant-rich foods (which I am, too), but I’m talking about subbing out some of your meat consumption for plant-based proteins. So instead of chicken, beef, and fish, consider lentils, hemp hearts, and raw nuts.
In one study, “consuming 5% of total energy intake as vegetable protein rather than as animal protein was associated with a more than 50% lower risk of ovulatory infertility.”
The Skinny on Carbs
Very simply put - unless you have a medical reason and have been instructed by a professional, carbohydrates can and should be a part of a healthy fertility diet. So ditch the extreme diets, and opt for one that is well-rounded and has research to back it up.
Here’s a good rule of thumb to follow: ½ of your plate should be vegetables, ¼ should be protein, and the last ¼ some type of quality carbohydrate (see below for a list).
In this study, Chavarro et al published a “fertility diet” based within the Nurses’ Health Study II population and found that women who followed the fertility diet had a 66% lowered risk of ovulatory infertility and a 27% lower risk of infertility. This diet was characterized in part by avoidance of trans fats, the use of unsaturated vegetable oils, the consumption of slow carbs (see below), eating whole-fat vs. low fat if you consume dairy, taking a prenatal vitamin, getting plenty of iron from plants, and consuming low glycemic carbohydrates (aka low sugar diet).
Slow Carbs vs Fast Carbs
There is a ton of research that proves that simple carbs (aka processed sugar) have no place in a healthy fertility diet.
This study shows us that high carbohydrate foods/drinks (aka sugar) were associated with lower fecundability (the ability to get pregnant on a given cycle).
Additionally, this prospective study shows us that “The amount and quality of carbohydrate in the diet may be important determinants of ovulation and fertility in healthy women.”
- Yams, sweet potato, beets
- Brown or wild rice
- Lentils, beans
- Whole fruits (fresh, in moderation)
- Pop, alcohol, sweetened beverages, juice
- Candy, milk chocolate
- Syrups, condiments containing sugar
- Cereals (processed)
- Pastries, cookies
- White flours (pasta), white rice
Looking for More Nutrition Help?
If you want more direction on how to eat during fertility treatments, I have taken all the latest research and combined it into easy-to-follow meal plans. These meal plans are part of a complete Mind+Body system tailored for IVF, IUI, Cycle Monitoring, and PCOS and provide day by day food, fitness, and mental well-being support to help you take control of the “controllables” in your life. You can find more info on the guides here.
Having a good grasp of nutritional concepts was crucial to help me feel more in control of my journey. As a nutritionist, this came pretty easily to me. However, I was less confident when it came to the fitness side of things. So, what are the key fitness concepts while TTC?
Regular, Moderate Exercise
The goal is 150 minutes a week (over at least 3 days) at a level where you are able to talk but not sing for the duration of the exercise. For those undergoing IVF, research has shown that “female physical activity before IVF/ICSI cycles was associated with increased rates of clinical pregnancy rates and live births.”
Depending on where you are in your journey, the type of exercise you are doing may need to be modified based on what you are used to – and that’s where our tailored guides come in. Each one guides you day-by-day through the specific cycle you are in (i.e. cycle monitoring, preparing for treatment, going through IVF or IUI, or if you are managing PCOS) to ensure you can keep moving safely while supporting your fertility.
After I learned how much exercise was ideal, I become worried about whether this exercise would cause any additional stress to my already stressed body. This second study helped to clear up this concern.
The important thing to know here is that it’s not the stress of exercise that will have a negative impact on fertility, it’s your energy (calories) availability. In this study, too few calories were shown to affect hormones resulting in menstrual abnormalities, particularly among female athletes. So, the key takeaway here is to ensure you are consuming enough calories for YOU. Also, back to the first point, keeping exercise at a moderate level will help with energy balance. This is not the chapter of your life to start to train for a marathon or take up a brand new, intense, and vigorous sport.
Blood Sugar and Hormonal Balance
Another wonderful benefit of regular physical exercise is its positive effects on reducing the risk of insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome. and type II diabetes. This is exciting news for the 1 in 10 women who struggle with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). It also has a beneficial impact on endorphins, the feel-good hormone—a nice added bonus!
What are Your Next Steps?
Having a plan—something concrete that you can draw from to feel more confident and in control of your mind and body while undergoing fertility treatments—is absolutely imperative. In fact, we know that reducing the psychological burden associated with infertility increases optimism and the motivation to pursue the steps that increase the likelihood of pregnancy. So my dear fellow warrior, how will you take control?
Michelle Strong is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist & Co-Founder of MyMindBodyBaby. Being a food nerd and clinical nutritionist for the past 13 years taught her a lot, but it was nothing compared to struggling with infertility for two long years. Since then, she has shifted her focus to helping those on their personal journeys to motherhood.