Eating to Boost Fertility
Registered dietitian Elizabeth Shaw joins Sharon on her live chat for an in-depth conversation on how you can eat the optimal plant-based diet to boost fertility.
One of the most beneficial ways you can boost fertility is simply through the foods you eat every day. Research points out how dietary patterns, as well as specific foods, especially those containing antioxidants, can help both men and women who are having trouble with fertility. You might be surprised to learn that infertility is actually a very common issue worldwide. It’s also a very challenging obstacle to overcome—physically, mentally, and emotionally. Diet plays a very important role in improving outcomes for those who are seeking to have children.
One of the essential steps for eating for fertility is to focus on packing your diet with nutrient-dense foods, which not only reduce your risk of certain health issues and diseases, this eating style promotes an overall healthy lifestyle too. In addition to nutrition, the choices you make on a daily basis, such as managing stress, maintaining positive social relationships, seeking therapy if needed, and engaging in physical activity, influence fertility and long-term effects on your health in a positive way. We all have our own unique way of managing internal and external battles, but nutrition and lifestyle choices truly go a long way to reduce the negative effects of these obstacles.
It was so fun to sit down with my friend and colleague, Elizabeth Shaw, who is a registered dietitian specializing in fertility. She was kind enough to share her own insights on how lifestyle choices, specifically nutrition-related decisions, can influence fertility. She provides some great advice and tips on how to reduce risks of infertility and how to deal with situations related to infertility. Elizabeth shares some examples of plant-based meals and specific foods that can help boost fertility, as well as ways to help manage stress when faced with hardships. We are so thankful to have her with us as she shares her knowledge on the importance of nutrition in relationship to fertility.
Things You Will Learn in This Episode:
- How important the connection between diet and fertility really is.
- How to balance family life while maintaining a healthy diet.
- The variety of food groups that can help to boost fertility.
- Simple recipes that can be enjoyed and made with your family and kids.
- Research about the relationship between nutrition and fertility.
- How to manage stress during difficult times.
- Book: Instant Pot Cookbook for Dummies
- Book: Fertility Foods Cookbook
- Book: Airfryer Cookbook
Interview with Elizabeth Shaw, Boosting Fertility with Diet
Check out our in-depth live chat, recorded below, on Elizabeth’s tips on how to boost fertility through plant-based eating.
Sharon: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became interested in this specific area of nutrition.
Elizabeth: I’ve wanted to become a dietitian since I was a young teenager, so when I was 13 years old I sought nutritional knowledge from a dietitian when I was struggling with an eating disorder so having that base at such a young age really inspired me to know that that’s what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to help people understand how food is fuel, it’s a form of medicine for their bodies. Flash forward, two decades later and now I’m able to work daily with the field I love, with the knowledge that I’m so blessed to have gained through my education and the fundamentals that nutrition has so much more power than we’ve ever learned in school and healthcare professionals actually give it credit.
The reason I became so interested in fertility is that when I was struggling to get pregnant, I tried to go find the book that I ended up writing — what foods can actually help affect those struggling with infertility. I knew there was a lot of information out there about pregnancy, prenatal diets, and postpartum, but not so much on what happens when you’ve tried for 3 months and you can’t get pregnant. That was really something that made me go back to the books and made me start researching, and find how food can affect fertility. It was such a strange time in my life, but also such a blessed time in my life because since writing this book almost 5 years ago when the book finally came to life was such a gift to so many women and men who were struggling.
Five years ago, there were very few dietitians specializing in fertility preconception, but over the last 3 years, the amount of dietitians who have taken a specific emphasis on fertility is incredible. So many of them have specialized in certain areas. I have two really good friends who specialize in PCOS and one who specializes specifically in male infertility. I feel like the world of fertility is so vast that we really do need to separate it now and have those go-to experts because I would say that my go-to specialization when it comes to infertility is those going through in vitro fertilization. That is something so specialized and so personal and vulnerable, and because I went through this myself, that I can relate to my clients on a different level with that.
Sharon: What do we know right now when it comes to these connections between nutrition and fertility? What is out there that you feel good about when it comes to nutrition information?
Elizabeth: We do know that there is a strong connection with the types of foods that you feed your body that are going to make you more susceptible to conception. We do know that there are certain disease conditions that it doesn’t matter what foods you eat, there’s still going to be very strong obstacles you have to overcome in order to get pregnant. Some of them relate to how your uterus is formed so how a female can actually hold and carry a baby, some of them relate to hormonal conditions, PCOS, or endometriosis, how our uterine lining is building up. Other conditions are specifically related to the male, does he have sperm motility/mobility issues.
