Infertility is estimated to affect 1 in 6 couples in South Africa. Naturally, nutrition plays a big role in fertility, as does being under- or over-weight when trying to conceive. So what should you eat when you’re trying to conceive? Are there certain foods that can boost fertility? Is there a ‘fertility diet’? We asked an expert nutritionist to answer all your questions.
What is infertility & how many couples in South Africa are affected?
Infertility can be defined as the inability to conceive after 1 year of regular intercourse. Globally it tends to affect between 8-14% of couples and in South Africa specifically, it appears to affect about 20% of South African couples which is about 1 in every 6 couples.
We tend to see infertility as a female problem, yet the male reproductive system is just as much an important piece to the puzzle.
What factors affect fertility?
Some of the known factors that tend to affect fertility in both men and women include:
- Body weight
- Smoking status or exposure to tobacco smoke
- Alcohol consumption
- Recreational drugs
- Environmental chemicals
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Does your weight really matter when you’re trying to conceive?
Being overweight or underweight tends to be two of the most important factors affecting fertility. This is due to a number of factors that are involved in the complex reproductive system and the role that body fat percentage and fat distribution can play on this.
Both partners who are trying to conceive should aim to be close to their ideal body weight including ideal fat percentages before they seek help from a fertility clinic or specialist. Being at an ideal weight before conception also has benefits on the health of the pregnancy and reduces the risk for complications.
How being overweight affects fertility
Studies show that the closer women are to their ideal body weight when trying to conceive, this will improve their chances of falling pregnant. Even losing just 5 or 10% of your total body fat has been shown to improve ovulation and conception.
Being overweight as a male also tends to affect their reproductive system in a number of ways such as with sperm count, ejaculate volume, optimal hormonal levels etc which may also further hinder conception.
How being underweight affects fertility
Body fat percentage plays an important role in regular menstruation and ovulation and therefore having too little body fat percentage on the other hand may also play a part if you are trying to conceive. Once you are pregnant having a low fat percentage has also been linked in several studies to having a preterm or low birth weight baby.
What foods should I eat to boost my fertility if I’m trying to conceive?
We know very well that diet plays a crucial role during the pregnancy, but studies also show the importance of a good diet and certain foods when trying to conceive.
Try and include the following in your diet:
- Whole grains (oats, whole wheat pasta, wholegrain bread, wholewheat couscous, quinoa, brown rice, barley)
- Include omega 3-rich proteins (oily fish such as salmon, pilchards, sardines, fresh tuna, trout, herring, walnuts, flaxseed oil)
- Include healthy fats such as olives, olive oil and avocado
- Include a moderate amount of full fat-dairy products (plain yoghurt, milk, cheese)
- Include plant-based proteins (chickpeas, lentils, soya, beans)
- Include good amounts of fibre by eating a variety of fruits and vegetables
- Include all kinds of berries, red grapes, pineapple, oranges and pomegranates
- Include mushrooms, asparagus, green leafy vegetables, broccoli, beetroot, and coloured peppers
- Include iron-rich foods (dried apricots, prunes, dark green leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach)
- Use fresh herbs, spices and natural flavourants such as ginger, turmeric, garlic, black pepper and cinnamon within your food
If you’re trying to conceive, reduce your intake of certain foods like:
- Refined carbohydrates (white starches such as white bread, white pasta, sugar and sugary beverages)
- Trans fats (baked products, fried foods, take-aways)
- Red meat Limit red meat to 1-2 times a week and try to include grass-fed proteins where possible
A registered dietitian can help you to assess the sufficiency of your pre-conception diet and help you to achieve your ideal body weight.
Is it important to exercise when you’re trying to conceive?
We are all very familiar with the overall health benefits of exercise such as reducing inflammation, helping with stress relief, managing blood glucose and insulin levels, and helping to achieve or maintain a healthy weight. This can be beneficial for fertility in people who have polycystic ovaries (PCOS), Insulin Resistance or those who are trying to achieve a healthy weight before conception.
On the other hand, too much exercise can have a negative impact on fertility particularly when you already have a low body weight and low body fat percentage, which affects menstruation. In this case you might want to tone down the exercise a notch while you are trying to conceive.
How alcohol, drugs and cigarettes affect fertility
These all should be avoided when trying to conceive as it can affect the quality of the egg, the viability, motility, concentration and quality of the sperm, as well as the ability to conceive.
About Kelly Ansley
Kelly is a registered dietitian and owner of Smart Eating Registered Dietitians
Kelly is a registered dietitian in private practice. She gained valuable experience in the government and private sector before starting her own practice, ‘Smart Eating’, in 2015. She is currently a guest lecturer to the third-year dietetics students at the University of Pretoria and consults from practices in Houghton and Fourways and Morningside Mediclinic.
Since becoming a mom in 2019, Kelly feels passionate about educating and informing other moms on nutrition-related topics and empowering them to provide a healthy balanced diet for the whole family. Kelly understands the stress and pressure that come with being a working mom and she supports her clients and assists them to achieve sustainable health goals. In her private capacity, Kelly enjoys baking, travelling and spending time with family and friends.
Do you have a question for Kelly? Ask your question here.