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With fertility rates in the United States dropping to a record low, making babies isn’t as simple as it used to be. Experts attribute the decline in part to lifestyle factors including excess weight, stress, lack of exercise, and environmental influences. And diet is key: a number of vital nutrients are critical for ovulation, egg health, sperm quality, and, ultimately, the ability to conceive.
In general, diets high in sugar are linked with reduced fertility for both women and men, while a diet rich in vegetables, full-fat dairy, and plenty of plant protein increases fertility. Start with a whole-foods diet, organic whenever possible, and focus on these seven foods to boost your baby-making ability.
1. Pumpkin Seeds
Are excellent sources of zinc, a mineral that’s critical for conception. In a recent study, researchers found that a zinc deficiency can negatively affect the early stages of egg development, reducing the ability of egg cells to divide and be fertilized. Zinc has also been linked with testicular development, sperm maturation, and testosterone synthesis, and in women, it plays a role in ovulation and the menstrual cycle. Pumpkin seeds are also rich in vitamin E, which has been shown to protect against reproductive disorders and can improve semen quality and sperm motility in men, especially when combined with selenium. Beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and eggs are other good sources of vitamin E, while wheat germ oil, nuts, peanuts, and sunflower seeds are high in zinc.
Recipe Tips: Make pesto with pumpkin seeds, basil, garlic, and olive oil; grind pumpkin seeds with sunflower seeds and almonds for a flavorful nut butter; finely chop pumpkin seeds and add to guacamole.
Is loaded with iron, a crucial mineral that can increase the chances of conceiving. Iron deficiency has a significant influence on fertility, and in one study, higher iron intake was linked with a 40 percent lower risk of ovulatory infertility. A cup of cooked spinach has twice as much iron as a serving of beef, and some studies suggest vegetarian sources may be better for overall health. Other options for iron: lentils, beans, peanut butter, pumpkin seeds, almonds, oysters, and clams.
Recipe Tips: Sauté baby spinach, black olives, and chopped tomatoes in olive oil; purée spinach, Greek yogurt, garlic, and red pepper flakes for a healthy dip or spread; bake chopped spinach, mushrooms, onions, and eggs in individual muffin cups for on-the-go breakfasts.
Are rich in a variety of antioxidants, crucial for preventing free radical damage to reproductive organs in both women and men. Oxidative stress affects male fertility and impacts normal embryonic development, and studies show that antioxidants may enhance fertility, improve sperm motility and quality, and help prevent age-related decline in fertility in women. Get yours from food: the most potent choices include blueberries, cherries, green tea, pomegranates, apricots, pecans, walnuts, artichokes, and cocoa.
Recipe Tips: Toss blackberries with arugula, red onions, walnuts, and a
light vinaigrette; chop them and mix with diced mangos, finely chopped jalapeño, green onions, cilantro, and lime juice for a fruity salsa; purée blackberries with vanilla Greek yogurt and freeze in an ice cream maker.
Are high in both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and adding walnuts to a typical diet has been shown to improve sperm vitality, motility, and morphology (size and shape). Other studies suggest that omega-3 fats, including ALA (from plant sources) and EPA and DHA (from animal sources) also improve female fertility, though researchers note that eating fish with high levels of environmental toxins could dampen this benefit.
Recipe Tips: Chop toasted walnuts and add to cooked quinoa with chickpeas, chopped red pepper, and minced chives; toss walnuts with baby spinach, cooked beet cubes, sliced pears, and a walnut-oil vinaigrette; simmer walnuts in broth with cauliflower, mushrooms, and onions, and purée into a creamy soup.
5. Greek Yogurt
Is high in vitamin D, which supports the reproductive processes in both women and men. Vitamin D deficiency is a risk marker for reduced fertility in women. In sufficient amounts, it can enhance semen quality and improve testosterone in men. Greek yogurt is also high in probiotics, which have been shown to improve sperm quality and motility, and may improve the chances of conceiving. Other fertility-forward dairy choices include goat cheese, Swiss cheese, and whole milk. Interestingly, low-fat dairy appears to increase the risk of infertility, while high-fat dairy boosts the chances of conceiving, so stick to full-fat varieties.
Recipe Tips: Mix plain Greek yogurt with finely chopped chives for a sour cream alternative; blend yogurt with dill, parsley, garlic powder, onion, chives, and apple cider vinegar for a riff on ranch dressing; mix it with finely chopped cilantro, cumin, and finely chopped spinach, and top with poached eggs.
6. Navy Beans
(small white kidney beans) are high in iron, and are an excellent source of vegetable protein—one cup contains 15 grams, almost a third of the daily recommendation. Studies show that a higher intake of animal protein is linked with greater risk of infertility, and that replacing some animal protein with vegetarian sources may reduce infertility by as much as 50 percent.
Recipe Tips: Purée navy beans with cashew butter, olive oil, and garlic for a twist on hummus; simmer them in broth with diced carrots, leeks, kale, and a sprig of thyme; bake them in tomato sauce with onions and molasses.
Are high in healthy fats that help reduce inflammation and improve the body’s sensitivity to insulin, critical in improving fertility. Swapping healthy fats for unhealthy sources—especially trans fats—can boost your chances of conception; studies show that eating trans fats can increase the risk of infertility. You’ll also find healthy fats in almonds, walnuts, olive oil, avocados, and wild salmon.
Recipe Tips: Toss olives with olive oil, fennel seeds, and red pepper flakes, and roast in a hot oven; chop olives in a food processor with capers, parsley, and anchovies for tapenade.
Try our Fish en Papillote with Olives and Walnut–Yogurt Sauce recipe