Can some foods increase your chances of conceiving?
So far, there isn't any conclusive evidence that specific foods can make you more fertile, but your diet does matter. "What you eat affects everything from your blood to your cells to your hormones," says Cynthia Stadd, a Colorado-based nutrition specialist.
You can optimize your body for conception by maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle, eating good-for-you foods, and minimizing the junky stuff. Practicing smart eating habits now can also help you have a healthy pregnancy once you conceive.
Here are some suggestions for how and what to eat in order to set the stage for a healthy pregnancy and baby.
Foods that may support fertility
Fruits and vegetables
Think of produce as Mother Nature's multivitamin. Fruits and vegetables deliver a wide variety of vitamins and minerals, and getting enough of certain nutrients is especially important before you conceive.
For example, foods like spinach, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, broccoli, citrus fruits, nuts, legumes, whole grains, and fortified breads and cereals are high in the B vitamin folate. Folate is a natural form of folic acid, an essential nutrient in prenatal vitamins, which you should take if you're trying to conceive.
Eating foods rich in folate during preconception and pregnancy can help prevent neural-tube birth defects such as spina bifida. You can lose a lot of this vitamin in cooking water, so steam or cook vegetables in a small amount of water to preserve the folate.
In general, choose fruits and vegetables in a range of colors to get the most nutritional bang for your buck. (Eating a produce "rainbow" gives you a wider variety of nutrients.)
Seafood is the best source of omega-3 fatty acids; and, according to some scientists, these essential fats may have a positive effect on fertility. Research suggests that a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids may help regulate ovulation, improve egg quality, and even delay aging of the ovaries.
On the other hand, you've probably also heard that some types of fish contain contaminants such as mercury. In high doses, heavy metals like this are harmful to a baby's developing brain and nervous system.
The good news is that not all fish contain a lot of mercury. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that women trying to conceive can safely eat up to 12 ounces (roughly two or three servings) a week of fish, including canned light tuna, salmon, shrimp, cod, tilapia, and catfish.
However, the FDA advises limiting some fish, including white (albacore) tuna, and completely avoiding swordfish, marlin, orange roughy, tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, king mackerel, bigeye tuna, and shark, because these have the highest mercury levels.
You can take fish oil supplements if you don't like seafood, but first talk to your doctor about which brand to buy and how much you should take.
Read our article on eating fish when you're trying to conceive for more advice on mercury and omega-3s.
There's some scientific proof that eating oysters can boost fertility. Oysters are packed with zinc, which plays a role in semen and testosterone production in men and ovulation and fertility in women. That doesn't mean you should down a plate of oysters on the half shell at every meal. Maintaining the recommended dietary allowance of zinc (8 mg a day) can help keep your reproductive system working properly, but excessive amounts of zinc (or any nutrient, for that matter) will not turn either of you into a baby-making machine. In fact, super-high doses of vitamins and minerals may actually reduce your fertility.
Protein is a critical part of a healthy diet, but according to the USDA, many Americans rely too heavily on beef, pork, and chicken to get their daily amount. In a study of 18,555 women, experts at Harvard Medical School found that those who included one daily serving of vegetable protein – such as nuts, beans, peas, soybeans or tofu – were less likely to have infertility due to ovulation problems.
More research is needed on the link to fertility, but because vegetable proteins are usually lower in fat and calories than steak or fried chicken, including them in your meal plans is both good for you and a great way to maintain a healthy weight.
A woman trying to conceive should eat as many nutrient-rich foods as possible, and whole grains are a great option, says nutrition specialist Stadd. According to studies, healthy diets that include whole grains are associated with better fertility.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) food guidelines recommend that you make at least half of the grains you eat each day whole grains such as bran cereal, oatmeal, brown rice, or whole-wheat bread.
Refined carbohydrates like white bread, pasta, and white rice won't directly lower your chances of getting pregnant, but they do shortchange your body, because the refining process strips grains of key nutrients such as fiber, some B vitamins, and iron.
If you have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), the most common cause of infertility in women, pay extra attention to the types of carbs you eat. PCOS is a hormonal imbalance that can get worse when insulin levels in the bloodstream surge, and refined carbohydrates are a main cause of insulin spikes.
Mark Leondires, fertility specialist and medical director of Reproductive Medicine Associates of Connecticut, explains that when women with PCOS eat too many refined carbohydrates, insulin flows into the blood, feeds back to the ovaries, and can lead to irregular ovulation.
Foods to avoid or limit
Try to avoid alcohol
The occasional bottle of beer or glass of wine probably won't affect your chances of getting pregnant, but having two or more drinks a day might.
Alcohol can harm a developing baby, and since you may not know exactly when you ovulate or conceive, you may want to play it safe and cut out alcohol completely.
For nonalcoholic alternatives, see our list of some classic "virgin" drinks.
Minimize trans fats
Found in many processed and fast foods, trans fats are thought to be linked to infertility. Studies suggest that diets high in trans fats may be related to ovulation problems (and to lower sperm counts and semen quality in men).
