We have so much power over our health and it’s truly amazing how making small changes to optimize our health can help our fertility and our chances of conceiving.
Fetal programming teaches us that a mother’s nutrition status can alter her baby’s genes, in-utero development and long-term health. We know certain deficiencies can cause health issues for babies, for example, a folate deficiency can lead to neural tube defects like spina bifida. It’s powerful to know that by taking good care of our bodies before conceiving and during pregnancy, we can greatly positively influence our baby’s health. Removing inflammatory foods and focusing on nourishing foods is a big piece of this.
You may not have thought about this before but it’s not just mom’s health that matters. Dad is contributing 50% of the DNA and dad can greatly improve sperm quality through targeted nutrition as well. At least ninety days before trying to conceive, have both partners focus on filling your plates with whole, nutrient-dense foods. Use my lists below to guide your grocery shopping for this special time as you both prepare your bodies to make a super baby! I also included a list of certain foods to avoid.
FERTILITY FOODS TO FOCUS ON
GREENS. Green leafy vegetables are incredibly nutrient-dense and provide an array of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. There isn’t much that greens don’t do for our health. They contain many nutrients needed to make a healthy baby, support organ function, boost your immune system, provide energy and also help gently purify the body from toxins. Greens contain folate which is essential for mom and baby in preventing certain birth defects. While people debate over which is better to consume, I think a mix of raw and cooked is just fine. Opt for organic when you can. I include a list at the end of this post of which vegetables to prioritize buying organic. If you can aim to add at least one vegetable into each meal of your day your body will thank you. Make sure to pair your vegetables with one of the healthy fats I list next for optimal absorption.
HEALTHY FATS AND OILS. Healthy fats and oils are nourishing and one of their important benefits for fertility is that they support healthy hormones. Some examples of healthy fats are avocado and avocado oil, coconut oil, olive oil, tallow, and grass-fed dairy (butter, ghee, cheese). Omega 3’s found in these foods can help increase blood flow to reproductive organs and even improve cervical mucus quality (1). Regularly consuming good fats and oils also helps stabilize blood sugar which helps support healthy hormones. Healthy hormones make you more likely to conceive. One to two tablespoons of healthy oils a day is a good amount to target getting into your diet.
HIGH QUALITY MEAT. Meat is an important protein source and contains many nutrients that help make a healthy baby – two important nutrients being iron and zinc. Once pregnant, our iron needs skyrocket as the weight of our blood doubles to help build a baby and up to 50% of pregnant women have been found to be anemic (an iron deficiency). Meat is also a great source of vitamin B6 which is crucial to conceiving. Low levels of vitamin B6 are tied to miscarriage. Quality is crucial here so focusing on grass-fed and grass-finished, organic, and pasture-raised will give you more nutrient-dense meat. Farmers markets and grocery stores like Whole Foods sell better quality meat. There are also many meat delivery services now like Butcher Box, US Wellness Meats, Buy Ranch Direct, Primal Pastures, and Thrive Market where you can order online. Good quality meat is expensive but I don’t think this is a bad thing. We overeat our meat portions at each meal. Spending more on quality meat will remind us to eat the right portion sizes, and hopefully has us filling our plates with more fruits, vegetables and complex carbs.
WILD CAUGHT FISH. Consuming fish while pregnant can sometimes have some bad PR but there are many wonderful options you can safely consume. Focus on cold water, smaller fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel, anchovies or roe. These fatty fish contain omega 3’s (DHA & EPA), trace minerals, Vitamin D, Iodine and EFA’s. Essential Fatty Acids (or EFA’s) play a key role in a baby’s brain development. Iodine is a trace mineral many people are deficient in that aids in thyroid health and also is needed for brain development. You’ll want to avoid large fish like tuna, swordfish, and king mackerel.