While nutrition can make you more favorable for conception, it might not necessarily allow you to see those pink lines overnight. There’s no superfood that is going to make you pregnant. When you check Google, there are so many cleanses and detoxes, and that’s one of the main reasons that inspired me to write this book and really dive so much into the research because I knew it doesn’t matter how much celery juice you drink, it’s not going to make you pregnant and we need to come out with those facts. Pineapple is a great source of many important nutrients, but eating pineapple doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to have a baby. That’s something we so often see online that we need to fight through these fads and talk about the facts when it comes to fertility.
With that said, there’s a strong connection with walnuts and the type of fat in walnuts, and how it can actually promote sperm health and promote fertility in men. So, when we look at that and those specific food groups, it’s really encouraging. I can’t tell someone, “Go enjoy walnuts and not feel guilt about that,” because walnuts are a great food, whether they make them pregnant or not, we know it’s going to help them in the long-term with their long-term health. So when I sit down one on one with a client, they tell me “I read this online,” or “My doctor mentioned this.” I always say to them, “We are in a situation that if you’re struggling with infertility that you are looking for anything you can control because the situation is so out of your control, so what is one thing you can take charge of is what you are feeding your body.” If anything, focusing on nutrition for fertility is a form of empowerment, it’s a form of giving yourself that little bit of hope that you might feel so lost in right now.
Sharon: Is secondary infertility a different situation? If somebody can get pregnant the first time and then they experience infertility later on, how do we deal with that in terms of nutrition?
Elizabeth: The interesting thing is whether someone is struggling with primary infertility or secondary infertility, the nutrition guidelines aren’t going to change drastically at all because what you’re trying to do is provide your body with those antioxidants that are going to help rid your body of these free radicals that are causing some kind of altercation in your body that’s not allowing you to conceive or get pregnant again. But, the other thing is that now you have a little one potentially at home that is making it more challenging for you to eat right and get your fitness in, maybe you’re having a couple more cups of coffee a day just because you didn’t get a good night’s sleep. We know sleep and lifestyle play a big role, so all of these things are more apparent to address, usually with secondary infertility. One of the biggest things I think I get is coffee, and the research out there shows that you can actually have a very moderate amount of caffeine because it’s so inconclusive — oftentimes we hear, “Don’t drink caffeine if you’re trying to get pregnant.” But, realistically if someone is having a cup of decaf coffee a day and that’s providing them with a form of stress relief, stress and cortisol is a big culprit with infertility. So if that one cup makes them a little bit more relaxed, I’m not going to take that away from them. I’m going to focus on yes, let’s have a decaf, but that’s where we become so extreme and it creates more of this stress-induced lifestyle when we hear “You’re trying to get pregnant, you can’t drink, you can’t eat seafood.” But, you can eat seafood, maybe look at the types of seafood we’re eating. That’s something that’s so often misconstrued in the media that when I see clients who are struggling with trying to get pregnant again, that we have to look at the entire lifestyle and we have to talk about one’s sanity and stress management as a higher priority than someone who maybe doesn’t have a little one running around at home. It’s not saying one situation is easier than the other, but when someone’s trying to conceive for their first and they’re struggling, they’re more likely to be able to give up certain things because they maybe have a little bit better sleep and those kinds of factors that come into play.
Sharon: What’s your opinion on how nutrition for fertility differs between genders? Are there different strategies for the different genders?
Elizabeth: There’s certain nutrient groups that we might suggest depending on whether it’s a female or male infertility problem, or both. For instance, some research has shown that low-fat dairy for males can help with male infertility. So if it is a male-induced struggle with trying to conceive, we might look at certain things like that, whereas women who struggle with an ovulatory infertility, whole milk is recommended. Everyone is so individualized, and dairy has been given a hit or miss. If you like Greek yogurt and want to eat it, and you’re struggling to get pregnant and you’re a female, why not try whole? Yes, it’s going to be higher in saturated fat and calories, so we need to balance things throughout the day, but if you enjoy that and it’s not causing any complication in your body, it’s filled with great nutrition. On the flipside, if you know dairy is giving you GI distress, maybe you’re lactose intolerant, or think you might be, there are plenty of other ways you can get calcium and vitamin D in our bodies. We educate on those kinds of things so it’s not a one way or the highway.
