Power Foods for Fertility
by Neal D. Barnard, M.D., and Kristine Kieswer
Whether you’re a self-taught nutrition expert or only glance at the occasional health article in the supermarket checkout line, you’ve gotten the message: boost fiber-rich, low-fat vegetables and grains, and pass on fatty, cholesterol-laden meat and dairy products.
It is well established that a vegetarian diet fosters weight loss, protects our heart and bones, and provides an abundance of cancer-fighting antioxidants.
Now, the power of plant foods includes yet another profound advantage: encouraging fertility.
It Starts with Ovulation
A surprising number of women lose their chance to conceive because they simply do not ovulate regularly. A change in diet may help. A recent study, from the University of British Columbia, revealed that vegetarian women ovulated normally more than 95 percent of the time. The power of vegetables, grains, fruits, and legumes apparently comes from their hormone-taming effect. “Eliminating animal products and keeping vegetable oils low help you avoid dramatic swings in the amount of estrogen that courses through your bloodstream on fattier diets,” says Neal Barnard, M.D., nutrition researcher with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, the fiber in plant foods whisks excess estrogen safely out of the body.
Don’t Drink Your Milk
A new suspect in infertility may be as close as your refrigerator. Dairy products contain lactose, which must be broken down into two simple sugars-glucose and galactose – during digestion. It appears that galactose is toxic to ovaries. Compounding the problem, some women have low levels of the enzyme needed to break apart this sugar, and galactose builds up dangerously. “Skip the milk, ice cream, cottage cheese, and especially the yogurt, which is loaded with galactose,” says Dr. Barnard. “There is plenty of highly absorbable calcium in green leafy vegetables, beans, enriched flour, and fortified juices.”
More than 5 million North American women are affected by endometriosis, an often painful condition in which cells lining the uterus spread to other parts of the body. These misplaced cells can build up, become inflamed, and cause scarring, which can interfere with conception and pregnancy.
In the same way that a low-fat, plant-based diet encourages regular menstrual cycles by keeping estrogen levels in check, it can help keep painful cell clusters from growing. Cutting the fat can force these cells to wither and die.
Skipping animal products has another advantage. It lets you avoid a major source of organochlorines – chemicals that build up in animal fat and encourage endometriosis by impairing our immune defenses against out-of-place cells.
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome is a condition in which a woman’s eggs produce cysts instead of properly maturing for release. The culprit turns out to be insulin, a hormone intended to help the body store proteins and sugars. In excess, insulin can damage ovaries. Choosing healthy complex carbohydrates – oatmeal, pasta, whole wheat breads-instead of simple sugars helps you avoid insulin excess.
Modern fertility treatments are costly, often painful, and sometimes don’t work too well. A healthy, low-fat, vegetarian diet is a safe first step toward improving fertility with the kind of positive side effects – weight loss and lowered cholesterol levels-that we all want. So choose a bean burrito instead of chicken fajitas, pasta primavera instead of spaghetti with meatballs, and do your whole body a favor while you boost fertility…naturally.
Food Choices for Optimal Hormone Balance:
» Whole grains – pasta, rice, bread, cereal, oatmeal
» Vegetables – carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, kale, broccoli
» Legumes – chickpeas, lentils, peas, soybeans, black beans
» Fruits – apples, mangoes, bananas, peaches, pears
Avoid: Animal products (meat, eggs, and dairy), added oils, and fatty foods
Neal D. Barnard, M.D., is president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and author of several books including Foods That Fight Pain and Eat Right, Live Longer. Kristine Kieswer is a health writer specializing in the role of nutrition in preventing disease and fostering optimum health. Both are based in Washington, D.C.