Hey you! Congratulations on looking for natural ways to increase fertility – you’re already well on your way to becoming a wonderful mama.
As an Intuitive Eating dietitian, I help my clients to improve their mental and physical health by stopping dieting for good. There are gobs of research out there on this. The research advocates against restrictive diets and weight cycling (which is what happens after diets, most of the time, not weight loss).
But what if you’re trying to get pregnant, or preparing for as healthy of a pregnancy as possible, and your doctor is telling you to lose weight? What is a well-informed gorgeous gal such as yourself to do?
Let’s take a look at the research with an Intuitive Eating lens.
A quick note about research
I am a science-based dietitian. And in the realm of Intuitive Eating, this work can be misunderstood as “fluffy feel good” and not all that based on research.
Sorry Charlie: Intuitive Eating is backed by numerous research studies that show that it improves lives, health, wellness, and eating behaviors. Diets are short-term and promote unhealthy relationships with food, your body, and your self-esteem. They also don’t work long term. And: they can harm your fertility, to boot.
The field of nutrition is relatively young. Vitamins were only discovered about 100 years ago, for example. As the field grows, so too does the body of research to guide our practice. As with anything, we get better at skills with practice. Not only are we doing more research we are learning how to do better research as well as how to better *interpret* what the results mean.
For this article, I’ll be going over what the research about weight and fertility says, and how we’ve learned to better understand *what the results actually mean* for you and your fertility.
What does it mean to be fertile?
This article is mostly for the ladies, but keep in mind that for men, their health behaviors also influence their ability to conceive. It takes two to tango...er...conceive!
What does fertile actually mean? From a medical perspective, fertility is the ability to conceive and carry a pregnancy. A woman is considered to be struggling with infertility if she has been trying to conceive for a year and hasn’t yet been able to do so yet.
Conception can occur if a sperm meets an egg at just the right time, and hangs around to be implanted in the lining of a woman’s uterus, and also stays there. And while our high-school health classes make it seem like you have to barely look at your beloved to get pregnant, far too many women are struggling with the opposite: month after month of negative pregnancy tests.
Frustration that your body isn’t doing what you believe it was “meant to do”.
What are you supposed to do? You ask your doctor and the first thing that they suggest is to lose weight.
So. Many. Factors. Influence fertility.
So many factors beyond weight influence fertility.
Let’s discuss those important things first.
What influences fertility?
The foundation of fertility comes down to optimizing your menstrual cycle. For my ex-dieters, you might have had experiences with your dieting habits and/or over-exercising causing shifts in your menstrual cycle or even losing your period altogether.
This was my own experience: I wasn’t fueling my body in the appropriate way. Now many times this is talked about in just terms of eating too little or looking emaciated...kind of like a twig ready to snap in half. But the reality is that the loss of a period can happen and ANY size.
Whenever we aren’t giving our body the proper nourishment (whether it’s under-eating or even continuous binge eating our bodies will try to protect us and not allow us to conceive because our body isn’t adequately nourished to carry that pregnancy.
The same thing can happen when you over-exercise (be it too much overall exercise or too much high intensity exercise). Not having regular periods increases your risk of having weakened bones in addition to impacting your fertility. More on this: Why I Lost My Period And How I Got It Back.
How can I increase my fertility naturally?
So many things influence your fertility. Some things are modifiable, such as how you eat and how you manage stress. Other factors are not, such as your age, genetics, and if you have any chronic health conditions.
For this article, we are focusing on what you can change to optimize your own health and fertility.
Get your period back
The most important recommendation is to have as regular of a menstrual cycle as possible. If your body is not releasing an egg, no amount of afternoon delight is going to make a baby. Period.
If you’ve lost your period because of dieting, excessive weight fluctuations, and/or over-exercising, it is extremely important to focus on healing your relationship with your body and eating, first. These skills will feel foreign to you at first, and certainly against the diet culture that you’re used to, but it is important work to do.
I’ve also been there.
Part of my own understanding that my dieting relationship with eating and my body was harming myself was when I realized that I couldn’t get pregnant if I had wanted to because I wasn’t having a regular period. That was one of those moments where the world seemed to stop and I heard that internal scratch of a record player stopping.
It was seriously time to change, so I began the hard work and long trip towards a healthier me.
This has been a long trip, but so worth it.
