Bridget Swinney, MS, RD, is the founder of EatRightMama.com and author of Eating Expectantly. Throughout October, Bridget was the driving force behind #fertilityproject, a series of blogs and a Twitter party sharing nutrition tips and lifestyle changes for those trying for a baby. We spoke to Bridget about the project and about how you can shake up your lifestyle to have the best chance to get pregnant.
Tell a little about yourself. What inspired you to do this?
I’m a registered dietitian and mom of two. Back when I was pregnant for the first time, I found there wasn’t a practical nutrition guide available for pregnant women, so I decided to write one! I used my experience as a dietitian and my personal knowledge from being pregnant to create a guide that women could follow in “real life”. Eating Expectantly is now in its 4th edition; I was inspired to do the latest update because there is good evidence that you can “program” your baby for good health, depending on your diet and lifestyle before and during pregnancy.
I decided to do this social media project – #fertilityproject – now because more babies are conceived in the fall than in other months! I wanted to help couples get their bodies ready for conception as well as improve their fertility through better nutrition and lifestyle habits.
When we are trying to conceive, or trying to optimize our fertility, how important is our diet/nutrition?
First of all, diet is important to get your body ready for a baby. The more “ready” you are, the healthier your pregnancy will be and the healthier your baby will be. Diet can impact your baby’s health from birth all the way to adulthood. For example, starting a pregnancy overweight or underweight can set the stage for undernutrition during pregnancy, which could make a baby at higher risk of being overweight or having heart disease later in life. There are many other examples of this in my book Eating Expectantly.
Secondly, diet is important for conception to occur. Men’s diets are often overlooked, but because sperm count has declined over the years, a healthy diet is even more important to fertility. A healthy diet makes for well-shaped sperm that are better swimmers! For women, diet affects many aspects of fertility, especially ovulation. Looking at the total diet is a good idea for men and women trying to conceive – from types and amount of fat in the diet to types and amount of protein, fruits, and veggies. Of course, whole grains are vital, too!
At what point should we begin to make changes if we are planning to get pregnant?
I recommend at least a few months (before trying). For men, a sperm cycle takes about three months to complete, so improving the diet in that time frame can produce healthier sperm. Three months is also generally a good amount of time to lose or gain some weight, as well as change some habits like quitting smoking, reducing stress, etc.
What vitamins and minerals are necessary to optimize our body for fertility? In what foods can we find these?
Antioxidants are critically important for female fertility as well as healthy sperm. In the “Before Baby Diet” in my book, I recommend eating at least 2 ½ cups of veggies and 2 cups of fruit daily. But antioxidants are also found in whole grains, nuts, and legumes. Many people are staying away from grains, and this could cut their intake of certain antioxidants that are good for fertility. We mostly think about folic acid being important for early development, but it also acts as an antioxidant.
Research studies have also linked vitamin D to fertility. It’s difficult to get the recommended D from diet alone. Many women need to supplement.
It’s a commonly known fact that women need much more iron during pregnancy; it’s less known that iron is an important mineral for fertility. Researchers at Harvard have found that women taking an iron supplement are less likely to have ovulatory infertility. Beans like lentils, black beans, and pinto beans are rich in iron, as is lean beef, clams, and mussels, the dark meat of chicken and turkey; sardines, pumpkin and sesame seeds. Taking a multivitamin with iron helps women get the iron and folic acid that’s recommended.
How important is eating organic or clean?
This is a question I get asked a lot! It’s always a good idea to eat foods that are closer to their natural state, but even more so when you’re trying to conceive or pregnant. We don’t know the effects of many pesticides on children; we know even less about how they affect the unborn. That being said, it can be very costly to buy all organic. I recommend taking a close look at your diet and buying organic for foods listed on EWG’s “dirty dozen” list that you eat more than once a week. There are budget-friendly ways to eat organic too, such as having fruit trees and having a veggie garden.
There isn’t a clear-cut definition for eating clean. To me, it means eating food with no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives – or as little as possible. For example, if you are looking at whole grains across the spectrum, cracked wheat or rolled oats would be very clean – actually just one ingredient! Whole grain bread, pasta, and crackers would have a few more steps of processing. Going one step further, you can buy a whole grain cracker or snack food that has 10 ingredients including artificial color and flavor, or one that has just 3 ingredients.
Do herbal supplements play any role when trying to conceive?
I have a cautionary tale about herbs and nutrition supplements. Nutrition supplements have very little regulation so safety is not always guaranteed. Some herbal supplements aren’t safe during pregnancy – so if taken before conception and then a woman gets pregnant, it could be a problem. However, some herbal supplements may be good for fertility. My advice is to work with an experienced herbalist and always check Natural Database or Consumer Labs to check which brands are safest.
For vitamin and mineral supplements, look for the “USP Verified” seal. This mark of quality guarantees that the potency listed on the label is found in the supplement, that it doesn’t contain harmful levels of contaminants, and that it will break down in the body during a specified amount of time.
How can we encourage men to adopt a healthy diet/lifestyle?
We need to help men realize that they play a crucial role in creating the healthy sperm that will contribute towards a healthy pregnancy and healthy baby. Research suggests that diet may affect gene expression in sperm, which could affect the health of the next generation.
What are some simple changes he can make?
The single most important one is to eat more fruits and veggies. This could be done easily by drinking a fruit/veggie smoothie that’s made with whole fruit, some veggies and a few ounces of antioxidant-rich fruit juice such as pomegranate or tart cherry. Add-ins that would also be good for fertility would be walnuts, flax, chia or hemp seeds, which provide a good source of omega 3 fat, important as a structural component to sperm cell membranes. Eating a fortified whole grain cereal is an easy way to make sure a guy’s got enough folic acid, which is also important for male fertility.
Are there some exercises we should avoid while trying to conceive and others that can help?
Exercise does affect hormone production. There aren’t specific exercises to avoid altogether but some people may need to add more variety to their routine or modify the intensity of their exercise when trying to conceive. For example, men who do body-building are more likely to have a varicocele, which can affect sperm and fertility. (A varicocele is kind of like a varicose vein in the scrotum.) Long distance cycling may also affect fertility due to higher scrotal temperature and pressure on the nerves of the penis.
For women, moderate intensity and frequency of exercise is good for fertility, though more intense exercise could decrease fertility. In one study, women undergoing IVF who did cardio for 4 or more hours a week for at least a year prior to treatment had a 40% lower live birth rate. In another large study, exercising to exhaustion increased infertility risk. Yoga and walking are exercises I often recommend because they improve muscle strength, can be done anywhere and are wonderful for stress levels, which can be high when trying to conceive.
If you could give just one more tip, what would it be?
Get a little closer to your ideal body weight. It’s the one thing both men and women can do to get them closer to conception. Losing as little as 5% to 10% of body weight can make a difference to fertility. If weight loss is done in a healthy way, it generally means eating more fruits and veggies, which is also a big plus for fertility!