Wondering if there are certain foods you should eat when trying to get pregnant? Nutrition expert Dr. Nicole Avena explores five foods women should eat to promote pregnancy.
There are tons of new research studies linking ingredients in certain foods to infertility. For example, did you know that seemingly harmless food additives like artificial sweeteners can decrease oocyte (a fancy term for an immature egg cell) quality in women, and preclinical studies suggest monosodium glutamate (MSG) may negatively impact sperm counts in men? Artificial sweeteners are everywhere—in diet sodas, flavored waters, and low-calorie or low-sugar foods, and we put them into our tea and coffee when we are trying to be “healthy” and avoid sugar.
You are probably familiar with MSG, the flavor enhancer that is typically found in Chinese food, but is also often found in processed meats and some canned veggies and soups. It gives food a savory, salty flavor, often referred to as “umami.” Although both are generally recognized as safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there is an abundance of research to show that perhaps this is not necessarily the case if you are trying to get pregnant.
And it isn’t just food additives that we need to be concerned about. Even some foods that are considered healthy can be detrimental to fertility or pregnancy. For example, everyone loves the superfood flax, right? While it has powerful antioxidant properties and other health benefits, flaxseed oil can alter progesterone/estrogen ratios, which can be bad for trying to make a baby. Also, it isn’t just the things we eat, but also the things that come in contact with our food, like plastic bags and the packaging around food products, that can impact fertility. One chemical in particular, known as Surfynol, which is found in plastic, has recently been named a “reprotoxic” chemical for its ability to interfere with fertility, especially in men.
So you are probably wondering, if all of these things are bad for us and for a baby, why the heck are they allowed to be in our food supply? The answer is complicated. When the science is mixed, or when there aren’t a lot of studies out there to suggest something is not safe, we often assume something is safe. I know that sounds ridiculous, but that is how it works. The concept of being innocent until proven guilty applies to food chemicals, additives, and ingredients, just like it does to suspected criminals! Sometimes these questionable ingredients are cheap and save companies money, so companies opt to use them for economic reasons. Other times, the definite pros, like enhanced taste, texture, or food safety (i.e., some additives are used to prevent food spoilage) are believed to outweigh the potential cons. It’s a complicated political battle that involves stakeholders from the food industry and the government, and it is frustrating for health experts and consumers alike.
The concept of being innocent until proven guilty applies to food chemicals, additives, and ingredients, just like it does to suspected criminals!
But it isn’t all bad news. There are also many studies that show that certain foods can promote fertility in both men and women. Here are a few to consider.
Five foods that promote fertility
- Wheat Bran. Wheat bran is not only an excellent source of magnesium, but it also provides a little more than half of the selenium that you need for the day. It’s crazy that bran is often viewed as just a “by-product” when grains are milled, when in reality it is a nutrient powerhouse! It’s a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, and it is loaded with antioxidants. Because inflammation has been shown to negatively impact pregnancy, boosting your antioxidant intake is a great way to combat damaging free radicals. Plus, because low levels of omega-3 fatty acids have been associated with decreased ability to get pregnant, it is a great idea to incorporate more foods rich in omega-3s into your diet.
- Sweet Potatoes. Sweet potatoes are a delicious root vegetable packed with vitamins, minerals, and anti-inflammatory compounds. Sweet potatoes are good sources of vitamins A and C, potassium, and vitamins B3 and B6. Many of these vitamins are helpful for fertility. Whenever picking them out at the store, aim for the brightest or darkest in color—these will be the richest in antioxidants. Remember, the more colorful the skin, the better. Since flavors will also vary (based on the type and color), it’s a good excuse to expand your palate by replacing the white potato with a sweet variety instead.
- Cauliflower. Cauliflower has definitely increased in popularity lately—and rightfully so! This cruciferous vegetable is often subbed in as a lower-carb option for mashed potatoes, rice, or pizza crust. It’s a good thing that not only is it versatile and tasty, but it’s exceptionally high in many key nutrients associated with pregnancy. One cup of cauliflower contains only about 25 calories, but delivers almost 80 percent of your daily vitamin C, 20 percent of your vitamin K, and 15 percent of your daily folate needs. Plus it's a good source of fiber, and cruciferous veggies are associated with decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and blood clots. We know that high blood sugar levels are associated with negative pregnancy outcomes, and cauliflower may even help with that! One study found that phytochemicals in cauliflower actually inhibited the enzymes that break down starchy carbohydrates, which would aid in improved blood sugar control.
- Lentils. Lentils are loaded with folate and another great example of a plant-based protein. Only 1/2 cup of cooked lentils provides 12 g of protein. Also, early on in pregnancy, (before you will likely even be able to know if you are pregnant) folate is key, and lentils are simply packed with it! In addition, they’re a good source of iron to start building up your stores from the very beginning. They are packed with fiber, resistant starch, and prebiotics, all of which help keep your blood sugar levels from spiking and keep your gut health in check. Lentils also contain vitamin B6, potassium, and zinc, among other things. Lentils are also a great source of polyphenols, further supporting their protective role in diabetes and inflammation, which are two conditions that negatively impact pregnancy
- Chicken. Chicken is a good source of heme iron (the iron type that is more readily absorbed) and high-biological-value protein, both which are needed to support a healthy pregnancy. Iron is needed to make hormones for growth, and the amount that you need during pregnancy increases, so it’s a good thing to make sure you’re not lacking prior to pregnancy. Adequate protein is also necessary, and lean meat chicken provides 30 grams in only 4 ounces. That same amount also delivers 1.2 mg of iron. Just remember to remove the skin to keep it lean!
This passage is adapted from Dr. Avena’s new book “What to Eat When You Want to Get Pregnant.”