If this sounds like you, I’d 100% recommend a few books for support, which I’ve included in my own journey to getting my period back, right here: How To Get Your Period Back - Period Diet To Regulate Your Cycle.
It also bears mentioning that if you have a condition that impacts your period, such as PCOS, it may be worth partnering with a Registered Dietitian who specializes in your condition. Doctors are excellent care providers, but they are not trained in nutrition. RDs work in private practice and as part of healthcare teams to support and empower their clients with the best possible outcomes.
With an RD on your fertility care team, you are protected from red flag solutions such as highly restrictive diets or weight loss as the solution. I recommend checking out Sam Abbott and Caitlin Johnson if you’re looking for RD help with PCOS.
Next recommendation? More about food!
Eat enough food to nourish your body to your set point
So you may be wondering...how much should you weigh, for optimal fertility. It may surprise you that I don’t recommend using a specific equation or algorithm...the one who can best answer is actually your body.
Your body knows what weight will feel the best to you, be easy to maintain, and feel “safe” enough to function at your best, including having regular periods. This weight is known as your set point weight. The right weight for you depends on your age, activity level, genetics, body composition, and so many other factors.
Once you find your set point, you are no longer dieting, stressing about your body image so much, and are free to give your mental energy to more important things, like finding more fulfillment in each day, making memories, and connecting with your favorite people.
If you’re ready to learn a bit more about your set point, check out this post: Set Point Weight Theory: What It Is & How To Find It.
Next: you’re going to love this evening snack recommendation.
Eat full-fat dairy
Begone, fat-phobia of the 90s, please! Full-fat dairy tastes a heck of a lot better and is actually better for fertility. Studies have looked at women’s eating patterns and their chances of getting pregnant. There is a benefit for those who choose full-fat dairy (including full-fat ice cream) instead of fat-free.
How much is recommended? One or more servings of full-fat dairy per day. I’ll just leave my recipe for No-Churn Cookie Monster Ice-Cream right here. And my Super Fluffy Banana Protein Shake. You know what to do.
Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables
Fruits and veggies can’t be beat for their health benefits. And you know what? They help to promote fertility in a few ways.
Fruits and veggies are a great source of fiber, which most of us are not actually getting enough of. Having enough fiber helps with hormone balance, and therefore fertility.
Another study found the same benefits of fiber from whole grains. My Oatmeal Apple Mug Cake or Banana Blueberry Oatmeal Muffins might be your next delicious whole-grain breakfasts for you to try this week.
Skip the trans-fats
In the wonderful world of Intuitive Eating, all foods are allowed. When we are specifically looking at improving fertility, it is worth talking about trans-fats a bit.
What are they? Trans-fats are usually created in processed foods that are meant to be stored on the shelf for a while without going bad. When liquid vegetable oil is chemically made into a solid, trans-fats are created.
But with growing recognition that trans-fats are not great for your heart or brain, it is getting easier to 1) identify which foods have trans-fats in them. Trans-fats have to be included in the nutrition facts panel. And 2) find an alternative that skips the trans-fats.
If you take a peek at your usual favorite foods and snacks, check the ingredient list for the word “hydrogenated” and the nutrition label for trans-fats. Find anything? If you are finding trans-fats in some of your regular, go-to items that you consume daily, it might be worth considering finding a substitute. If it’s a more once in a while food? Probs not a big deal.
For example – do you love a brand of peanut butter that you don’t have to stir before enjoying a spoonful? Check the back: there are probably trans-fats in it. If you love peanut butter everyday (like I do) then you might want to check out a natural peanut butter brand or two and see if you find one that satisfies your tastebuds without the trans-fats.
Again, all foods are allowed, but it might be helpful for fertility to find one without trans-fats, most of the time. Also, rather than focusing on swapping fats rather than cutting them out.
For example, if your favorite sweet treat snack cake that you have nightly has trans-fats in it, you might enjoy whipping up a sweet Funfetti Mug Cake at home instead. The sweet treat is 100% still allowed, you’re welcome to enjoy it as often as it sounds good, but this is a way to enjoy that dessert without the trans-fats that might be in the packaged one.
But remember: if your little nephew asks you if you want to split his Hostess cupcake with him randomly it’s that once-in-a-while thing isn’t going to make or break your fertility! Enjoy that cupcake and this sweet little face!
