Baby making was once a pretty straightforward enterprise. Now statistics show that it's not as simple as it used to be. In fact, about 9 million Americans—1 in every 10 couples—are affected by infertility, says Jeremy Groll, MD, author of Fertility Foods (Simon & Schuster, 2006). One likely culprit? Modern diets. We eat too many refined grains, unhealthy fats, and processed foods, says Groll. Both women and men need the right nutrients to balance hormones, encourage regular ovulation, and improve sperm health. It's no wonder so many people are having a hard time getting pregnant. Fortunately, powerhouse foods can make a big difference in firing up your fertility.
Believe it: Beans are sexy. This is all about iron, which can reduce the risk of infertility due to ovulation problems. In women, the higher the intake of iron, the lower the risk of infertility. Plant-based nonheme iron appears to be more effective than animal-based heme iron and as effective as iron supplements, says Jorge Chavarro, MD, lead author of a recent study on the topic (Obstetrics and Gynecology, 2006, vol. 108, no. 5). Women, all you need is a cup of white beans to get nearly half your daily iron RDA. (Other good iron sources include lentils, spinach, shellfish, soybeans, pumpkin seeds, and molasses.) Another plus: Because they're loaded with protein and fiber, beans improve insulin metabolism, important for conception because high insulin levels disrupt ovulation and make it harder for a fertilized egg to attach to the uterus.
No more skinny lattes. Here's a surprising new fertility fact: Eating full-fat dairy increases a woman's chances of getting pregnant, while low-fat dairy appears to decrease fertility, mainly by disrupting ovulation (Human Reproduction, 2007, vol. 22, no. 5). Researchers suggest that a fat-soluble substance in full-fat dairy may improve ovarian function. Even modest amounts have this effect, so Chavarro recommends one or at most two daily servings of full-fat dairy while cutting back on other sources of saturated fat.
Skip the chips, but go for the guacamole. The sensual avocado's monounsaturated fats provide the raw materials for reproductive hormones in both men and women. But if you're trying to get pregnant, definitely ditch trans-fat-filled chips. "The biggest effect of fats on fertility was when trans fats were consumed instead of monounsaturated fats," says Chavarro. Amazingly, women who ate as little as 2 percent of their daily calories in the form of trans fats had a 73 percent greater risk of infertility (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2007, vol. 85, no. 1). Other good-fat sources include olive oil, canola oil, nuts, and nut butters.
Pick a pepper. Guys: Concerned about your swimmers? Munch on red bell peppers for their over-the-top vitamin C, which helps improve sperm count, motility, and morphology (Journal of Medicine and Food, 2006, vol. 9, no. 3). Peppers are also rich in beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant that improves semen concentration and motility (Human Reproduction, 2005, vol. 20, no. 4). Beta-carotene works for women, too, by preventing oxidative stress, which may be linked to age-related decline in female fertility. Other vitamin C-loaded foods include green peppers, peaches, papaya, orange juice, broccoli, and strawberries; for beta-carotene, stock up on carrots, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, and dark leafy greens.
Food and nutrition writer Lisa Turner is a frequent contributor to Delicious Living.