An unfortunate truth about society today is that fertility challenges are on the rise. There are many reasons for why these challenges are occurring, but one topic that’s discussed a bit less often is the connection between dieting, weight loss, and fertility health. A quick scroll through your social media feed or any number of television and radio commercials will leave any woman comparing her body to another, and hearing about “perfect” beach bodies, the latest crash diet, and advice to “Eat less, exercise more!”. Dieting for any length of time is very common for women in the “baby-making” age group. For some women, though, fertility challenges are stemming from not eating sufficient amounts to thrive or simply being too thin.
This can be a sensitive issue. The idea of having to eat more and gain a little weight can seem counterproductive when you’ve been trying to do the exact opposite for one reason or another, and you may have even been hearing about others having to lose weight to support fertility. It may not be an easy thought to accept, but if conceiving is a priority for you, and you’re experiencing fertility challenges while relating to anything in this post, adjusting your eating habits may be something to try for a while. Don’t be afraid to seek out counseling or therapy of some sort to help ease your journey into this change as well, especially before pregnancy where weight gain is a critical part of baby’s health.
Reproduction is a function that is dependent upon hormones, such as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. There are others that play more indirect roles too, such as pregnenolone and leptin. Our hormones are like a big orchestra where each one plays an important part and together they create one lovely symphony, but if one instrument is off key or off tempo, the whole show might be ruined. So it’s important to provide what is needed to nourish and fuel our hormonal health and therefore fertility. There is of course more than just this topic, but proper nourishment is a big key factor here.
Too Few Calories
Dieting, whether it be a crash or fad diet, a specific and purposeful restriction, or a “lifestyle change” that may in fact be unsustainable, can affect fertility health through under-eating. Crash diets and restrictions are often done with the help of calorie counting and restricting. Unfortunately much of the advice out there can end up being damaging to overall health, even though it might drop the number on the scale.
A commonly recommended daily caloric intake range for weight loss is about 1200-1400 calories. This number comes from the minimum to function, but it’s typically not enough to nourish the body, the hormones, and the reproductive system, especially if you’re exercising as well. In fact, this range is actually the USDA recommendation for what a four year old needs on a daily basis. The USDA recommends moderately active women, aged 21-30, to consume about 2000-2200 calories each day. This is a more realistic number to nourish and fuel the body since all functions, including reproduction, require sufficient energy to occur. Keep in mind, though, that not all calories are created equal. Calories from foods found in nature will provide greater nourishment than something found in a package.
Eating too few calories will send messages to the brain of “famine” and “danger”. It will quickly slow metabolism in an effort to save all the nutrients that are currently in store. This tells the brain it’s not a safe space for pregnancy and will shut down ovulation and reproduction. It says “Nothing’s coming in. We can’t spare anything. Not even an egg.” Part of nourishing fertility is creating an internal environment that’s deemed safe for reproduction and an important step in that process is eating enough so the body knows it’s fed and doesn’t have to prepare for starvation mode.
Too Low Fat
We live in a time, and have for the last century or so, where fat is blamed for many of the diseases and health conditions present today. We are taught to avoid fat altogether or to only consume specific (mostly man-made) fats and as a result many women are following a low-fat diet. Not consuming enough fats, or consuming all the wrong fats, can really have a detrimental effect on fertility health.
Sex hormones are built with the help of healthy fats and cholesterol. Contrary to popular belief, butter, coconut products, animal fats from properly raised animals, olive oil, avocado, nuts, and seeds are forms of healthy fats and all help to build healthy hormones. Fats such as canola oil, vegetable oil, margarine, soybean oil, and cottonseed oil are best avoided for general health, and fertility.
If you’re following a diet that focuses on consuming minimal fat, you might be confused or even nervous to add in fats to your diet and it may take some time to accept it. You don’t have to overload your plate with different kinds of fat, but adding in a little butter on your cooked vegetables or some full fat coconut milk to your smoothie just might make all the difference. It’s important to get a good balance of both saturated and unsaturated fats for overall well-being and reproductive health.
Too Low Carb
Seemingly opposite from the previous section, another common diet for weight loss is eating low carb. This can be a confusing topic because typically when we hear the word “carbohydrate”, we automatically think of foods like bread, pasta, and pretzels. These are refined carbohydrates and limiting these can certainly be beneficial, especially for fertility health.
