Plant-based Diets and Fertility: The Evidence

By Lisa Simon

Having struggled to conceive for many years, my husband and I began IVF treatment in September 2017 and we were incredibly fortunate to succeed on the first cycle. I became fascinated with emerging evidence that plant based diets can not only boost fertility but as a result can also positively affect the outcome of fertility treatment and this led me to specialise in plant based nutrition, with a particular interest in plant based diets and fertility.

It is important to be clear that not one particular food or diet has been proven to guarantee pregnancy, but there are certainly ways in which a plant based diet can help increase your chances.

Unfortunately diet does not help with structural abnormalities or blocked fallopian tubes but the evidence is strong in terms of ovulatory infertility, and focusing on food and nutrition is a simple and effective approach to increasing the fertility of both men and women.

The process of developing sperm and increasing sperm count takes ninety days and for this reason, it is really important for the male to eat healthily for many months prior to conception. There are two particularly important nutrients in terms of sperm quality and motility: the mineral, Zinc and the vitamin, Folate. Zinc can be found in fortified breakfast cereal, oats, avocadoes, seeds and grains; and folate in dark green leafy vegetables, peas, chickpeas and oranges, however, there are many other sources of these nutrients and they can all be found in abundance in a plant based diet.

Once the sperm has been formed, it can be easily damaged and needs protecting. This can be achieved by eating a diet rich in antioxidants such as Vitamin C and E and the mineral, Selenium. You will find these powerful antioxidants in all fruit and vegetables, particularly those with red, yellow and orange pigments such as sweet potato, carrots, tomatoes and peppers, as well as in dark green leafy vegetables and nuts. In fact, just one brazil nut daily will enable you to meet your Selenium requirements and this is also an important nutrient in terms of female fertility.

In women, an oocyte (an immature egg cell) will eventually break free from the follicle, travel down the fallopian tube and is then classed as an ovum/egg. Dietary folate, much in the same way as for sperm, is important for oocyte quality and maturation as it lowers levels of a common amino acid in the blood, mainly derived from meat, that is associated with stress and inflammation. Acute inflammation is a normal process that occurs in our bodies, for example, in response to injury, infection and during a woman’s menstrual cycle.

However, when inflammation goes beyond the acute stage and becomes chronic, it can affect ovulation, hormone production, egg and sperm quality.

Western diets high in animal and highly processed foods, as well as sugary drinks, are high in advanced glycation end-products (AGEs). These promote chronic inflammation and may exacerbate polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), affect fertility and even prevent a fertilized egg from implanting due to inflammation in the uterus. There is emerging evidence that plant based diets high in anti-inflammatory foods, such as fruit and vegetables, wholegrains and spices, may have use in the treatment of PCOS and strong evidence that they can prevent widespread inflammation and so create a more receptive environment for conception.

A large study which followed 116,000 women showed that increased fertility was associated with diets rich in unsaturated fats from foods such as avocadoes, nuts and olive oil, vegetable protein rather than animal protein, and wholegrains, such as quinoa, whole wheat pasta and brown rice. In men it has been shown that saturated fats negatively affect sperm quality but that unsaturated fats from foods such as sunflower seeds, walnuts and flaxseeds improve sperm quality, quantity and production.

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