Do movement that feels good
Exercise has many benefits, from a stronger heart and muscles, better blood sugar control to better quality sleep, but like Goldilocks, it has to be just right.
There absolutely is a level of exercise that is too much and too intense for your body and fertility. Sedentary behavior and exercising too intensely are both associated with infertility.
The happy spot is somewhere in between; movement that leaves you feeling good, not exhausted, injured, or impacting your ability to have regular menstrual cycles.
Friends, we are living in a world with buckets of stress. It is a shame how normalized, and even celebrated, being chronically stressed has become. Stress is a health hazard, no matter if you’re working on your fertility or not.
When we feel stress, our bodies go into fight or flight mode. Basically, your body is attempting to protect yourself from physical danger; your blood rushes to your muscles to prepare to flee, your heart rate goes up and non-essential processes, such as digestion, are minimized. (Ever had a much harder time going #2 during periods of intense stress? Yup, me too. That is your fight or flight mode in high gear).
Unfortunately, most of our stresses are not of the escape-a-sabertooth-tiger nature, but rather worries about debt, work deadlines, mental health challenges, and things like, you know, a global pandemic.
There is no avoiding stress: this is part of the delight of being a human being. But the more we can find ways to work through stress, manage stress, and let it the heck go, the better we will feel and function.
Emotional Self Care is not the same thing as toxic positivity; taking care of yourself doesn’t mean that there aren’t bad things going on, but emotional self-care helps to recharge your own batteries, establish emotional boundaries and increase resilience.
The main hormone in action with your stress response is cortisol. Interestingly, there are 30+ Foods To Lower Cortisol & Stress that you can check out in the linked blog post. The post also covers lifestyle factors that help to lower cortisol...you may notice some overlap between those recommendations and the ones included here, such as getting a good night's sleep and moderate exercise. Wouldn’t you know!
Keep an eye on alcohol
While there isn’t a reason to cut alcohol completely, if you’re drinking two or more drinks a day, that may be enough to impact fertility.
This is also an opportunity to investigate why you enjoy alcohol regularly. Does it help you to unwind? Do you enjoy meeting friends for a drink? Or are you unable to fall asleep without it?
Consider your intentions with drinking in general. If the main motivator is to manage stress or anxiety, there are more constructive ways to do so on a daily basis. You can circle back to the previous section on stress management if that is helpful.
Why weight loss won’t necessarily improve fertility
Yes, there is research to support that weight loss may benefit fertility be warry. Why
Because it’s not actually likely that the weight itself was the cause of the improvement in fertility rather it was likely the health promoting behaviors of eating a nutrient dense diet and adding some joyful movement. Studies show that health improves due to health promoting behaviors regardless of what happens to weight.
For many women due pursuit of weight loss itself NOT health promoting behaviors can spiral into dieting behavior, losing too much weight and still having a poor relationship with eating, their bodies, and not having varied foods throughout the week. This could actually harm your fertility.
It is easily possible to lose too much weight and/or create too large of a calorie deficit and compromise your body’s ability to have a healthy, predictable menstrual cycle. Again, this can happen at ANY size! I hear so often that women in larger bodies lose their periods when they diet, not just those in smaller bodies.
Dieting can actually decrease fertility
It is sad that behaviors that are considered to be “disordered” in smaller-bodied people are considered to be healthy for folks in larger bodies. For example, overexercising might sound alarm bells for a woman who is smaller, but might be celebrated and encouraged for a larger woman. This has got to stop.
Same with dieting: we cannot praise behavior for select people. Dieting can completely wreak havoc on your hormone levels and menstrual cycles at any size. This means, for women of any size, dieting can make it harder to conceive.
As we talked about earlier, your body has its own wisdom of what weight feels best for you and allows you to feel and function your best. This is your set-point weight. Intuitive Eating helps you to find your set-point weight and optimize your hormone levels and by proxy, your fertility.
In the meantime, there are some foods you might consider adding to your weekly routine to further boost your fertility.
Are there foods that naturally boost ovulation?
As much as I wish I could offer you a magical fertility wand, there is no single food that can turn up your fertility on its own. However, there are some specific foods that – as part of a general wellness plan and healthy eating – can give your fertility a boost. Here are a few foods to consider enjoying throughout the week.
Citrus fruits have a special compound called putrescine which may improve egg (and semen) quality. Try oranges for an afternoon snack or kick-off breakfast with half of a grapefruit.
