Research to Reader: fertility science
While scientific studies investigating the effects of diet alone on assisted reproductive treatment outcome are few, it will be no surprise that among these studies a diet high in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and fish is associated with better IVF/ICSI outcomes than a diet high in processed foods.
What do these ‘healthy’ diets look like and what are the associated outcomes for assisted reproductive treatments? What elements of your diet can you tweak for a better outcome?
To determine if you are on the right track, take the Preconception Dietary Habit test:
For every question you answered YES to you receive a point. The maximum score you can obtain is 6 and a higher score most likely indicates a better quality diet.
199 couples attending a fertility clinic in Denmark completed the preconception dietary habit quiz (1). The average score for the women was 3 but each increment in score (ie. answering yes to another question) was associated with a 65% better chance of an ongoing pregnancy for their first time round of IVF/ICSI (1).
Eating a ‘Mediterranean’ style diet that is high in fruits and vegetable, whole grains, legumes and nuts, fish and healthy fats such as olive and canola oil prior to conception also increases the chance of an IVF/ICSI pregnancy by 40% (2).
While it may be tempting to look at supplements to give your diet a boost, avoid taking specific antioxidant supplements such as vitamin E, vitamin C, zinc and selenium which do not improve oocyte (egg) quality or pregnancy rates in women with unexplained infertility undergoing IVF/ICSI treatment (3). While these vitamins and minerals are important, supplements will often contain very high doses that may do more harm than good, and indeed antioxidant supplements such as vitamin C have actually been shown to impair training adaptations to aerobic exercise. While most supplements do not have scientific evidence to support their usage for conception, some pre-pregnancy supplements are advised so be sure to keep up a pre-pregnancy regime of folic acid (400mcg a day).
While other foods are purported to increase fertility there is no scientific evidence to support just one specific food or supplement as the magic bullet for improving assisted reproductive treatments. A great approach to take would be to have a well-balanced diet that includes whole foods and spices that promote general health, and are great for a possible pregnancy.
Brazil nuts: Brazil nuts are high in selenium which plays a role in reproduction, DNA synthesis and reducing oxidative stress. No need to eat a whole handful- eating just 2 to 4 a day is plenty to give you a good dose of selenium.
Sweet potato: Vitamin A plays an important role in the immune system and sweet potato is a great source. Vitamin A is necessary for male reproduction (spermatogenesis) and for embryogenesis (growing babies). Why not substitute potato for some sweet potato and reap the benefits.
Red meat: Iron from animal sources is absorbed much better than the iron you find in plant based foods. If you are not averse to eating animal products than lean red meat is an ideal source to boost those important red blood cell stores of iron. One serve of red meat is 65g which is probably a lot smaller than most of us would have in one meal. The national recommendation is for a maximum of seven serves a week, which would be the equivalent of three 150g serves of red meat a week.
Leafy green vegetables: Including a diverse array of coloured vegetables in your diet is important but do ensure you get plenty of leafy green vegetables. Vegetables like spinach and kale are great sources of many minerals and vitamins, including folate which is essential for a developing baby.
Flaxseed: High in linoleic acid, a sprinkle of flaxseed on your cereal can provide a super boost to reproductive performance. Dietary linoleic acid is associated with improved pregnancy rates in overweight women undergoing IVF (4).
1. McPherson NO, Owens JA, Fullston T, Lane M. Preconception diet or exercise intervention in obese fathers normalizes sperm microRNA profile and metabolic syndrome in female offspring. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2015; 308: E805-21.
2. Vujkovic M, de Vries JH, Lindemans J, Macklon NS, van der Spek PJ, Steegers EA, et al. The preconception Mediterranean dietary pattern in couples undergoing in vitro fertilization/intracytoplasmic sperm injection treatment increases the chance of pregnancy. Fertil Steril. 2010; 94: 2096-101.
3. Youssef MA, Abdelmoty HI, Elashmwi HA, Abduljawad EM, Elghamary N, Magdy A, et al. Oral antioxidants supplementation for women with unexplained infertility undergoing ICSI/IVF: randomized controlled trial. Hum Fertil (Camb). 2015; 18: 38-42.
4. Moran L, Tsagareli V, Norman R, Noakes M. Diet and IVF pilot study: short-term weight loss improves pregnancy rates in overweight/obese women undertaking IVF. The Australian & New Zealand journal of obstetrics & gynaecology. 2011; 51: 455-9.