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Fertility-Boosting Nutrition: A Real Diet Plan to End All Diet Plans Blog Feature
Jill Hickey

By: Jill Hickey on March 18th, 2020

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Fertility-Boosting Nutrition: A Real Diet Plan to End All Diet Plans

nutrition

“I’m doing keto.”

“I was on whole 30.”

“I am doing a cleanse.”

“I have been yo-yo dieting my whole life.”

If I had a dollar for every time I have heard something of this sort, I would be rich woman. 

To be honest, it breaks my heart a little bit each time… that’s why I am a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at a fertility clinic. My goal is to supply everyone I meet with as much useful information as possible, especially when they fall victim to diet trends that are incredibly difficult to sustain and aren’t necessarily good for their bodies or their fertility. My wish is that everyone could embody a healthy lifestyle and be successful at maintaining it, but I know we all struggle in our own ways.

Why are these fad diets not a good idea when trying to conceive? Why should we always consider moderation over elimination? How does food play such a large role in our fertility?

And most importantly, what is the nutrition plan that will truly boost your fertility? It’s much simpler than you think.

The Dietitian Nutritionist-Fertility Patient Relationship

My job at RMA of CT is to help my patients sort through the fallacies out there and help them find a healthy way of eating - a healthful, sustainable lifestyle. Most importantly, I aim to show them options that will help them along their path to fertility and prepare their body for a healthy pregnancy and baby.

In doing so, us dietitians can get a bad rap… people are often afraid to tell us what they really eat or what diet they are actually following or what supplements they’re secretly taking. They are afraid we will judge them or tell them they are wrong or overwhelm them.

Please trust me when I say, I’m not judging you or your choices.

In fact, if you ask my colleagues, friends, and family, they would all be able to recite my motto perfectly: everything in moderation.

If you are in my office, I am instilled with the responsibility to steer you away from guilt, fads, unbalanced eating, and empower you with the tools that I believe in and know will help you along your path to fertility and prepare your body for a healthy pregnancy and healthy baby. My goal is offer you real options that fit your lifestyle, not make you feel guilty about past or current choices.

We all want the same thing here: for you to be healthy and happy and for a successful pregnancy!

What is Included in a Fertility-Friendly Nutrition Plan?

For your care team at RMA of CT and me, it’s not about a diet – it’s about embracing a healthy lifestyle. That’s why all those fad diets like keto, paleo, and cleanses aren’t ideal for a well-rounded wellbeing. They are based on elimination, and as we already know by now, I am not a fan of elimination.

A good nutrition plan starts with balance and inclusion. In order to acquire that balance, I believe in basing your meals around three main food groups.

Complex Carbohydrates

What this means:

The first thing to include in your diet are complex carbohydrates - whole grains, ancient grains, fruit and vegetables that high in fiber, without added sugar

Give me an example:

Think lentils, legumes, quinoa, barley, bulgur, oats, winter squash, farro, and fresh or frozen fruits and veggies.

How do they help?

A car needs gas to go right?  Carbohydrates (aka: our gas) are the main source of energy our body needs to function. However, like with most things, the type we choose, and how much we put in our bodies matters. Complex/whole grain choices (as opposed to their refined alternatives)  are loaded with fiber which helps fill you up, slows the absorption of glucose into your blood stream, and provides your body with lots of micronutrients like B vitamins (including folate!) that will be beneficial to you and your baby.

Where fad diets fail:

A diet without complex carbs (i.e. Keto and Whole 30) leaves you missing out big time. 

How to include in your diet:

Adding a 1/3-1/2 cup of whole grains or starchy veggies with each meal can help give your body the energy needed to fuel your brain, ovulation, baby, and more.   Serve it as a side dish or add it to your salad (yes, they taste good cold too!) to help make a more balanced meal.

Healthy Fats

What this means:

Yes… include fats… but mostly the heart healthy fats like omega 3s and monounsaturated fats.

