There has been a recent surge of people adopting veganism as the #cleaneating movement sweeps social media. Juliet Gellately, nutritional therapist and founder of vegan charity Viva! Health explains why a plant-based diet could hold the key to trying to conceive.
Fertility problems affect one in seven couples in the UK. There are many causes – certainly not diet alone, but its effect is often underplayed. How we eat particularly impacts on the baby in the womb but a calorie intake that is too low or too high, along with vitamin deficiencies, can be a root cause of infertility. Lifestyle choices such as alcohol and drug use may also have an impact. Tobacco smokers are 60% more likely to be infertile than non-smokers.
Diet and lifestyle choices are important for men and women who want to make a baby, and one route to consider is a plant-based, vegan diet. Ideally, a highly nutritious vegan diet that maximises the ideal intake of complex carbohydrates, fibre, protein, omega 3 and 6 ‘good’ fats, vitamins and minerals.
A balanced vegetarian, or better still, a vegan diet is packed with disease-busting, body and brain nurturing nutrients and is ideal for boosting fertility and for a healthy pregnancy. Just as importantly, a vegan diet particularly lacks the nasties you need to avoid – saturated animal fats, cholesterol, concentrated pesticides, cancer promoters, dioxins and mercury. The latter two are in practically all fish.
And few people realise that cows’ milk contains 35 hormones and 11 growth factors, including those linked to breast and prostate cancers.
The secret of healthy eating for men and women before and during pregnancy is variety but focusing on whole grains (three servings daily), pulses (peas, beans and lentils) of all types plus unsalted mixed nuts if not from an allergy-prone family and seeds (two to three portions daily), and fresh fruit and vegetables (seven to 10 servings daily), as well as some healthy essential fats and vitamin B12 fortified foods. Viva!’s new colourful laminated wallchart, What I Need Each Day (£2) is a friendly food reminder and will help maximise your fertility.
Can a vegan diet cut weighty issues
As two-thirds of Brits are overweight or obese, diet has become a central issue for fertility babies’ health. The biggest study of European vegans to date compared over 1,000 of them to tens of thousands of meat eaters and vegetarians. The meat eaters, on average, were significantly heavier than the vegans. Even allowing for differences in exercise, smoking and other lifestyle factors, vegans came out slimmer in every age group and are usually their ideal healthy weight, or close to it. Less than 2% of vegans are obese, in stark contrast to the rest of the population.
Recent research has shown that mums who eat a high fat and/or high sugar diet during pregnancy can have babies who are predisposed to obesity and when children, to having metabolic syndrome (the precursor to type 2 diabetes).
It’s equally important not to undereat. Many studies show that mums who do so increase their child’s risk of developing obesity and related diseases (e.g. heart disease, diabetes, cancer). It is believed that the baby in the womb makes adaptations to the ‘famine’ to prepare him or herself for life after birth. Far from being protective, these changes make the child more vulnerable to obesity and disease.
Men who are obese are three times more likely to have a low sperm count than men of the same background and age who are of a healthy weight. Obese men are also more likely to have sperm that has problems swimming and are misshaped. This can reduce fertility or cause infertility. What’s more, obese men have lower levels of the male sex hormone, testosterone, and higher levels of the female hormone oestrogen. This is because fat cells make oestrogen in men and women and is why overweight men often develop breasts.
If a man is obese, the amount of oestrogen subsequently produced may reduce his sperm production. Obese men also tend to have more erectile problems and impotence and may have a lower sex drive. New research has also shown that red meat slows sperm. Meat is not so macho after all, it seems!
Weight is an important issue for women too. A study on almost 50,000 couples in 2007 showed that obese women have almost an 80% greater risk of being subfertile than normal-weight women. For those in need of some dietary guidance, Viva!Health’s V Plan Diet helps men and women regain their mojo by giving tips on a healthy, sustained weight loss.
Vegan diet and Fertility foods
All nutrients play a vital part in fertility, so it is important to know which foods are rich sources of the vitamins and minerals you need.
Zinc probably plays the biggest role in reproduction. A deficiency in a man reduces the volume of semen and so fertilisation may be compromised. In a woman, zinc is needed for the right hormone balance, development of the egg, successful fertilisation and for the enzymes of egg implantation. In pregnant women, zinc deficiency increases the chances of miscarriage, low birth weight, labour and delivery problems.
(Rich sources of zinc include avocados, blackberries, raspberries, asparagus French beans, Brussel sprouts, pulses, wholegrains (eg brown rice, wholegrain bread, oats, rye), green leafy veg, nuts (e.g. peanuts), seeds (especially pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds used to make hummus), basil, thyme.)
Folic acid is vital for the prevention of spina bifida and other neural tube defects in babies and is needed in the first 28 days of pregnancy – so should be taken from preconception. It also supports the placenta. Folic acid deficiency can also lead to miscarriage.
(Rich sources of folic acid include berries, mangoes, pineapples, avocados, green leafy vegetables, cauliflower, asparagus, parsnips, pulses (e.g. peas, chickpeas, kidney beans, black eyed peas, edamame and soya products such as tofu, lentils), brown rice, seeds (e.g. sunflower seeds.)
Ground flax seed or flax seed oil bursting with omega-3, the good fat that is vital for sperm health and for making male sex hormones.
A great source of zinc, which is needed to make the outer layer and tail of the sperm and to make testosterone.
This is a great source of selenium, an antioxidant which helps maintain strong and healthy sperm. It is also high in the B vitamins needed for sex hormones and helps protect blood vessels and heart – both needed for a good blood supply to you know where!
Rich in folic acid to boost sperm health. Low levels of folate increase the risk of sperm that contain too little or too many chromosomes, which may result in birth defects or increase the risk of miscarriage.
Fabulous source of vitamin E, which improves sperm quality; good fats crucial for sex hormones; and vitamin C which protects sperm from free radicals, helps improve sperm quality in smokers and helps stop sperm clumping together.
Mixed unsalted nuts and seeds rich in good fats, which are crucial for healthy ovulation; protein which is needed for egg production and to make sex hormones. Inadequate protein intake can decrease the frequency of periods and may also contribute to early miscarriage.
Prunes, figs and apricots Brimming with iron, essential for normal ovulation, as well as carrying oxygen to your reproductive parts (and everywhere else!) – and to your baby when pregnant. One third of pregnant women in the UK have mild anaemia.
Wholegrains such as oats, brown rice and whole wheat contain complex carbohydrates to give you energy for baby-making. They’re also brimming with B vitamins, vital for making sex hormones and healthy eggs.
Superfood packed with folic acid, essential to stop spina bifida in your future baby; beta carotene, which is crucial for the enzymes needed for implantation of your fertilised egg but also helps produce female sex hormones, important for ovulation; and vitamin C, which also improves fertility.
Contain zinc needed for sex hormones, healthy eggs and egg implantation; manganese which helps make energy and metabolise good fats essential for fertility and are full of antioxidants, which promote general as well as reproductive health.