Whether you’re working hard at babymaking or just thinking about it, you may be wondering how to improve your odds. Until recently, changing what you eat hasn’t been high on the list of ways to do that. Your ob/gyn is much likelier to talk to you about reducing stress, getting down to a healthy weight if you’re overweight, and stopping smoking, drugs, and drinking before she tells you to consider switching up your diet.
But a small study presented at this week’s meeting of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) suggests that diet may matter more than we might have thought. The study, which included 120 patients, was led by reproductive endocrinologist Jeffrey B. Russell, M.D., at the Delaware Institute for Reproductive Medicine, in Newark, and showed that a diet richer in protein seems to improve fertility in women undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF). Specifically, patients whose daily protein intake was 25 percent or more of their diet, and whose carbohydrate intake was 40 percent or less of their diet, had a four-fold higher pregnancy rate compared to patients who ate less protein and more carbs daily before and during an IVF cycle.
Dr. Russell said he decided to do the study because although having a high body mass index (BMI) has been shown to hurt fertility, he had also seen healthy, thin women whose eggs and embryos weren’t of good quality for a healthy pregnancy. He wondered why and decided to ask these patients to log what they ate and how much. After looking at the food logs the women kept during their IVF attempt, Dr. Russell was surprised to see that the daily diets of some of the women were more than 60 percent carbohydrate and 10 percent or less protein.
“Protein is essential for good-quality embryos and better egg quality, it turns out,” said Dr. Russell, in a statement released today about the study. In his practice he now requires his female patients to follow a daily diet made up of 25 to 35 percent protein and 40 percent (or less) of carbs for three months before starting a round of IVF, in the hope that the dietary shift will result in more healthy embryos—and in turn a healthy, full-term pregnancy.
Though the study did not look at whether the same diet composition is effective for women trying to get pregnant naturally, or with less invasive fertility techniques like artificial insemination, there is no harm for most women in switching to the higher-protein/lower-carb diet.
Kim Griffiths, associate editor of the website FertilityAuthority.com, says that research indicates that women with Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which affects 5 to 10 percent of all women, might also benefit from the diet changes Dr. Russell suggests for his IVF patients. PCOS is a common cause of fertility problems, and Griffiths says that studies show carbs, which can cause weight gain and insulin changes, may exacerbate PCOS. She adds that protein, along with some fruits and vegetables, may help stabilize the hormones that are greatly affected by the condition, as a 2012 study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Endometriosis, another condition that can cause difficulties conceiving (almost 40 percent of women with infertility have endometriosis, which is usually diagnosed in a woman’s 30s or 40s, says ACOG), seems to respond well to a lower-carb diet too. Women with endometriosis, in which the lining of the uterus grows outside the uterus, experience pain from internal scar tissue and fertility issues—which can be eased somewhat by dietary changes, particularly eating fresh produce, healthy fats, and limiting red meat, says Boston Children’s Hospital.
If you think you might benefit from switching up what you eat, but aren’t sure where to start, ask your ob/gyn or family doc for a referral to a nutritionist. If you are advised to up your protein intake, good choices include lean chicken and fish—be sure to vary the type of fish you eat during each week to reduce your mercury intake if you are trying to get pregnant—as well as non-meat options like quinoa and beans.
Are you trying to conceive or thinking about getting pregnant? Have you changed your diet?
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Fran Kritz is a freelance writer specializing in health and health policy and lives in Silver Spring, Maryland. Takepart.com