Give me an example:

Think low mercury fish (like salmon), nuts (walnuts are great!), nut butters, olive oil, and avocado.

How does it help?

Choosing more mono- and polyunsaturated fats can help improve insulin sensitivity and decrease inflammation. They can also improve your cholesterol levels, which we know can reduce time to pregnancy. The rich and creamy taste and textures they often bring to a meal can help increase your satiety, which means we’re less likely to overeat too.

Where fad diets fail:

Yes, fat is fat; all are equally high in calories which can add up if we are not careful, but not all fats are equal.  If we lose focus on the healthier choices, we potentially allow trans fats in – these guys have been shown to increase the likelihood of infertility. They contribute to more insulin resistance, increased inflammation, and do a number on our arteries (all are the opposite of what we are going for in our quest for fertility and overall good health).

How to include in your diet:

Drizzle some olive oil on your veggies to boost flavor, sprinkle some nuts or some avocado slices on your salad for some extra crunch and texture, or spread some nutbutter on your apple for a nutrient dense snack.

Protein

What this means:

Gotta include it. Important for cellular growth, development, repair, and metabolism. Kind of a big deal, right?

Give me an example:

Chicken, turkey, meat, beans, cheese, eggs, nuts, and low mercury fish.

How does it help?

In a well-renowned study cohort, known as the Nurses’ Health Study, they found that getting more protein from plant sources rather than animal sources had positive impacts on ovulatory infertility. Pairing your starchy grains with a protein can help slow the absorption of glucose into your blood stream, which is great for glucose/insulin control.

Where fad diets fail:

Again… not all sources are created equal! Following a high-protein diet typically has us consuming higher amounts of saturated fats and cholesterol coming from animal protein sources. That means loading up on these choices “shifts your balanced plate,” therefore, the intake of all the other healthy stuff we’ve been talking about falls short.  

How to include in your diet:

Keep your servings in check (3 oz of meat is equivalent to a deck of cards), choose lean cuts of meat, trim the fat from the edges, and include plant-based choices like lentils, legumes, nuts, seeds often.

Key Nutrition Tips from a Dietitian Nutritionist

Beyond the three pillars of a great meal (Complex carbohydrates, healthy fat, and lean protein), I can share with you my other never-fail tips on nutrition. I live by these rules myself, so I truly believe in their ability to offer a high-quality life.

Eat a Rainbow

Imagine a beautifully colored rainbow… that’s what a dream plate would look like! Try your hardest to have a myriad of colors on your plate. Greens, reds, yellows, etc. Including colorful fruits and vegetables can help keep your calorie level in check while providing you with a variety of vitamins and minerals beneficial for fertility. For instance, vitamin C rich sources (broccoli, kale, oranges, peppers, etc.) can help with iron absorption, and vitamin A rich sources (spinach, sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkin, eggs, etc.) to help with vision and cellular growthegg quality, and embryo development.

Don’t Forget the (Whole) Milk!

Yes, FULL fat dairy, I say! I know what you are thinking… we have just been talking about staying away from saturated fats found in animal product, and we have always heard that low fat dairy is the healthier choice… and it is for the general population.

However, another ‘Nurses Health Study’ found a serving or two of whole milk or full fat dairy can actually have a beneficial effect on ovulatory infertility! That means enjoying a serving or two a day of whole milk, full fat yogurt, cottage cheese, and yes, ice cream can not only be delicious, but helpful.   

Equally beneficial, is the calcium and vitamin D you will be getting from the dairy to keep your muscles, bones, and heart healthy. Additionally, higher vitamin d levels are associated with better egg quality and healthier pregnancies. It’s a win-win-win!

Not a milk drinker? There are many lactose-free alternatives and fortified almond/nut milks to help you get the calcium you need.

All About That Balance

That means pairing your complex starchy grains with heart healthy fats and lean protein sources with vitamin-rich veggies. In addition to the colorful nature of your plate, make sure there is a high variety of types of food. This helps keep blood sugar in check and manages weight control, leaving you satisfied and less likely to feel the need to add more or snack later. Plus, it helps to ensure you are getting all of the nutrients you need to foster fertility.