DHA is another nutrient needed for brain development. Our body doesn’t make DHA so we have to consume it through food or a supplement. Seafood is one of the best sources of DHA, but you can also get it through eggs, organ meats or high-quality dairy. Always opt for wild-caught over farmed fish as farmed contain additives, toxins, and potentially certain antibiotic-resistant bacteria (2). Eating wild fish a few times a week is ideal. If you really struggle with eating fish or don’t like it, there are many great fish supplements that don’t taste fishy. I cover my favorite ones in my blog post here.
BONE BROTH. Bone broth is rich in collagen which is the most abundant protein in our body. Our protein needs increase during pregnancy. Bone broth is incredibly nutrient-dense and contains many amino acids as well. Glycine is an important one which contributes to fetal DNA*. Bone broth supports digestion and gut health and gut health is connected to our overall health. One additional perk to consuming collagen is it’s a great way to fight stretch marks!
You can make your own bone broth from chicken bones (organic free-range preferred) or buy it pre-made in the refrigerated or frozen section from most grocery stores. My favorite two brands are Bonafide Provisions or Trader Joe’s. Quality matters so again, organic, free-range/ pasture-raised and grass fed chickens/turkey/cows is preferred. You can use bone broth in meals, as a base for soup or drink it straight. One cup a day is all you need.
EGGS. Eggs are such a great nutrient powerhouse for fertility and pregnancy. Egg yolks contain Vitamin A, K, E, D, Choline and DHA. Choline is another brain development nutrient that women tend to be deficient in. Adequate amounts of saturated fat that we get from eggs helps mineral absorption and it is great for brain health, the brain is mostly made up of fat after all. Healthy saturated fat also supports hormone balance by way of the good cholesterol it makes from the fat. Pasture-raised eggs are the best option and are the most nutrient dense. At the very least, get free-range. Getting local pasture-raised eggs is ideal but if you can’t find any, Vital Farms is my favorite brand to buy and it’s carried in many grocery stores.
Just as there are foods to focus on, here is a list of foods that are inflammatory and that are better limited or avoided as we bring our body into balance in preparation for pregnancy (and everyday life as well).
FOODS TO REDUCE
CAFFEINE. There are many reasons to cut down on caffeine during pregnancy prep. Coffee increases our cortisol which can cause stress to our body and similarly lowering caffeine intake supports other hormones like the adrenals. It’s dehydrating and too much caffeine leaches minerals. If the thought of cutting it out completely is too much, stick to one cup a day. Make sure it’s organic as coffee beans are heavily sprayed with pesticides. Drink it with breakfast (ideally a meal with protein and fat) to help hormonal impact and avoid the caffeine crash. Organic matcha tea is a great option which contains much less caffeine and offers many antioxidants. If opting for decaf, make sure to get swiss water processed decaf as the conventional process to make coffee decaf is chemical laden. You can also try non-coffee coffee substitutes like dandy blend if you simply love the ritual of holding a warm cup of something in the morning like so many of us do!
SUGAR. I’m guessing most of us eat sugar fairly frequently. It’s hard not to as it’s hidden in everything. It’s addictive and many of us are caught in a cycle of eating it every day. Plain and simple, sugar causes inflammation. It lowers our immune system, messes with our blood sugar and can exacerbate PMS, messing with our hormones. One great place to start is avoiding processed foods all together as sugar hides in so many foods. Many times it won’t even be listed as sugar but under other names like sucrose, barley malt, dextrose, rice syrup etc. High Fructose Corn Syrup is a really important one to avoid. It’s found in so many processed foods and it’s hard on the liver. Some better sugar options that you can use in recipes are coconut sugar, raw honey, maple syrup or stevia. A trick I use is when I am craving sugar is to opt for berries or fruit or make tea with a little raw honey.
ALCOHOL. It’s best to majorly reduce or eliminate alcohol completely. It leaches minerals, B vitamins (which are important for hormonal balance), damages the liver and prevents it from eliminating excess estrogen. It also suppresses GABA levels which affects our sleep and poor sleep leads to unhappy hormones. If you are going to drink, do it sparingly and keep it as simple as possible avoiding sugary drinks. If you are going to do wine, make sure it’s clean. If I drink it’s from a clean wine company I work with, Scout and Cellar. It tastes exactly the same it’s just made without many of the additives, extra sugar and pesticides that are found in conventional wine.