What we do know from recent research is that more fruits and vegetables consumption remains supreme when it comes to both male and female fertility. There’s a lot of discussion around buying organic or buying conventional. At the end of the day, most Americans still aren’t eating enough produce, so if it comes down to buying an organic apple or a conventional apple, and you can only afford the conventional apple on a routine basis, then buy the conventional apple. Wash it because that will help reduce pesticide residues on there, but long-term it’s about more inclusion of produce rather than eliminating it because you’re fearful of the pesticides on it. Certain disease conditions, specifically with PCOS or hormonal conditions, then if you can afford it then absolutely you can buy organic. But the strongest message I try to communicate to my clients and my followers is to just buy the produce because we know research is showing people were quicker to get pregnant when they had less fast food consumption and more fruit consumption. And this is recent data from the last 3 years, so lowering our intake of processed foods and increasing our fruits and vegetables is going to be very helpful.
Sharon: What are the foods and nutrients that people should be eating to boost fertility?
Elizabeth: We definitely want to think about the antioxidants. When we talk about fruits and vegetables, if we want to get specific, we know strawberries, berries, and blueberries have so many antioxidants. Then we have to talk about healthy fats because we know fat plays a crucial role not only in fetal development, but in brain development, and also in supporting the mood of the mother so omega-3’s come into play. So for someone who enjoys seafood, definitely hit that twice a week seafood recommendation. For someone who lives a vegetarian lifestyle and doesn’t want to necessarily eat fish, there are so many other ways. You can look at supplements, which are not a bad thing, but we know a food first standpoint is going to be really helpful so you can look at flaxseed, walnuts, chia seeds, and other forms that will still help you get that nutrition in. Avocados as well, they not only have a healthy fat, but also have folate too. Eggs are another area that I always talk about too because choline has been so associated with fetal development, mood, and metabolism. Nine out of 10 Americans aren’t eating enough choline, so whether they’re eating red meat, seafood, pork, brussels sprouts, lima beans, all of these foods, they don’t necessarily say “fertility boosting food” if you Google them, but they do absolutely support fertility and I think that’s something we have to look at. It’s supporting your fertility, but it’s supporting your lifelong health and so when someone comes to me and they’re expecting to get pregnant after a 6 week program, I say we can never promise that, we know that there’s bigger powers at play here, but I can promise you that after 6 weeks with me, you are going to feel healthier, more motivated, and more in control, and I think that that’s what we seek so much on this journey.
Even the grain category is beneficial, gluten-free often gets associated quite frequently if you’re struggling with infertility, people think you need to go on a gluten-free diet, but not necessarily, unless you’re having an inflammatory response in your body and gluten is causing that by making it harder because of you’re having this inflammation, there’s absolutely no reason to cut out gluten whole grains. So for someone who might’ve been tested for celiac but came back negative and they’re still experiencing some GI distress, then absolutely, we can do a gluten insensitive test and reduce gluten and talk about other healthy whole grains, like quinoa, amaranth, a lot of these different things. Even research has shown, women who consumed more whole grains had a thicker lining when going through IVF, making it more successful for implantation. If we think about these things, it’s not necessarily eliminating one food group, it’s about finding which foods specifically work best for you and your body because we know everybody is so individualized with how they respond to certain nutrients.
Sharon: Are there any foods that people should avoid?
Elizabeth: One of the things you want to be mindful of is added sugar. We’ve heard that from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, reduce added sugars, keep it no more than 10% of your total calories. That’s for a healthy life, but it’s also conducive for your fertility too. If you’re finding yourself relying on seeking comfort in ice cream and things like that because you saw another negative or your period came again and you’re just so frustrated, well that’s natural, it’s a comfort mechanism. But, if we can focus on finding other helpful ways to look at lifestyle modifications, reducing our added sugar, reducing the amount of saturated and trans fat from processed foods from donuts and cookies that are packaged. They’re not a bad food, but we need to look at minimizing our intake. Part of the reason I wrote a fertility foods cookbook was because I wanted to show them how they could still enjoy their cookie or slice of banana bread, but have it with a little more nutrition boosted within that recipe.
Sharon: What would you consider an overall “picture-perfect” diet for fertility in men and women?