What to Limit

You’ve made it this far in your fertility-nutrition research, you may as well get the whole story! You have your eye on the prize, baby!

And for the record, I really dislike the word “avoid,” because I know we all live real lives, and it’s not always feasible to 100% “avoid” certain food products/groups. So instead of “foods to avoid,” let’s go with “foods to limit.”

So, here are a few things to truly limit as best you can:

  • highly processed foods, refined carbohydrates (like white bread), and simple sugars
  • trans/hydrogenated fat and limiting saturated fats - these guys can be pro-inflammatory, and eating less of these, including less red meat, has been found to be beneficial for pregnancy, not to mention healthier for your heart in general. 
  • The unknowns - artificial sweeteners, environmental contaminants (BPA), etc.

Long story short? It’s best to stick with whole foods and ingredients you can pronounce.

Nutrition + Physical Activity = A Winning, Healthy Combo

Another big professional and personal motto for me (in addition to “everything in moderation”) is it all comes down to “good self-care.” You know, “put your oxygen mask on first” type stuff.

In addition to eating healthfully, good self-care includes exercising. Of course, this isn’t the first time you’ve heard that, and it will certainly not be the last, but this time around, let’s try and think of exercise as a personal gain. You get to exercise! You get to improve your health simply by devoting 15, 20, 30, or however many minutes to moving your body.

When you’re struggling with infertility, it might be helpful to celebrate the processes in your body that function perfectly… like walking, stretching, running, or any other movement that feels good

Benefits of Exercise on Fertility and Nutrition

Let’s break it down: Why do we actually need physical activity? Why is it part of a healthy mind/body equation?

Regular physical activity can help us with the following:

  • achieve or maintain a healthy body weight
  • improve our glucose/insulin sensitivity
  • improve cholesterol levels
  • reduce risk of diabetes during pregnancy
  • improving our mental health – one of my favorite benefits!

Next Steps to Improve Fertility and Overall Health

If any of these recommendations is a struggle for you, take baby steps (pun intended)!

  • Try one new change each day (or week!) - Try a new whole grain or veggie, walk slightly longer or faster for more days this week, or sign up for that yoga class you’ve been eyeing.
  • Eat mindfully - Enjoy your food knowing you made healthy changes to take care of yourself and your future baby.
  • Add in journaling – Journaling can help in practical ways (like keeping you accountable with your progress) and in an overall mindfulness way (as in reflection on your progress).
  • Set aside 5 minutes for reflection and appreciation – What sort of progress are you making, and do you see areas to build upon? More importantly, how you are feeling? Maybe this is through meditation, the afore mentioned journaling, or a phone call with a fertility advocate. Ultimately, you need to take a moment to appreciate the hard you are working for yourself and your future family.  
  • Take advantage of offerings in your fertility clinic like acupuncture and counseling - They will undoubtedly help you embody wellness. At the end of the day, diet is just one piece of the wellness picture, albeit a biggie, so it’s important to factor in other specialties so you can optimize your fertility.   

So, step into my office, my judgement-free zone. We are in this together, bite by bite, step by step. Taking care of your nutrition and overall health now will help put some of the control back in your hands. It all comes down to giving yourself the best chance to conceive, whether that’s with fertility treatment or naturally, but either way, a healthy mind/body will improve your chances of success.


What else is fertility-friendly? A great prenatal. 

Here's a complete guide to picking your vitamin.

 

About Jill Hickey

Jill is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who has provided medical nutrition therapy in a variety of settings: while a Certified Nutrition Support Clinician in the hospital setting, she provided nutrition support to patients in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the University of Chicago Medical Center; the Surgical Intensive Care Unit and Burn Unit at Bridgeport Hospital and has assessed and counseled patients, young and old, with various medical conditions.