What Is the Fertility Diet?

Fertility diet

Verywell / Debbie Burkhoff

At Verywell, we believe there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a healthy lifestyle. Successful eating plans need to be individualized and take the whole person into consideration. Prior to starting a new diet plan, consult with your health care provider or a registered dietitian, especially if you have an underlying health condition.

The fertility diet is designed to help you get pregnant by making several changes to your diet and level of activity. These changes emphasize consuming certain foods believed to boost fertility such as plant protein and full-fat dairy products.

Diet and exercise can have profound effects on your health and well-being. Various clinicians, including the co-authors of the book, "The Fertility Diet," theorized that diet and exercise also could influence fertility.

The fertility diet is rooted in science. The Harvard Medical School researchers who developed it examined data from a large, long-term study involving more than 100,0000 women to learn what those women ate and how often they got pregnant. The information was sourced from the second round of the Nurses' Health Study, which began in 1989.????

Walter Willett, MD, DrPH identified 18,555 women who said they wanted to get pregnant, and then followed the data to determine whether they were able to conceive and how long it took them. Around 3,400 of those women had trouble getting pregnant, and Willett and his co-author, Jorge Chavarro, MD, ScD, looked at which dietary and exercise factors appeared to be most important to fertility.

They published their results in 2007 in "The Fertility Diet," which distills their scientific research down to digestible tactics that women can implement to get pregnant. The diet and exercise strategies are aimed specifically at ovulatory infertility, which is the type of infertility you have if your ovaries aren't producing mature eggs during each menstrual cycle. This type of infertility affects an estimated 25% of couples who have trouble getting pregnant.???

Although the research doesn't prove that following the fertility diet will help you conceive, nutritional experts say some aspects of the program definitely may increase your chances of getting pregnant.

The 2021 U.S. News and World Report Best Diets ranks the fertility number 14 in Best Diets Overall and gives it an overall score of 3.4/5.??? Learn about the pros and cons associated with this eating plan to determine if it's the right diet for you.

What Experts Say

The fertility diet provides recommendations for women trying to increase their odds of pregnancy. The advice includes avoiding trans fat, eating high-fiber foods, and incorporating more vegetarian meals. Experts agree these tips may be helpful for women trying to become pregnant.

Chrissy Carroll, RD, MPH

What Can You Eat?

"The Fertility Diet" identifies 10 key diet and exercise changes women can make to improve their chances of getting pregnant. The changes emphasize switching from certain foods they believe might impede conception to foods that could potentially help conception. These changes include:???

  • Avoid trans fats. Artificial trans fats have been banned in the United States due to their adverse health effects, but you'll want to try to avoid natural trans fats found in margarine, shortening, and fried foods as well.
  • Use more unsaturated vegetable oils, such as olive oil and canola oil.
  • Eat more vegetable protein, like beans and nuts, and less animal protein.
  • Choose whole grains and other sources of carbohydrates that have "lower, slower effects on blood sugar and insulin" rather than "highly refined carbohydrates that quickly boost blood sugar and insulin."
  • Consume milk fat every day in the form of a glass of whole milk, a small dish of ice cream, or a cup of full-fat yogurt, and "temporarily trade in skim milk and low- or no-fat dairy products like cottage cheese and frozen yogurt for their full-fat cousins."
  • Take a multivitamin with folic acid—critical to fetal development—and other B vitamins.
  • Get plenty of iron from fruits, vegetables, beans, and supplements, but not from red meat.
  • Be mindful of what you drink. Avoid sugary sodas and other sugar-laden drinks. Drink coffee, tea, and alcoholic beverages in moderation. Instead, drink water.
  • Aim for a healthy weight. If you are overweight, losing between 5% and 10% of your weight can jump-start ovulation, according to the research.
  • Start a daily exercise plan, or if you already exercise, work out harder. Still, you shouldn't overdo it, especially if you're potentially underweight, since too much exercise can work against conception.

The co-authors of "The Fertility Diet" add that if you smoke you should try to quit since research has shown that smoking has a significant adverse impact on fertility.??

What You Need to Know

The fertility diet isn't specifically a weight loss diet. However, the authors' research found that women who had body mass indexes between 20 to 24—the range that's considered normal body weight—were least likely to have infertility.

In addition, the authors note that overweight women who are having trouble ovulating may be able to improve their odds by losing 5–10% of their total body weight. Therefore, "The Fertility Diet" includes tips for losing a modest amount of weight. Many of the recommendations will sound familiar to people who already adhere to a healthy diet, and the authors speculate that some of the strategies might help to improve fertility in men as well.

