Can a ‘fertility diet’ really help you conceive?

When it comes to diets, there are many varieties from which to choose: weight loss, plans to lower cholesterol and manage diabetes, and foods to fuel endurance athletes. Now, there’s a diet that claims it can boost a woman’s chances of having a baby.

The diet was developed by Drs. Jorge Chavarro and Walter Willett, both of the Harvard School of Public Health, based on their extensive data analysis of the Nurses’ Health Study, one of the largest and longest-running studies of women’s health in America.

After reviewing the diets of more than 18,000 women who did not have a history of infertility but who were trying to get pregnant, they found that the quality of your diet, along with how active you are and whether you smoke, can stack the reproductive deck in your favor.

For those having trouble conceiving, “high-tech medicine isn’t the only answer,” Chavarro and Willett wrote in their book, “another study published last month and co-authored by Chavarro, a “pro-fertility diet” that included high levels of folic acid, vitamin B12 and vitamin D, as well as dairy, soy and low-pesticide produce, had a more favorable outcome on fertility when followed in conjunction with assisted reproductive technologies, compared with the Mediterranean diet.

With the “pro-fertility diet,” the more compliant a patient was, the better the result. But researchers did not see the same relationship when they evaluated women with different levels of compliance with the Mediterranean diet and their assisted reproductive technology outcomes, Manaker explained.

“This new study highlights that components that are not included in the Mediterranean diet, like focusing on low pesticide residue produce and including supplementation of specific vitamins, may be a better choice for those undergoing ART,” Manaker said.

Keeping expectations in check

Although following fertility diet strategies can boost your chances of a baby bump, “it’s not an automatic ‘you do this and your live birth rate goes up 10%,’ ” Menke said. What’s more, if you don’t have an underlying ovulatory disorder, you may not get a lot of added benefit through diet.

Kallen points out that while there is a possibility of benefit from following the fertility diet for women with ovulatory infertility, the data supporting it is based on relationships (which don’t prove cause and effect), as well as self-reported accounts of one’s diet (which can be inaccurate). “The question is: If you follow this diet, will it treat or cure infertility? I don’t think you can say that’s the case,” Kallen said.

Copperman noted, “If you follow this diet, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get pregnant, and if you cheat, it doesn’t mean that you’re not going to get pregnant. It was a lovely study, and it was a huge study; there are tons of women who recorded their information … but even in the world of big data, it doesn’t mean that we can draw specific and personalized conclusions from a study that wasn’t designed to ask these questions.”

Copperman is concerned that women may become overly adherent to a specific diet — and unnecessarily blame their infertility on not following something stringently enough.

“People come in all the time … after we put them on a low-carb diet … and then they say, ‘the reason I didn’t ovulate is because I had a roll at dinner.’ No, no! Biologically, that makes no sense,” Copperman said.

If you decide to try lifestyle changes, your age should also be considered. “If a woman is 26 years old, [not ovulating] for the last three years after she started eating unhealthy in college and became 10 pounds heavier, then I might say, ‘try this first; don’t go straight to IVF.’ But I’d be cautious to wait a year on a diet if a woman is 40 years old. That would make me a little bit worried,” Menke said.

At the end of the day, experts agree that when it comes to conceiving, having something in a patient’s control is meaningful.

“It’s a question that comes up a lot: Is there anything I should be eating or doing to make this better?” Menke said. “If you are looking for something anyway, this might not be a bad place to start.”

The fertility diet in 11 recommendations

Chavarro and Willett recommend in their book 10 research-based strategies that could potentially boost fertility:

1. Avoid trans fats, the artery-clogging fats found in many commercially prepared products and fast foods.

2. Use more unsaturated vegetable oils, such as olive oil or canola oil.

3. Eat more vegetable protein, like beans and nuts, and less animal protein.

4. Choose whole grains and other sources of carbohydrates that have lower, slower effects on blood sugar and insulin rather than highly refined carbohydrates that quickly boost blood sugar and insulin.

5. Drink a glass of whole milk or have a small dish of ice cream or full-fat yogurt every day; temporarily trade in skim milk and low- or no-fat dairy products like cottage cheese and frozen yogurt for their full-fat cousins.

6. Take a multivitamin that contains folic acid and other B vitamins.

7. Get plenty of iron from fruits, vegetables, beans and supplements, but not from red meat.

8. Beverages matter: Water is great; coffee, tea and alcohol are OK in moderation; stay away from sugared sodas.

9. Aim for a healthy weight. If you are overweight, losing between 5% and 10% of your weight can jump-start ovulation.

10. If you aren’t physically active, start a daily exercise plan. If you already exercise, pick up the pace of your workouts. But don’t overdo it, especially if you are quite lean. Too much exercise can work against conception.

11. If you smoke: stop.

Chavarro and Willett say the diet recommendations are specific to women with ovulation-related infertility and not infertility related to blocked fallopian tubes or low sperm production. Their book offers a week-long meal plan with recipes that are consistent with the above strategies and delivers approximately 2,000 calories per day.