Beans and lentils
Some research has found that if you swap a few servings of your usual meat and poultry for fiber-rich beans and lentils, your fertility may benefit (not to mention your grocery budget). This is not a hint to go fully vegetarian, rather that our bodies feel well with more of a variety of plants and when we meet our fiber goals.
Herbs and spices
Not only do herbs and spices help us to enjoy our foods more, they’re anti-inflammatory to boot. Add turmeric to your smoothies, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg to your oats, and add fresh and dried herbs to your dinners with gusto.
While I don’t like to play favorites – all nuts and seeds are very nutrient-packed – brazil nuts have one of the highest levels of selenium of any food. A single brazil nut may have a full day of selenium and that comes with a fertility boost.
Wild salmon has several tricks up its sleeve...er fin. It is rich in protein, like all animal foods, but it is especially rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids boost fertility for men and women.
Farm-raised salmon still has some, but less than wild-caught. If you’re looking for wild salmon that is a bit more affordable, try canned salmon. Most are wild-caught! Canned salmon makes for quick salmon patties for an easy weeknight dinner.
How can I increase my chances of getting pregnant?
What habits can you work on now to increase your chances of getting pregnant? Beyond the ideas mentioned above, here are a few more.
Start taking a high-quality prenatal multivitamin and fish oil supplement now. Did you know that the egg that you released in your last period was getting nourished almost three months earlier? It really is never too soon to begin nourishing your body – and eggs – before getting pregnant.
Get a good night’s sleep
Sleep is not a luxury; sleep is the foundation of daily wellness. Find a winding-down routine that helps you to get in the right headspace to actually sleep each night. Consider getting black-out curtains and sleeping with a sound machine if sleep tends to elude you.
Keep living your life
While I want nothing more than for you to get pregnant as quickly as possible I also know that for plenty of women, this can take time. While you’re waiting on that welcome good news, keep living your life. Spend time with friends and your partner, keep doing activities that you love, and keep healing your relationship with food.
Intuitive eating helps in the prep for pregnancy as well as during pregnancy...and beyond!
Why intuitive eating is great for fertility and pregnancy
Not only does Intuitive Eating have the power to improve your quality of life right now, but it also helps to support a healthier pregnancy. Let’s dive into the recent research!
For women who are overweight prior to conception, the recommended total amount of weight gain during pregnancy is different than for women who are underweight or are not overweight.
Intuitive Eating is a powerful aid to being able to listen to your own body’s cues, especially in pregnancy. One study done with overweight women found that the women who had higher scores of Intuitive Eating habits and behaviors gained less weight than those women who did not have the same Intuitive Eating skills and habits, with no negative consequences for weight gain in their infants. (Note: this is NOT to say that weight gain is bad by any means!)
These findings were partially supported by another study. In the second study, the women who had unconditional permission to eat had lower rates of weight gain during their pregnancy than those women with food rules.
Another study looked both at weight gain and quality of foods eaten during pregnancy and found that women with higher Intuitive Eating scores had higher quality of foods eaten both in the second and third trimester.
Again, this is NOT to say that weight gain is bad. It’s needed throughout our lives and especially in pregnancy. However, many women who diet see pregnancy as a time to “let go” and kinda have a field day with food.
Like a prolonged “cheat day”.
Intuitive eaters don’t feel this need because food is always allowed. All types. There are no cheat days. So they are more likely to listen to their bodies and gain the amount of weight that feels best to them and allows them (and their little bun in the oven!) to be healthy.
And one more for the road? Intuitive Eating has been found to be protective for better blood sugar control and the prevention of gestational diabetes. Way to go, Intuitive Eating!
Key Takeaways: natural ways to increase fertility
Fertility is complicated, with many factors and moving pieces. Weight is one piece of the puzzle, but as we learn to better do research and to better interpret the results, it will become increasingly clear that weight is not a magic bullet nor is it even the right answer for many women trying to get pregnant.
Our relationship with our body and eating matters.
What foods we are using to nourish our body matter.
Women of all sizes deserve high quality care. If your doctor is only talking about weight loss, please feel welcome to seek another provider.
Food freedom does work. If you’re ready to find freedom, I invite you to check out the SociEATY where you’ll join a global community of women who actually like to eat. In the SociEATy, I teach you the skills to break free from the diet cycle that has been holding you back from your most fulfilling life. Join us!