Planning for a pregnancy is an exciting time. It’s also one of the most important times in life to tune in to your health and nutrition. About 12% of U.S. women experience difficulty getting pregnant or sustaining a pregnancy, and while fertility is impacted by many different factors, nutrition can play an important role in supporting your fertility and helping you get pregnant. This guide is your ultimate resource for everything you need to know about boosting fertility and plant-based nutrition.
NUTRIENTS TO KNOW
Folate is a B vitamin that plays a critical part in embryo development in the earliest days of pregnancy, and a folate-rich diet has been shown to improve fertility. Since folate comes into play during a time when you might not yet know that you are pregnant, it’s a good idea to make sure you’re meeting folate needs as soon as you begin planning for a pregnancy.
Leafy greens and beans are rich in folate, and plant-based eaters tend to do a better job meeting their folate needs compared to meat eaters. Many foods are also fortified with folate. However, because this vitamin is so important to preventing serious birth defects of the brain and spinal cord, I usually recommend that any woman planning a pregnancy begin taking a folic acid (the synthetic version of folate) supplement. Bonus: it might also boost your chances of getting pregnant!
Women who are not pregnant or breastfeeding need 400 micrograms of folate per day. Your folate needs increase when you become pregnant (read more about Nutrient Needs For Pregnancy).
- Take a folic acid supplement that provides 400-800 micrograms
Vitamin B12 supports your baby’s brain and nervous system development, so, just like folate, it’s an important nutrient to pay attention to before you become pregnant so that your baby has what they need in those early days of pregnancy. Plant-based eaters need to include a reliable source of B12 through supplements or fortified foods since this vitamin is not found in plant foods.
Women who are not pregnant or breastfeeding need 2.4 micrograms of B12 per day. Your needs will increase when you become pregnant (read more about Nutrient Needs For Pregnancy).
- Regularly eat fortified foods
- Two servings per day, 2 to 3.5 µg each
- Nutritional yeast, plant-based milks, and cereals are commonly fortified foods. Check labels! Not all brands are fortified, and the amount of fortification varies.
- Take a B12 supplement (cyanocobalamin)
- 2,000µg 1-2 times a week or at least 25µg daily
- We can only absorb small amounts at a time – that’s why supplements are so much higher than needs.
Iron and Vitamin C
Meeting iron needs with plant-based iron sources specifically has been shown to support normal ovulation, which in turn supports fertility. I included vitamin C as well because eating plant-based iron sources with vitamin C-rich foods at the same meal significantly boosts absorption of the iron.
Iron-rich Plant Foods:
- Blackstrap molasses
- Bok choy
- Dark chocolate
- Dried figs and raisins
- Sunflower seeds
Vitamin C-rich Plant Foods (Iron Enhancers):
- Bell peppers
- Brussels sprouts
- Citrus fruits (grapefruit, oranges)
Women who are not pregnant or breastfeeding need 18 milligrams of iron per day. Your needs will increase by quite a lot when you become pregnant (read more about Nutrient Needs For Pregnancy).
- Eat vitamin C-rich foods at every meal to boost iron absorption from other foods
- Tea and coffee can inhibit iron absorption, so drink them before or after meals instead of during
- Calcium supplements can also inhibit iron absorption, so do not take them with meals
- Prepare meals in cast-iron cookware to boost iron content
High-Quality Carbohydrate Sources
Studies show that eating more foods that offer “high-quality” carbohydrates and eating fewer foods that are considered “low-quality” carbohydrates may increase fertility. High-quality carbohydrate foods include starchy vegetables like winter squashes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and corn; fruit; beans; whole grains like oatmeal, brown rice, and quinoa; and foods made from whole grain flours like whole wheat bread or brown rice pasta. These foods help keep blood sugar and insulin levels steady, and steady blood sugar has been linked to a 2x increase in the ability to conceive.
- Swap refined (low-quality) grains like white pasta, sugary cereals, and white bread for whole (high-quality) grains like whole wheat pasta, oatmeal, whole grain bread, and starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and winter squash
Eating healthy sources of fats can help lower inflammation in the body, keep blood sugar and insulin levels healthy, and therefore improve fertility health.
- First, make sure you are meeting all of your omega-3 needs (ALA, EPA, DHA) by:
- Eating a daily source of ALA omega-3s (1 tbsp ground flaxseeds or chia seeds, 2 tbsp. hemp seeds, or about 10-12 walnut halves)
- Taking 200-300mg of an algae-based DHA/EPA omega-3 supplement a few times per week
- Second, focus on swapping unhealthy saturated fat foods (meat, eggs, high-fat dairy, butter) for healthy fat foods (avocado, olives, olive oil, seeds).
- Third, completely avoid foods that include “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredients list. This will help you avoid trans fats which have been linked to endometriosis and higher miscarriage rates.
Plant-based Protein Sources
Studies show that for every time you swap animal-based proteins for plant-based proteins, you cut your infertility risk in half! So, trade that beef, chicken, turkey, eggs, fish, and dairy for beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, soymilk, nuts, and seeds.
Infertility is often paired with higher levels of oxidative stress. The best way to lower oxidative stress is by eating plenty of antioxidant-rich foods, and fruits and vegetables pack the most antioxidant punch.
Aim to eat at least 1-2 servings of fruits and vegetables at every meal, with the goal of about 5 servings of vegetables and 3 servings of fruit everyday. And the more color, the better!
- Take a multivitamin or supplement that provides at least 400µg of folic acid every day
- Take a multivitamin or supplement that provides at least 25µg of cyanocobalamin B12 every day
- Eat vitamin C-rich foods at as many meals as possible
- Swap refined grains for whole grains and starchy vegetables
- Eat a daily source of ALA omega-3s (1 tbsp ground flaxseeds or chia seeds, 2 tbsp. hemp seeds, or about 10-12 walnut halves)
- Take 200-300mg of an algae-based DHA/EPA omega-3 supplement a few times per week
- Swap out saturated fats in favor of plant-based fats, and completely avoid ingredients lists that include “partially hydrogenated”
- Swap animal-based protein foods for plant-based protein foods
- Eat 3 servings of fruit and 5 servings of vegetables each day – the more color, the better
- Weight: Finding a weight that is right for your body and allows your hormones to function properly is an important aspect of fertility.
- Exercise: Continuing to move your body in a way that feels good will support your fertility health.
- Avoid alcohol and sweetened drinks. Both of these types of beverages can interfere with your fertility.
- Reduce exposure to toxins by choosing organic produce when it makes sense. A recent study showed that higher intakes of pesticides was associated with decreased chances of getting pregnant in women undergoing fertility treatments. Therefore, organic produce can help lower your intake of pesticides. But don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough! Your first priority should be eating as many fruits and vegetables as possible – organic or conventional.
- Fertility isn’t just about you! Your partner has equal responsibility in supporting your joint efforts to conceive. Many of the guidelines above including eating plenty of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and plant-based proteins can support your partner’s fertility health too.
Want more pre-pregnancy support?
Grab the free PBM Fertility Checklist, created especially for plant-based mamas.