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Lifestyle Choices, From Diet To Supplements

Lesson 6 of 9

Fertility Impacts of Carbohydrates, Dairy, Meat, Fish, Soy & More

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Carbohydrates & Fertility

It’s easy to overgeneralize the role carbohydrate consumption can have on fertility and so here we need to be careful and refine how we categorize carbohydrates.

Carbs & Unaided Conception

As you can see below in the Nurses Health Study, women who consumed carbohydrates with the highest glycemic index (like white rice and potatoes) were far more likely to suffer from anovulatory infertility than women who consumed carbohydrates with a low glycemic index (like whole grains, vegetables, and beans). When possible, you almost always want to trade off high for low glycemic carbohydrates.

Glycemic Index

A well-regarded study comprised of women in Denmark and the United States showed a correlation between the types of carbohydrates consumed and one's ability to conceive. Women who consumed a higher ratio of dietary fiber-to-added sugar carried a lower glycemic load and a shorter time to pregnancy. A takeaway here is that consuming whole grains is likely better than consuming refined grains.

Historically, data has shown women with a higher glycemic load are more likely to take on insulin resistance, which has been correlated with lower ovarian function. Glucose control (for all hopeful parents, not just those who have diabetes or PCOS) does appear to correlate with natural conception. Let's take a look at a large (2 million patient) Chinese study that showed "time to pregnancy" duration was shorter for women with "normal" fasting glucose scores versus women with "impaired" fasting glucose scores or who were diabetic.

Carbs & Fertility Treatment

For women undergoing IVF, the data shows those who have higher whole grain consumption enjoy higher live birth rates after correcting for discrepancies in age, race, duration of infertility, and more. Below you can see the data from over 400 cycles performed at Harvard. While the study occurred in a single center, the gains made between the highest and lowest quartile are astonishing for their size and consistency.

Whole Grains

Meat’s Impact On Fertility

At the moment, the data on how red meat and white meat impact fertility is mixed, but on balance it is negative, especially in the case of processed red meat.

Meat & Conceiving Naturally

When Harvard investigators in charge of the Nurses Health Study (which we covered above) focused on diet patterns for women in their 30’s with no previous fertility issues, they noticed women in the highest meat consumption category were 40% more likely to have ovulatory dysfunction (if a woman cannot ovulate she cannot conceive naturally). One additional daily serving of meat translated into a 32% higher risk. As you can see below, the opposite was true with vegetable consumption.

Meat and Ovulation

Meat & Fertility Treatments

Unfortunately, the data we have on how meat intake impacts a woman’s ability to conceive through IVF is pretty paltry. The best study we have comes from a single center (which is less preferable) in Brazil, and if it’s even close to accurate it paints a dim picture of red meat’s correlation to poorer IVF outcomes. As you can see below, red meat’s inverse correlation with ability to make quality embryos, and conceive, looks to be on par with smoking.

Meat and IVF

Impact of Meat on Men’s Fertility

For men, the better run studies seems to suggest consuming poultry is of little harm. On the other hand consuming processed red meats (like sausage or baloney) is more closely associated with issues than eating unprocessed red meats (like a piece of chicken or steak). If you’re trying to make the distinction, if you’re unable to trace a food back to a specific part of the animal, it’s likely processed and probably unhelpful.

Seafood & Fish For Fertility

Fish For Conceiving Naturally

Amongst women trying to conceive naturally, greater seafood intake correlates with better fertility. Below is a study of 500 couples tracking their Time To Pregnancy based on seafood and fish consumption. Women who consumed more than 8 servings of seafood and fish per menstrual cycle enjoyed 40 - 60% greater likelihood of conceiving compared to women who hardly consumed it all.

Seafood and NC

However, the greatest benefit was conferred when both members of a couple ate 8 or more servings per cycle. As you can see below, the cumulative odds of conception after each menstrual cycle is higher for the couples where both partners consume high levels of seafood and seafood rather than when just one partner does.

Seafood Both Partners

All the same, some of the benefit of consuming seafood can be diminished if that seafood has been exposed to pollutants or mercury. As a result, where the seafood is caught, and what type it is, matters.

A good illustration of this are two similar studies performed in Sweden (which has cleaner waters) and in the Lake Ontario region (more contaminated waters) that looked at local fish consumption and time to pregnancy. In Sweden, investigators saw an encouraging positive correlation between the two whereas in the Lake Ontario region investigators a 5 - 10% inverse correlation between local fish consumption and fertility.

Sweden and Lake Ontario

Today the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that women who are trying to conceive eat two to three servings of fish per week but limit their fish composed of high levels of mercury. Items like canned tuna are of moderate risk and should only be eaten once per week.

Fish With Mercury

Fish Consumption & Fertility Treatment

Within an IVF population, the Brazilian study we referenced earlier noted that women who consumed greater levels of fish recorded higher levels of blastocyst embryos (embryos most likely to lead to a live birth), but that did not translate into a higher predicted rate of pregnancy.

Dairy Consumption & Fertility

Eating Dairy & Conceiving Naturally

The data on the impact of dairy on fertility is contradictory. We have two good studies on the subject. The first, a pooled analysis of Dutch and American patients showed dairy consumption, by and large, had no impact on a woman’s time to pregnancy.

