The Conception Plan: What to eat
Over three-and-a-half-million people in the UK are said to be affected by fertility issues. And while there are many medical avenues on offer for struggling couples, could a change in diet be the best way to boost your fertility? Women's health and fertility expert Dr Larisa Corda is on hand to offer her top tips on what to eat...
When it comes to trying for a baby, most people presume that there’s little they can do to influence the process. Yet your diet, is possibly the most important way you can have an impact on this. You are literally what you eat. So if you eat food high in unhealthy fat, processed and full of sugar and salt, additives and flavourings, can you imagine the consequences that has on not just your health, but the health of any children that are born?
Recent studies are beginning to show that what we put into our bodies, including food, is a major contributor to influencing the genetic blueprint of your baby and switching certain genes on and off, potentially predisposing your child to health problems later in life. I find these epigenetic studies fascinating and the possibility that our food choices can have transgenerational effects is even more reason to become savvy and conscientious about what you eat.
The first thing to say is that you want to eat as cleanly as you can. This means eating food that isn’t processed or overcooked, but instead is nutritionally dense and as close to its natural state as possible. A clean diet will also help to reduce inflammation in your body , especially if you have inflammatory conditions such as endometriosis or polycystic ovaries. Refined sugar is an inflammatory agent, as is gluten, dairy for an increasing number of people, and additives in processed food. All of these need to be removed or significantly reduced in your diet, or dairy-free versions found which are fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Having a diet that is predominantly plant based also means you’re eating lots of healthy fats, that are important for fertility, and you’re eliminating your exposure to toxins that accumulate the further down the food chain you go. Toxins can have negative effects on fertility. This is why it’s really important to go organic with any meat or products derived from animals, such as milk, to reduce the chance of toxin exposure.
The other benefit of clean eating is that you will lose weight or be able to maintain a good healthy BMI. This doesn’t mean depriving yourself, it just means becoming clued up on what is and isn’t good for you, and realising that good food is there to make you feel energised, improve your libido and your motivation; not drain you and make you feel bloated or sluggish. So, let’s get started...
What’s real food?
- Fresh vegetables, herbs and fruit, ideally organic and pesticide free
- Meat, organic and grass fed
- Eggs, organic and free range
- Fish and seafood, sustainably sourced
- Fresh cheese
- Whole milk and yoghurt
- Nuts and seeds
- Grains, properly prepared and whole
- Quinoa and buckwheat
- Healthy fats, such as butter, coconut oil and olive oil
- Fresh veggie juice, smoothies, herbal teas, organic coffee (limit to one cup a day!)
- Super foods, such as maca powder, acai berries, green powder blends, goji berries, bee pollen and raw cacao powder
What’s not real food?
- Genetically modified ingredients
- Refined breakfast cereal
- Refined flour
- White sugar
- Artificial preservatives
- Artificial colours and flavours
- Artificial sweetener
- Long life milk
- Vegetable oil
- Stock cubes and gravy that’s factory produced
- Soft drinks
- Chips and snacks in packets
- Synthetic supplements with synthetic coatings
Some simple switches to make:
- Move away from eating packaged food and make it a point to eat fresh produce
- Completely eliminate food that contains synthetic ingredients, flavourings or additives
- Reduce your intake of excess sugar, processed vegetable oils and salt
- Cook and prepare as much food as you can from scratch
- Double or triple your veggie intake
- Reduce your meat consumption, become more veggie/ vegan based, or flexitarian with 90% of your food being based on vegetables and 10% on meat
- Try and share your food with others and relish the process of making things together
- Support local farmers and allotments
- Remember, it’s not about a massive overhaul all at once, this is about changing one small thing at a time, that will amount to a lot
What else can you do?
- Try growing your own vegetables
- Shop at local farmers’ markets and local butchers
- Buy in bulk, as this will work out cheaper in the long run
- Try to buy the most natural nutrient dense, or colourful versions, that you can. So, replace pale margarine with block butter and pale lettuce with the darker leafier version. You increase the amount of nutrients you deliver to yourself, and you stay fuller for longer
- Switch to organic where you can. It doesn’t have to be everything, but your fruit and veg and any meat you eat, should be as organic as possible. The most heavily contaminated produce are grapes, courgettes, leafy greens, berries and stone fruit, so always try and get organic versions of these
- Eat in season
- Wash your fruit and veg before preparing
- Plan your meals ahead
- Replace packaged snacks with carrot or apple pieces dipped in nut butter or smashed avocado. Or eat nuts and seeds
- Don’t worry if you have to buy some frozen produce. Frozen veggies are sometimes nutritionally more dense than the fresh versions, so you can use these guilt free when you need to
- Replace standard white potato with sweet potato or swede or celeriac, which are far healthier
- Replace all white bread, rice and pasta, with wholegrain, brown versions
Top tips for maximising efficiency:
- If you’re preparing a meal, always try and make more or double the batch, as you can save it for a snack later, or eat for lunch the next day
- Prepare more beans, rice, lentils and mash than you need, as you can blend these to make a soup the next day
- If you’re cooking dinner, pop some veggies to roast in the oven at the same time, that you can use later
- Master a couple of staple dishes and get good at preparing them, so that when time is of the essence, you can whip them up fuss free
- Get all your bits chopped and ready to cook with, so that you have a clear workspace to operate from, which will make you feel calmer and give you a greater sense of purpose
- Plan your meals for the week ahead
- Learn to make homemade stock, which is not only delicious, but also full of amazing nutrients and minerals and can be added to sauces to make them taste even better
- Create a cooking circle with friends, where you can take it in turns to cook and share recipe ideas. Also, if you’re all trying for a baby or trying to lose weight, you’ll be each other’s motivation
A word on supplements:
A good multivitamin supplement is important, especially Vitamin D that’s been shown to improve fertility in several studies, and folic acid. However, some people are carriers of a gene mutation MTHFR (7-40%) that they may not realise, which means that they cannot absorb folic acid. Therefore methyfolate is a good safe option that is easily absorbed and a good dose for women is 400 mcg per day or up to 800 mcg per day, especially if you’re overweight.
It’s also important to make sure that when you’ve adjusted your diet, you’re also supporting your body in eliminating any excess toxins, so eating a diet rich in fibre, to encourage daily bowel motions, and supporting your gut and uterine natural microbiome, by taking a probiotic daily and eating fermented foods regularly. There are now more studies looking at the role of the microbiome in the womb and how it may impact on implantation as well as the risk of miscarriage. In addition, a probiotic can help to reduce the risk of allergies and asthma developing in babies, especially if they’re born by caesarean section, when they may not have been exposed to the vaginal microflora.
If you are on medication for your long term health, please consult your doctor to see if it needs changing before conception, or whether the doses can be minimised, or you can be weaned off. Never make these changes on your own.
The reasons for changing your diet and approach to lifestyle in all that you do are multiple. Eating organically and consuming any product you use on yourself or your immediate environment, conscientiously, also helps to look after our planet. Ultimately, this is where we source all life from, so respecting that will inevitably reap rewards for us too and our future generations.