What to eat when you are trying to conceive
By Lillian Yang, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
If you are trying to conceive, working on your own health can greatly improve your chances of conception! Adequate nutrition can make a significant impact on fertility and, of course, make you healthy overall. Plus, incorporating healthier food choices will optimally nourish your baby during pregnancy. Eating nutrient-dense foods and getting daily movement also help with hormonal balance and optimize both ovulation and sperm health (it’s a team effort)! If you have the luxury of time, I recommend preparing a few months in advance to learn about the best ways to improve fertility and what to eat when you are trying to conceive.
Maximize Your Nutrition with Whole Foods While Trying to Conceive
Whole foods are what they sound like: Eating more whole foods will help you get the adequate nutrients you need to enhance fertility and keep your hormone balance in check. “Whole foods” have not changed much from the farm to the store, and when foods are less processed they retain more nutrients (in almost all cases). Choose products made with real ingredients that you recognize – these almost always have more nutrition bang-for-your-buck.
Whole foods can help you get a good balance of macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat), and provide important micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants). Here’s a basic breakdown of whole food categories:
- Fruits and vegetables: Hit the produce (or freezer) aisle and fill up on fruits and veggies. These are a good source of fiber and micronutrients (like antioxidants) to help the body reduce inflammation and maintain a good immune system. You don’t need to go hunting down “superfoods” – just think about eating the rainbow (foods of all colors!) when grocery shopping. White cauliflower, leafy greens, blueberries, purple eggplant, red and yellow bell peppers, orange butternut squash, and pink radishes all provide a variety of nutrients.
A word on organic food… Prices for popular organic produce like broccoli, apples, celery, salad greens, and sweet potatoes have come down significantly. Organic matters more for thin-skinned fruits, and I recommend choosing organic especially for the “dirty dozen” (the list of the top 12 foods with pesticide residue, available at https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/dirty-dozen.php). Choosing seasonal produce is often less expensive and tastier too!
- Whole grains and complex carbohydrates: Fiber-rich whole grains are a good source of complex carbohydrates, which is a great energy source for your body. I recommend choosing a variety here as well, such as quinoa, barley, farro, steel-cut oats, wild and brown rice, chickpea pasta, pumpkin, corn, and peas. Keep the portions closer to a “side dish” serving, which will provide all the benefits but not too much carbohydrates to spike your blood sugar.
- Protein: Protein source and quality matter. Choosing more plant-based sources of protein has been shown to be beneficial for conception. These include tofu, edamame, beans, lentils, tempeh, and whole grains like quinoa. For animal protein, choose organic free-range chicken, wild salmon, dairy from pasture-raised cows – these are worth the extra investment if you can afford it because they have better nutritional qualities (particularly omega-3’s) and less contaminants than their counterparts. Canned fish with bones are also a great affordable way to get both protein and calcium. Easy recipes include canned salmon cakes or sardines on buttered toast. Grass-fed beef should be eaten less frequently, as red meat has been found to impact fertility negatively.
- Dairy: Yes, you can (and should) enjoy your cheese! Dairy products are a good source of both protein and calcium. While calcium does not directly improve your fertility, it is an important nutrient that supports healthy development for both pregnant person and baby. Choose pasture-raised and organic if possible. Examples include greek yogurt, skyr, kefir, cheese, and milk for hot and cold cereal. Go for plain or low-sugar, and full-fat is totally fine and recommended, actually! The extra fat helps with satiety, reduces spikes in blood sugar, and tastes better too.
Micronutrients for Conception and Baby
Folate: Folate is essential for your baby’s neural tube formation and developing brain. Foods rich in folate include asparagus, avocado, brussels sprouts, dark leafy greens, black-eyed peas, broccoli, fortified cereals and rice. The APA recommends 400 to 1000 mcg of folate daily for women planning to conceive, which can be challenging to get through food alone. You can consider adding a folate supplement of 400 mcg per day to cover your bases. [Note that folate is naturally occurring, while folic acid is the synthesized version found in supplements, and folic acid may not be readily absorbed for some people.]