In the second trial, when the investigators of the Nurses Health Study tracked women who had trouble conceiving due to ovulatory dysfunction, they noticed women with a high intake of high fat dairy were more likely to be able to ovulate and conceive than women with a high intake of low fat dairy.

Specifically, whole milk appeared to be associated with better ovulation while low fat yogurt, frozen yogurt, and sherbert were associated with more ovulation issues.

Dairy and Ovulation

Dairy & Fertility Treatments

Amongst women undergoing IVF, the best study on the subject followed over 200 women and determined in women 35 and over higher daily dairy intake closely associated with increased rates of success, especially at rates of over 3 servings per day (amongst younger women it had no correlation to success). The finding surprised the team at Harvard doing the research and, as we alluded to above, it can be hard for us to determine whether this was “coincidence” or “causality” without adjusting behavior and seeing if fertility rates follow suit.

Dairy and IVF Success Rates

Soy’s Impact on Fertility

Soy and its impact on fertility has been controversial for some time largely because in animals (like cows and cheetahs) soy intake has been closely correlated with infertility.

Soy contains phytoestrogens that chemically look like estrogen, bind to estrogen receptors, and thus could impact a woman’s ability to produce estrogen and conceive.

However, in humans the data pretty clearly demonstrates that soy intake in women does no harm when trying to conceive naturally and in high quantities, through supplements, is helpful when a woman must resort to ovulation induction, IUI or IVF.

Soy & Conceiving Naturally

First, in women trying to conceive naturally, in a study of 500 women in Texas and Michigan, urinary phytogens (a recognized proxy for soy intake) had no correlation to the pregnancy rate after 12 months.


Soy & Fertility Treatment

At every rung of fertility treatment (ovulation induction with clomid, IUI, and IVF) soy has shown a benefit. Let’s take a look.

Amongst 120 women taking clomid (an oral drug often used as first line treatment) with unexplained infertility, those that who were given an additional oral dose of phytoestrogen recorded greater endometrial thickness (the uterus’s walls must be thick enough for an embryo to implant successfully) and far higher pregnancy rates. A number of investigators believe the first relates to the second. Clomid can have a negative impact on endometrial thickness and if phytoestrogens can help reverse that it might explain the higher pregnancy rates.


Amongst women ages 25 - 35 with two years of anovulatory infertility and undergoing intrauterine insemination (called IUI, the process of injecting sperm into the uterus) in combination with clomid, those who also received phytoestrogen (1500 mg day for 10 days) also recorded higher rates of pregnancy.

Phytoestrogen IUI

Finally, a prospective, randomized control trial of women undergoing IVF revealed that women who were given phytoestrogens immediately after the oocyte retrieval for a few days had higher ongoing pregnancy rates.

Phytoestrogen IVF Cycles

Soy & Mitigating BPA Exposure Risk

Finally there has been fascinating work that shows when women suffer from high rates of BPA exposure, a chemical found in plastics which damages fertility, those who consume soy are far less impacted during IVF than those who don’t consume soy. This is exciting because few of us truly know our level of exposure to BPAs (which are found in plastic water bottles, cans, and more) and we likely unwittingly continue to expose ourselves since the plastics industry frequently substitutes similar products with differing names but that can be marketed as “BPA free.”

BPA and Soy

Soy for Men

As for men, there is a fairly close association between soy consumption and lower sperm counts, but in both natural conception and IVF those changes aren’t large enough to impact success rates.

Fatty Acids

As patients it’s probably best to not overthink fatty acids and to go with our instincts and how we’ve been educated on good nutrition in general. Trans fatty acids (found in snacks and fast food) are unhelpful and items like omega 3’s (found in fish, tofu, flax seeds, and spinach) are good. Let’s take a look.

Trans Fats And Conceiving Naturally

As you can see below in the Nurses Health Study, women who substituted trans fatty acids in their diet over other forms of fatty-acid energy (like nuts or avocado), were nearly twice as likely to suffer from ovulatory infertility.

TRanfs Fat Replaces Avocado

Omega 3s

Conversely, intake of polyunsaturated fatty acids (known as PUFAs) and specifically those in the Omega 3 (like fish, tofu, spinach, beans) class appear to be incredibly helpful. In a small study done out of Harvard, patients with higher rates of Omega 3 found in their blood levels had 2.37x higher higher odds of conceiving after IVF.

IVf Success By Fat Acid

In a larger and more recent study from the same group at Harvard, experts continued to see a correlation between higher intake of Omega 3s and IVF success rates. Below you can see that female patients who take a higher level of Omega 3s had similar rates of conception, but improved live birth rates, likely owing to lower risk of miscarriage. When investigators looked at specific sources of Omega 3 consumption, the biggest gains came from consumption of fish rather than nuts.

Omega 3 For Men

The same may be true for men, who seem to clearly benefit from an Omega 3 rich diet, whether those Omega 3s come from fish, walnuts, or another energy source. Amongst 211 men who were given either Omega 3 supplements for 32 weeks or a placebo, those who received supplementation recorded dramatically (both on a percentage and absolute basis) higher sperm counts. However, there is far less data that shows when men increase their Omega 3 consumption rates of IVF success improve. In the Salas-Heutos study we showcased above, the team saw no correlation between male Omega 3 consumption and IVF live birth rates.

Men Omega 3