If you eventually want a baby or are currently trying to conceive, you may be wondering what’s best to eat for this important time of life — or if nutrition really matters that much in the big picture of making a baby. The answer, unsurprisingly, is yes: your weight (both being underweight or overweight) and your dietary habits can have a profound effect on your body’s function, including on your fertility.
You can make “huge gains in optimizing your fertility” through what you eat, says Lizzy Swick, a clinical nutritionist specializing in fertility, pregnancy, and postpartum. Here, she breaks down what’s best to put in your body.
Real foods for fertility
The most important thing someone prepping for conception or actively trying to conceive can do is eat a plant-centered, nutrient-rich diet, Swick says. That means fewer processed foods and more “real food,” like vegetables and high-quality fats and protein. A well-balanced diet can help stabilize insulin levels, which affect all sex hormones in women.
Plant-centered doesn’t mean you have to avoid meat, though Swick says women trying to conceive should focus on organic and grass-fed sources of meat, as these are lower in antibiotics and toxins from the meat industry.
In general, Swick says many Americans actually get too much protein, so she also advises her clients to eat vegetarian until dinner. “This approach decreases toxicity from animal fat and helps control protein intake so we don’t overdo it. Wild salmon, cod, halibut, sardines, and shellfish at dinner are my top choices,” she says. “I tell all women who are trying to conceive that they should have the highest quality meat one to two times per week (lamb, bison, beef, wild game, etc.) to help remineralize their nutrition status. And about two to three times per week, have poultry — as clean sourced as possible.”
Quality fats are among the most important things to eat throughout preconception, pregnancy, and after childbirth, says Swick. Fats keep you satiated and help you better absorb other nutrients your body needs — plus, they can help your baby’s growing brain once you’re pregnant.
“Women at all stages in motherhood should not be afraid of good fat,” she affirms. “Some women are still inherently scared of eating fat, and the time around motherhood is not the time to go easy in this area.” Great sources of healthy fat include avocados, ghee, olive oil, nuts, and seeds. Avoid vegetable oils and other forms of trans fat, commonly found in processed baked goods and packaged foods. Trans fat can raise your bad cholesterol, as well as your risk for heart disease.
Non-starchy vegetables are also key to eat on a regular basis. Cruciferous veggies like cauliflower, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts are all great choices, as are leafy greens and asparagus. These plants are high in fiber and phytochemicals, plant compounds that benefit health in different ways, such as lowering your risk of some diseases, and can help your body eliminate waste and stay at optimal health.
Swick also advises cutting down on snacking. Instead, focus on eating balanced and complete meals, so you stay full longer and your body doesn’t beg for additional fuel.
If you have diagnosed fertility conditions
If you know you have a hormonal imbalance or another fertility condition, your diet recommendations may be different. For example, a lower carb diet is increasingly recommended for people with polycystic ovarian syndrome. Swick says she’s had great success with intermittent fasting for polycystic ovarian syndrome in her practice.
If you’re estrogen-dominant, you may be advised to avoid foods high in phytoestrogens, such as soy. Some nutritional supplements may be appropriate too, although Swick says people should start with diet and use supplements as complementary medicine, rather than the main way to address issues.
If you need help finding a diet that’s right for you, consider scheduling a visit with a registered dietitian or nutritionist — they can help identify nutrients you may be lacking, provide meal plans, and offer other suggestions to make balanced nutrition easy. And of course, any change in your diet should be discussed with your gynecologist or health care provider.
Swick says concentrating on a fertility-focused diet for at least three months before conception is best, but that people who haven’t been focused on healthy eating shouldn’t feel guilty if their diet has been less than ideal. “Trust in nature and trust the wisdom of your body,” she says. “Don’t get too scared. You don’t have to be perfect. Just do the best you can.”