There's some evidence that very high consumption – more than 500 milligrams a day, or about five 8-ounce cups of coffee, depending on the strength of the brew – might interfere with fertility. But experts generally agree that low to moderate caffeine consumption (less than 200 milligrams a day, or about two 8-ounce cups of coffee) shouldn't make it harder for you to get pregnant.
Because no one knows for sure how caffeine impacts fertility, some experts suggest lowering your caffeine intake even more or giving it up entirely, especially if you're having difficulty conceiving or if you're undergoing in vitro fertilization.
Read more about caffeine and fertility, including the amount in other beverages and tips for cutting back
Important lifestyle changes
Trying to conceive isn't just about eating a good diet, it's also about preparing for a healthy pregnancy and baby. Here are the essential steps to take:
Take a prenatal vitamin with folic acid
Even if you have a very balanced diet, it's still important to take prenatal vitamins to reduce the risk of having a baby with neural-tube defects such as spina bifida. Most experts recommend that all women start taking folic acid at least a month before trying to get pregnant. In fact, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends all women of child-bearing age take a supplement with 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid daily.
If you have a family history of neural-tube birth defects or take medication for seizures, your healthcare provider may suggest that you boost your daily folic acid intake to 4,000 mcg, or 4 mg, starting at least a month before you conceive and continuing throughout your first trimester.
Taking a prenatal vitamin ensures that you're getting enough folic acid and other essential nutrients to boost your chances of conceiving a healthy baby. Bonus: There's some evidence that taking a prenatal vitamin before you conceive can help you avoid morning sickness once you're pregnant.
A good over-the-counter prenatal vitamin should contain more than the minimum recommendation of folic acid, but if your provider wants you to take more, you may need to take a separate folic acid supplement.
Folic acid is a water-soluble vitamin, so your body will flush out the excess if you consume too much. Be aware that getting too much folate may hide a vitamin B12 deficiency, which is sometimes a problem for vegetarians. Ask your doctor or midwife if you think you may be at risk.
Remember that a supplement is a safeguard, not a substitute for a sound diet. And since regular over-the-counter multivitamins may contain megadoses of vitamins and minerals that could be harmful to a developing baby, choose a pill formulated specifically for pregnant women.
If you have a vegetarian diet, you may also need vitamin D and B12 supplements, which studies say are beneficial for fertility, along with extra protein. Talk with your healthcare provider about the right prenatal supplement for you.
Avoid smoking and recreational drugs
If you use any recreational drugs or smoke, quit now. Studies have shown that women who smoke are significantly more likely to be infertile. Although the effects of drugs on fertility are difficult to study because they are illegal, it has been well documented that these substances can harm a developing fetus.
Maintain a healthy weight
It might be a good idea to shed some pounds, or gain a few if you're underweight, while you're trying to get pregnant, since you want to be as close as possible to your recommended weight when you conceive. Being overweight or underweight can make it harder to get pregnant. Also, obese women have more pregnancy and birth complications, and underweight women are more likely to have a low-birth-weight baby.
Eat plenty of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and calcium-rich foods such as yogurt, cheese, and milk every day. Not getting enough nutrients can affect your periods, making it difficult to predict when you ovulate. And you may not ovulate at all if you're significantly underweight or obese.
In addition to following a smart eating plan with low-fat, high-fiber foods, get regular exercise. If you're overweight, aim to lose one to two pounds a week, a safe rate of weight loss. Extreme weight loss from crash dieting can deplete your body's nutritional stores, which isn't a good way to start a pregnancy.
Pump up your iron intake
Fill your body's iron reserves before you get pregnant, especially if your periods are heavy. According to Sam Thatcher, a reproductive endocrinologist and coauthor of Making a Baby: Everything You Need to Know to Get Pregnant, "Bleeding every month is a constant source of iron depletion."
Make sure to get enough iron now – once you're expecting, it's difficult for your body to maintain its iron level because your developing baby uses up your stores of the mineral. (Pregnant women need about one third more iron than they needed before pregnancy.)
Too little iron at conception not only can affect your baby, it can also put you at risk for iron-deficiency anemia during pregnancy and after you give birth (especially if you lose a lot of blood during delivery). Anemia causes your red blood cells to fall below normal and saps your energy.
If you don't eat much red meat, or if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, your healthcare provider may recommend that you take a prenatal vitamin containing extra iron. And to be on the safe side, ask your healthcare provider to test you for anemia at your preconception checkup.
What about his diet?
Your partner should also pay attention to his diet since certain vitamins and nutrients – such as zinc and vitamins C and E, omega-3 fatty acids, and folic acid – are important for making healthy sperm.
When it comes to fertility and diet, men don't get a free pass. Lisa Mazzullo, an ob-gyn and clinical assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, recommends that fathers-to-be take a daily multivitamin that contains zinc and selenium for at least three months before conception. They could also add nuts such as walnuts or almonds that contain these minerals to their diet. Studies suggest zinc and selenium aid in healthy sperm development.
Why start so early? The sperm your partner ejaculates today was actually created more than two months ago. It takes about 74 days for sperm to fully develop and benefit from the supplementation.