Fertility is complex. Numerous factors can play a role in an individual or couple’s ability to conceive.
One of the things I wondered about before I had children was how much of a role nutrition played in fertility and whether eating (or avoiding) certain foods should be a part of my preparation.
As it turns out, good nutrition is key for fertility.
In recent years, scientists have conducted more research on dietary patterns and specific foods that potential parents should consider adding to or removing from their lifestyle for the best odds at conception (1, 2, 3, 4).
Infertility affects approximately 10–15% of couples. While the focus of fertility is often on the person who will be getting pregnant, it’s equally important for the supporting partner to adopt habits that support fertility.
In fact, infertility among couples is attributed to the male partner approximately 50% of the time, primarily due to low spermatogenesis, or a lack of production of healthy sperm (5, 6).
This article examines 5 foods to minimize in your diet when if you’re trying to become pregnant, as well as other lifestyle tips for supporting fertility.
Current research suggests that a high consumption of red and processed meats, such as beef, bacon, hot dogs, and sausage, are likely dietary contributors to infertility for people of all genders (2, 7).
One study found that men who consumed large amounts of processed meat had lower sperm quality, count, and motility compared with those of men who consumed fish instead (8).
Another study examined the health information of 141 males undergoing in vitro fertilization with their female partners, specifically a procedure called intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), which fertility specialists sometimes use when male fertility is an issue (9).
The study found a link between frequent intake of processed meat and lower egg fertilization among the men.
Those who ate fewer than 1.5 servings of processed meats per week had a 28% better chance of achieving pregnancy compared with men who ate 4.3 servings per week.
However, men who ate the most poultry had 13% higher fertilization rates than men who ate the lowest amount of poultry (9).
Red and processed meats can also be high in trans fats and saturated fats, which are associated with lower fertility (7).
Other research suggests that a high intake of animal protein overall may also be associated with worsened fertility outcomes.
One study found that women who met high “fertility diet” scores, which included more vegetable protein than animal protein, had lower rates of infertility due to ovulation disorders (10, 11).
Consider replacing red and processed meats with plant-based protein alternatives, like:
Red and processed meats, as well as an overall high intake of animal protein, may be associated with reduced fertility among men and women. Replacing some of these with plant-based proteins may benefit fertility.
Some studies associate diets high in ultra-processed carbs — including foods with a high glycemic index (GI) — with moderately reduced fertility in some people. This link appears stronger when the diet is also low in fiber and high in added sugar (10, 12).
If a food has a high GI, that means it triggers a more significant spike in your blood sugar after you eat it, compared with foods that have a lower GI.
Some examples of high GI foods include white breads and pastas, as well as white crackers, desserts, baked goods, and other more processed packaged snack foods.
Keep in mind that having a high GI isn’t automatically a fertility-reducing property on its own. The low fiber, high added sugar nature of these foods is more likely to negatively affect fertility (13, 14).
One review found that replacing high GI foods with lower GI foods may help improve female fertility. These lower GI foods included whole grains and certain vegetables that are common in a Mediterranean diet (11, 15).
Again, it’s likely the combination of a low GI diet with increased fiber and reduced added sugar intake that offers benefits. In some studies, eating a high fiber diet has been shown to have a protective effect against ovulatory infertility among women.
Fiber is especially high in foods like:
- whole fruits and vegetables
- nuts and seeds
- whole grains, such as 100% whole wheat breads and pastas
On the other hand, some studies suggest that a very high fiber diet reduces estrogen levels and increases the risk of the absence of ovulation (16, 17).
If you eat a low fiber diet, consider replacing white breads and pastas with whole grain versions. For instance, incorporate grains like quinoa, amaranth, millet, oats, and barley in place of white rice in some dishes, and use 100% whole wheat bread in place of white bread.
Eating white breads and pastas, ultra-processed carbs, and other low fiber processed foods may be associated with reduced fertility among some people. Try adding more whole grains and higher fiber foods to your lifestyle if you don’t already eat them.
Baked goods like pastries, donuts, and cakes, particularly ones that are fried or contain margarine, may be high in trans fats and saturated fats. Consuming these types of fats is associated with poorer fertility outcomes (18, 19, 20).
Manufacturers produce trans fats when they partially hydrogenating vegetable oils to make them solid at room temperature.
While trans fats are officially banned from the food system as of January 2021, foods that contain fewer than 0.5 grams per serving can still be labeled as free of trans fats (21, 22).
Diets high in trans fats and low in unsaturated fats have been linked to a higher risk of fertility problems. This is particularly true for diets that get more than 1% of their overall calories from trans fats (1, 7, 23).
Research has also found that choosing trans fats over healthier carb-containing foods is associated with a 73% higher risk of ovulatory disorders, which can cause infertility (23).
Overall, diets that emphasize monounsaturated fats over trans fats are associated with better fertility outcomes (11).
Sources of monounsaturated fats include:
- olive oil
Baked goods and other fried and highly processed sweets may contain trace amounts of trans fats, a high intake of which is associated with poorer fertility. Consider choosing healthier carbs and sources of monounsaturated fat instead.
One study among 3,828 females ages 21–45 and 1,045 of their male partners who were planning pregnancy analyzed the fertility effects of drinking sugar-sweetened beverages over periods of up to 12 menstrual cycles (24).
The researchers found that males and females who regularly consumed sugar-sweetened beverages, which was defined as consuming at least 7 drinks per week, had reduced fertility (24).
Sugar-sweetened sodas and energy drinks had the worst effect, compared with diet sodas and fruit juice, which didn’t have a significant association with fertility (24).
Another study found that a higher consumption of sugary beverages was associated with a lower total number of mature and fertilized eggs, as well as top quality embryos, among women.
This was independent of the caffeine content and appeared to be more negatively associated with fertility than caffeinated beverages without added sugar (25).
A 2012 study compared the effects of caffeinated beverages and soda intake on time to planned pregnancy among 3,628 women in Denmark (26).
The authors found that caffeine intake, whether measured as at least 300 mg of caffeine or 3 servings of coffee per day, had little effect on fertility (26).
However, soda consumption was associated with reduced fertility (26).
Instead of sugary sodas, try seltzer water or regular water naturally flavored with lemon slices or berries.
A high intake of sugar-sweetened beverages, especially soda, is linked to reduced fertility. Try unsweetened seltzer or plain water instead.
The fat content of dairy products appears to have sex-specific fertility effects.
While low fat and skim dairy products may support fertility among men, full fat dairy is associated with the opposite effect. A high overall consumption of dairy products, such as cheese and milk, has been associated with lower semen quality in some studies (2, 3).
However, some research shows that while low fat dairy may be best for supporting male fertility, whole milk may be associated with improved female fertility.
One 2007 study found that high fat dairy products were associated with a reduced risk of infertility due to lack of ovulation, whereas low fat dairy products were associated with an increased risk (10, 11, 27).
Women who ate full fat dairy products at least once per day had a 25% lower risk of fertility from ovulatory disorders, compared with women who ate these foods less frequently, at around once per week (27).
Additionally, women who ate more than two servings of low fat dairy per day were 85% more likely to experience infertility due to lack of ovulation, compared with those who ate low fat dairy only once a week (27).
More research is needed on the effects of dairy consumption and fertility, but current observational research suggests that some full fat dairy may benefit female fertility, while low fat dairy or no dairy, may be better for male fertility.
Alternatively, you could go dairy-free and incorporate a variety of plant-based milk, cheese, and dairy options that have varying amounts of fat.
Full fat dairy may benefit female fertility, while low fat or no dairy may be better than full fat for male fertility. More research is needed on the sex-specific fertility effects of dairy products.
In addition to your diet, other factors may be involved in your fertility outcomes. A general rule of thumb is that habits known to support your overall health are also a good idea when it comes to fertility.
Here are some additional ways to help support your fertility.
Get enough sleep
Animal studies have found that sleep disruption leads to reduced testosterone levels and sperm quality and motility, inhibits melatonin production, and increases circulating stress hormones, which may impair fertility among both men and women (28, 29, 30).
Manage your stress
One review found that women with infertility tend to report mental stress more often than those without fertility issues, and that this association may be a detrimental cycle among women who are trying to become pregnant.
Stress can trigger changes in the brain that can inhibit reproductive function (31, 32).
Get physically active
Studies have found that men who exercise at least three times per week for a minimum of 1 hour have the best sperm health parameters (33).
Regular exercise can also help prevent you from developing overweight or obesity, which are known to work against fertility (33, 34, 35, 36).
However, too much exercise can have the opposite effect (33, 34, 35, 36).
Take a prenatal vitamin
Getting enough folic acid is essential for a healthy pregnancy and helps reduce the risk of birth defects. A daily multivitamin may even increase the odds of conception among women.
A daily prenatal vitamin with folic acid is generally a good idea to include in your preconception routine, but it’s always best to speak with a healthcare professional before you start taking one (7, 37).
Don’t smoke or drink alcohol
Research suggests that smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol, and engaging in recreational drug use may make it more difficult to become pregnant (38, 39, 40, 41).
One study found that drinking more than 14 alcoholic drinks per week was associated with a longer time to conceive (41).
In addition to a healthy diet, lifestyle habits like getting enough sleep, not smoking, taking a prenatal multivitamin, managing your stress levels, and engaging in moderate physical activity may support fertility.
Infertility affects many people, and multiple factors are likely at play. Research shows that diet has a significant role in fertility among both men and women.
Evidence suggests that avoiding red and processed meats, ultra-processed carbs, sugary beverages, and certain dairy products may be beneficial for reproductive health.
It’s also a good idea to practice lifestyle habits that benefit your overall health. Practices like getting good quality sleep, exercising, not smoking, and managing stress may also support fertility.