Essential Fatty Acids: Omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA, are critical for baby’s brain, eye, and nervous system development. They promote a healthy birth weight and immune system for your growing baby, and they support mom’s physical and mental health during pregnancy and postpartum. While you should certainly incorporate food sources like low-mercury fish (about 8-10 ounces of salmon, tuna, sardines, anchovies, and herring a week), it is recommended to supplement with 300 mg DHA daily because it is so important during this time.
Iron: Research suggests that adequate iron intake may lower the risk of ovulatory infertility. Think dark leafy greens, beans and lentils, tofu, potatoes, broccoli, cashews, and fortified cereals and grains. You’ll want to avoid eating too much red meat, and to enhance iron absorption, pair these with a source of vitamin C like adding a squeeze of lemon! Note that if your healthcare provider recommends an iron supplement, you’ll need to drink extra water to prevent constipation.
Vitamin D: Many people are deficient in vitamin D, which functions to protect skeletal health and calcium within the body. While there is no conclusive evidence that supplementing vitamin D can help improve your chances of getting pregnant, taking a vitamin D supplement is safe and can be beneficial to both pregnant person and baby. The current recommendation is 800 to 1000 IU per day during preconception, and you can always ask your doctor to test your levels. Food sources include fatty fish and fish oil, eggs, cheese, and fortified milk and cereals.
Magnesium: A little-talked about nutrient that is actually so important for your health! Magnesium is used by every organ in the body, including the reproductive organs, and deficiencies in magnesium have been linked to infertility because of its role in progesterone production. Best food sources include nuts and seeds, spinach, black beans, edamame, soymilk, potato, and rice; however, if you are deficient then you may consider taking a magnesium supplement as well. The NIH recommends about 300-360 mg of magnesium daily. Adequate magnesium can also help reduce stress hormones, making it easier to conceive!
What not to eat when you are trying to conceive
A few lifestyle changes may be in order if you are trying to get pregnant. Studies have shown that reducing caffeine and alcohol intake can help improve your chances of success. If you have a hard time eliminating caffeine, then try reducing it to one 8 oz cup of coffee per day or 2 cups of tea. In the case of alcohol however, I do recommend avoiding completely (for both parents ) and particularly if you are having difficulty conceiving. As mentioned above, avoid eating too much red meat and fish (to limit mercury intake).
Maintaining a Healthy Weight
Conceiving is often more difficult when parents’ body weight is either too low or too high. Although there’s no perfect weight range for everyone, being at either end of the spectrum can cause imbalances in reproductive hormones and lead to infertility.
If your BMI is under 18.5, you may consider gaining some weight by eating larger portions of healthy fats, protein, and complex carbs. Eat regularly throughout the day, which may include 3 meals and 2-3 snacks. If you’re an avid exerciser, reduce your physical activity (especially intense physical activity) to about 3 hours/week or less.
If your BMI is above 30, you may want to consider losing weight to improve fertility. I recommend weight loss methods that are sustainable long-term and focus on good health. This means no extreme dieting, but rather incorporating realistic healthy habits. Some examples might be less take-out, fewer high-fat and high-carb meals, and moving your body most days of the week. These changes can make a huge improvement to your overall health while promoting healthy weight loss.
These recommendations are generalized, so I recommend you modify them to your particular situation. For more individualized help and support, speak with a dietitian.
Ultimately, while there isn’t enough research yet to support a true “fertility diet,” studies have shown again and again that maintaining a healthy weight and healthy lifestyle habits are incredibly important for fertility. Mom’s health is important as she prepares her body to grow and carry a baby for the next nine months. However, dad’s health is just as important to optimize your chances of conceiving. Plus, making these changes together can help fortify long-term changes!
Mindfully choose whole foods, high-quality and plant-based protein sources, healthy fats, and shop organic when possible – these are all part of building a good foundation for a healthy diet. If you are still struggling to conceive after several months, this may indicate other underlying factors that should be evaluated by a healthcare professional.
Lillian Yang is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Diabetes Specialist in Brooklyn, New York. She graduated from New York University and completed her Dietetic Program at Stony Brook University. Her nutrition philosophy is based on real food and holistic wellness, and she will help you pinpoint your specific health goals and ways to achieve them that make sense for you. Lillian is available for nutritional support via the boober platform.