Elizabeth: Let’s talk about someone who’s vegetarian because they can make modifications if they’re vegan or want to add a little bit of animal proteins. Starting with breakfast, I would recommend a veggie packed omelet, so have 2 eggs and use the yolk in there because that’s where most of the nutrients are in, throw it in with some mushrooms because mushrooms have some great research associated with fertility, as it has selenium content and vitamin D, tomatoes because when they’re cooked have higher lycopene, serving it with some sliced avocado on top, some grapes on the side, or a slice of whole grain toast. Picture-perfect breakfast right there.
We’ll look into lunch. If you want to have some lentil tacos with crushed walnuts on it, throw on some bell peppers, you can put it in lettuce leaves or corn tortillas. This is really simple and easy to prepare, but also really delicious — nutrition should be delicious, it shouldn’t be boring. If someone’s struggling with secondary infertility, having a build your own taco bar for lunch is something that your kids at home can also get involved in too, so it’s not anymore stress to prepare your fertility-fueling lunch, it’s something you can get your current kids involved with and also feel really good about nourishing your body. For snacks, you can make your own hummus at home and having a peanut butter hummus, which is more sweet and serving that with some strawberries or having more of a savory hummus with a little of roasted bell peppers and serving it with carrot chips, which you can make in the air fryer or buying them already prepared at the store that are sliced for you. These are very simple snacks and are really nutrient dense.
Sharon: If somebody wanted to find your recipes, your tips, and your book, where can they find those?
Elizabeth: My first book was my fertility foods cookbook, which I co-authored with another dietitian. So many of these recipes are available on my website, I have a healthy recipe blog that’s for families and also very conducive for fertility. These can be found on my website. The reason I created this was because I wanted to create more recipes for people who have seen their two pink lines, who have started their families, and maybe want to have more kids or maybe want to continue leading that healthy life, which is part of the reason I wrote the instant pot and air fryer cookbook because I wanted to bring nutrition into fun, trendy, functional appliances that could be very applicable for family building and healthy living overall. It’s a great way to get your family exposed to different flavors. We have a lot of Indian inspired recipes in the book that are so simple and all vegan and delicious. What I like to tell clients who are using this book as a supplement to their nutrition program for trying to conceive for baby number two or three is to get your little kids involved with it because it’s so exciting for them to help them make a Chana Masala for dinner and you’re making your homemade Naan bread on the counter, it’s such a family affair that whether you’re trying for baby number one or four, or just trying to put food on the table for you and your husband. They’re just fun recipes that are very nourishing. There’s a cool study about carrot juice, when moms drink carrot juice in utero and the babies were exposed to that same flavor during their weaning period of breastfeeding showed more favorable facial expressions, meaning they were more familiar with that taste and more inclined to eat the carrots than babies who didn’t have as much flavor exposure in utero. All of us are playing such a strong role in how we’re nourishing our bodies and truly nourishing future generations.
Sharon: How can we manage stress to help maximize fertility?
Elizabeth: I think one of the most important things is finding what works for you because I know that when I was struggling with infertility is that I needed to have some kind of fitness outlet, so a lot of it was power walking, a lot of it was some cardio kickboxing, a light moderate movement. That worked for me and that was very stress-relieving. I have some clients, especially those who struggle with hyperactivity or have a strong emphasis on exercise that we need to reduce it, that we need to find other mechanisms. Actually, adult coloring books have proved to be very successful in lowering stress response. I think it’s going to look so individualized for each person. I also recommend therapy, specifically the multidisciplinary approach to treating infertility because it is a World Health Organization diagnosed disease, so just like we would recommend someone who is struggling with postpartum depression to see a therapist, we should absolutely be seeing a therapist if we feel like we need extra support during our fertility journeys because they can provide different coping and stress response mechanisms that we aren’t trained in as dietitians and they can help you work through things so I highly recommend finding that support system that works well for your particular need.
Check out one of Elizabeth’s favorite fertility-boosting recipes!
About Elizabeth Shaw
Elizabeth is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer. She has a masters in dietetics, a graduate certificate in eating disorders and obestiy, and is certified as a lifestyle, eating, and performance therapist. She is also an Adjunct Professor of Nutrition for the BS & MS Programs at Bastyr University, San Diego Campus, and consults for brands and commodity boards. In addition, Elizabeth is a National & Local Media Spokesperson as a Nutrition Expert via print and broadcast TV, and is a Best-Selling Author and Freelance Writer.
For other Live Chats with Sharon, check out the following:
Main Image: Eggplant at the Ojai Farmers Market, Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN