1. Eat a Clean Diet
Given the stereotypical imagery featuring pregnant women craving sweets, it’s not widely known that sugar can negatively affect fertility. Any food that creates inflammation, in fact, can have a negative effect.
In 2007, when he was conducting research for his thesis, Jorge Chavarro, MD, ScD — now an assistant professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and coauthor of The Fertility Diet (McGraw-Hill, 2007) — noticed data showing certain diabetes medications, which regulate insulin, also affected fertility.
“It occurred to me that there might be a shared mechanism between glycemic control and insulin sensitivity and ovulation,” Chavarro says. “I wanted to investigate whether the dietary risk factors for diabetes and those for infertility might be the same.”
Chavarro wound up studying behavior and lifestyle among 18,555 married women who took part in the Nurses’ Health Study II, which evaluated various diet and lifestyle risk factors on rates of chronic disease.
The study revealed that dietary habits that have a negative effect on glucose sensitivity, like eating a starchy diet, also dampen fertility. Women whose diets contained significant amounts of trans-fatty acids (found mainly in processed foods) also tended to have issues with ovulation.
Integrative practitioners recommend a non-inflammatory diet for couples who want to get pregnant, with plenty of vegetables, complex carbohydrates and protein to stabilize blood sugar. Produce should be organic and meat should come from pasture-raised animals. Women should also cut back on caffeine (studies have correlated it with miscarriage) and alcoholic beverages, which can act like sugars in the body.
2. Avoid Skim and Nonfat Dairy Products
Chavarro was surprised to find that women in the Nurses’ Health Study II who drank skim milk experienced lower fertility than those who drank whole milk. There are a number of likely reasons for this. In The Fertility Diet, Chavarro and his coauthor, Walter Willett, MD, DrPH, suggest the process of skimming away the fat from milk also removes the milk’s female hormones, which bind to the milkfat, leaving behind only male and sex-neutral hormones. This imbalance may interfere with the delicate machinery of ovulation.
Additionally, removing the fat from milk increases the ratio of lactose, or milk sugar, which triggers a higher glycemic response. Lactose is also the trigger for most allergic responses to dairy, which is estimated to affect about 70 percent of the world’s population.
If you’re having trouble conceiving, it’s wise to be tested for dairy intolerance, along with other food sensitivities. If you find you can tolerate dairy, stick to organic, whole milk products whenever possible. (For more on full-fat dairy, read “Skimming the Truth.”) And go easy: Chavarro and Willett recommend you limit your intake to the equivalent of one 8-ounce glass of milk per day.
Next: the importance of the gastrointestinal system