SOY. Soy is a highly debated food but in general I say to limit the amount of soy you eat. Soy is found in tempeh, tofu, edamame, and of course soy sauce, soybean oil and soy milk. Most soy is over processed and not very beneficial to us. It’s high in phytic acid which blocks mineral absorption. Many people have undiagnosed intolerances to it which causes inflammation in our bodies. Soy can impair thyroid function (which we need in tip top shape for pregnancy) and causes digestive distress. If you use soy as a meat alternative, try jackfruit instead. If you love soy sauce, try coconut aminos. It’s a great substitute and is widely available.
GLUTEN. Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, rye and barely. It happens to be the most common food allergy and many times goes undiagnosed. Like soy, it’s over processed and inflammatory to many people. It is found in many foods but happily, there are many alternatives to gluten on the market. There are many gluten free flours such as coconut, almond, cassava, corn, tapioca rice etc. It’s fairly easy to buy gluten free alternatives like pasta, crackers, breads etc, but remember, just because something is gluten free it doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Processed foods are still processed foods and many contain fillers you don’t need. Gluten can cause thyroid issues and can also be a factor in autoimmune disorders. I’ve heard many success stories with women getting pregnant after cutting out gluten and focusing on gut nourishing foods.
“BAD OILS”. Just as you learned what oils are healthy for you, there are many oils that should be avoided. Avoid overly processed and refined oils including canola, soy, sunflower, grapeseed, rice bran, and hydrogenated oils like margarine. They contain higher amounts of the unsaturated fat omega-6 which causes inflammation in your body. They have all been shown to increase blood pressure and risk for heart disease and strokes. They also block enzymes involved in breaking down fat for energy, and thus can contribute to weight gain. Canola oil is hidden in so many products so be sure to read labels. Canola oil is usually always genetically modified and contains erucic acid which is really inflammatory to the heart. In relation to pregnancy, I learned from @lilynicholsrdn that too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3 during pregnancy can increase pregnancy risks like preeclampsia and even cause delayed fine and gross motor skills. No thanks! With so many healthy oil options, you won’t miss any of these oils in your food.
WHEN TO BUY ORGANIC. If you’re on a budget, you can prioritize buying organic by following the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen, pictured below.. The Environmental Working Group puts out an annual list of what produce has been tested and found to have the most/least pesticide residue on it. This helps us prioritize what we should be buying organic and what is safer if we buy conventional.
LIMIT TAKE OUT. This is a time to limit take-out. Most take out is GMO laden and almost all restaurants use the “bad” oils. Not only that, but the food packaging that take-out usually comes in is plastic and as heat comes into contact with the packaging, chemicals leach into our food. This is a time to lower our exposure to chemicals, especially phthalates which are found in plastic. Phthalates are a major offender of lowering sperm quality.
VEGETARIANS/VEGANS. Most of the superfoods I mention come from animals. These foods have been consumed for centuries across the world and are well known to be nourishing foods for us. I completely respect all diets and was vegetarian myself for a few years. When it comes to pregnancy, there are just too many important nutrients needed that we can only get from animals. There are many considerations when getting pregnant as a vegetarian and the recommendations would be an entire separate blog post. If you are interested in learning more about filling nutritional gaps as a vegan or vegetarian, Lily Nichols has a post about it.
I hope you’re now feeling confident in what foods to fill your plate with as you being your journey trying to conceive. Question/comments? Leave them below!
Footnotes: 1 – Orecchio, Christa and Buckley, Willow. How to Conceive Naturally and Have a Healthy Pregnancy After 30. (New York, Hachette Book Group, 2015), 99.
2 – Nichols, Lily. Real Food For Pregnancy. (USA, Lily Nichols, 2018), 41.