Over-consumption of these foods can interfere with fertility because the adrenals have to get involved. I won’t dive into the topic of blood sugar regulation here, but in short, the adrenals have to continue to produce cortisol to aid in this regulation. In order to produce more and more cortisol, they end up having to steal something called pregnenolone, a hormone that would have otherwise gone to produce more sex hormones, which are of course very necessary for reproduction. The adrenals will always win in this fight because they’re survival glands, whereas reproduction is considered a non-vital function so it will always take a back seat to something necessary for individual survival. Over-consumption of simple carbohydrates can also increase insulin resistance which can lead to ovulation problems, or conditions like PCOS. Following “low carb” with these foods can be beneficial.
There are, however, other carbohydrates that are indeed a healthful and necessary part of the diet. These are foods like vegetables (broccoli, leafy greens, bell peppers), starchy tuber vegetables (sweet potatoes, artichokes, beets, carrots), fruits, and properly prepared whole grains and legumes. These are unrefined complex carbohydrates and they play important parts in nourishing the body, including hormones and fertility. They provide fiber to assist in natural detoxification and help keep hormones in balance, provide energy, vitamins, and minerals, and provide glucose which is necessary for thyroid hormone conversions in the liver. Without sufficient amounts of certain thyroid hormones, hypothyroidism can result which negatively impacts fertility.
Glucose also helps the body get that “fed” signal, but it’s important to take into consideration where that glucose is coming from. Avoiding refined carbohydrates can certainly be a healthful choice, but cutting out too many fruits and vegetables and other unrefined carbohydrates can end up backfiring when it comes to fertility and hormone health.
Too Little Body Fat
Among the dieting culture, body fat is often construed as a bad thing, but as women, it’s an important part of our body makeup. Our bodies rely on a certain amount of body fat to be present in order to send specific hormonal messages. If you’re dieting, or overexercising, to the point of having very little body fat, this can be a major player in fertility challenges. Sex hormones are fat soluble which means they’re stored in fat. The body needs that fat tissue to send messages to the brain, specifically the hypothalamus, to tell it that the environment is safe and stable enough to hold a pregnancy. In the instance of too little body fat, a different message will be sent and fewer hormones will be produced which negatively affects the menstrual cycle and ovulation, sometimes leading to hypothalamic amenorrhea, a condition where menstruation stops.
Having too little body fat can also result in leptin levels being too low. Leptin is a hormone mostly produced in fat cells that sends messages to the brain about the energy available for use in the body. As more food comes in and a little body fat is stored, leptin levels rise. Within reason, this is a positive thing for fertility because the messages sent to the brain are telling it there’s enough nutrients and fat to reproduce. If leptin is too low, it will tell the brain to shut off those non-vital functions, like reproduction.
An ideal body fat percentage range would be about 21-25% for most women, with a minimum of about 20%. Body fat percentage is a little different than Body Mass Index (BMI) which only measures height and weight, without taking into account muscle mass. However, the ideal ranges for BMI are similar numbers to body fat.
Mindful Eating, Not Dieting
Listen to your body. Pay attention to cravings. If you find yourself feeling hungry every hour or two, you’re likely not eating enough calories or possibly not enough fat and protein. If you find that you’re craving simple (refined) carbohydrates often, this, too, might indicate you’re not eating enough. Your body is making you crave those simple sugars because it knows it’s a quick energy source. (There, of course, may be something deeper going on with this, like a bacteria imbalance or overgrowth, but it could be a simple solution that your body is just needing more fuel.)
Start by balancing your plate with about 40% calories from unrefined carbohydrates, 30% calories from protein, and 30% calories from healthy fats. You may need to tweak your individual plate from here, and you can do that by listening to your body and giving it more of what it needs.
There really is no single perfect diet for everyone, and that goes for fertility diets too. Everyone is a bit different, has different needs, different genetic makeup, different activity levels, and different exposures. For extra individual guidance on how to nourish your body for fertility, seek out a certified practitioner who specializes in nutrition.
**This post was originally written as a guest post for Rebelle Nutrition.