Still, the authors do recommend that those who want to lose weight on the fertility diet eat a good breakfast—one that includes an egg, yogurt, or oatmeal, with whole wheat toast on the side—within a couple of hours of awakening for the day. This helps to check the boxes for plant protein, whole grains, and whole milk. The authors also recommend that women who are trying to lose weight not eat anything after dinner. But you don't need to time your meals or your snacks. The diet only calls for focusing on specific foods, not for eating at specific times of day, or for rotating foods.

Those following the eating plan are urged to eat healthful meals that follow the tenets of the diet. When it comes to exercise, if you're following the fertility diet and you're not already active, you should start an exercise plan that includes some vigorous workouts. "Working your muscles is good—not bad—for ovulation and conception. It's an integral part of losing or controlling weight and keeping blood sugar and insulin in check," the authors write.???

Vigorous physical activity may include competitive sports or exercises such as jogging, fast bicycling, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), and group fitness classes that emphasize cardio like boot camp, kickboxing, spinning, and Zumba.

What to Eat
  • Unsaturated vegetable oils, such as olive oil and canola oil

  • Vegetable protein from beans and nuts

  • Whole grains

  • Whole milk, ice cream, or full-fat yogurt

  • Iron-rich fruits, vegetables, and beans

What Not to Eat
  • Trans fats

  • Animal protein, especially red meat

  • Highly refined grain products

  • Sugar-sweetened beverages

  • Coffee and tea (only drink in moderation)

  • Alcohol (only drink in moderation)

Unsaturated Vegetable Oil

The diet recommends replacing saturated fat with monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat. These types of fats are considered healthy. Monounsaturated fats are found in olive oil, canola oil, avocados, and nuts such as cashews and almonds. Seeds, such as sesame and pumpkin seeds, also are good sources of monounsaturated fat.

Polyunsaturated fat, meanwhile, is found in fatty, cold-water fish such as sardines, salmon, and tuna. However, since fish can be a source of mercury (which is dangerous to a developing child), the fertility diet recommends getting polyunsaturated fats from plant sources, such as flaxseeds, walnuts, and canola oil. Soybeans, sunflower, and safflower oil also can provide polyunsaturated fat.

Vegetable Protein

"The Fertility Diet" co-authors found that women who had the highest intake of animal protein were more likely to experience ovulatory infertility than those with the lowest intake of animal protein. In fact, adding one serving per day of red meat, chicken, or turkey predicted nearly a 32% increase in the risk of ovulatory infertility.???

Additionally, the reverse was true when the researchers looked at plant protein: women who consumed a lot of plant protein were much less likely to have ovulatory infertility. Therefore, the authors concluded that eating more protein from plants and less from animals could help with infertility and improve your chances of conceiving.

Whole Grains

The total amount of carbohydrates in the fertility diet wasn't connected with ovulatory infertility—women who consumed the lowest level of carbohydrates were just as likely as those who consumed the highest level of carbohydrates to have trouble conceiving, according to Willett and Chavarro. However, the type of carbohydrate sources did appear to play a role.

Specifically, women who consumed lots of carbohydrates with a high glycemic load—basically, foods that tended to be digested and turn into sugar quickly—were more likely to have infertility than women who consumed carbohydrates with a lower glycemic load (the type that contains plenty of fiber and takes longer for the body to break down).

The diet doesn't require you to follow the glycemic index. Instead, it simply recommends you switch to whole grains for bread and pasta, consume more beans, and eat plenty of vegetables and whole fruit. You also should switch out your soda for water.

Whole Milk Products

Willett and Chavarro thought they might find connections between lots of dairy and infertility as they combed through the data from the nurses' study. However, they didn't find that at all. Instead, they found an association between low-fat dairy products and infertility: the more low-fat dairy products in a woman's diet, the more likely she was to have had trouble getting pregnant. Conversely, the more full-fat dairy products in a woman's diet, the less likely she was to have had problems getting pregnant.

The "most potent fertility food" was whole milk, followed by ice cream and full-fat yogurt. Therefore, "The Fertility Diet" recommends that every woman trying to get pregnant consume one serving of full-fat milk, ice cream, or yogurt per day. This doesn't mean binging on Ben & Jerry's, though, since the serving size for ice cream is about half a cup.

Iron-Rich Fruits, Vegetables, and Beans

Women who are trying to get pregnant seem to have better luck when they're consuming between 40 and 80mg of iron per day, which is two to four times higher than the general iron intake recommendations for women, according to "The Fertility Diet."

To get that much iron, the diet recommends focusing on iron-rich plant-based foods. For example, apricots, dark leafy greens such as spinach, asparagus, and coconut all are high in iron, as are many beans and some nuts. Talk to your doctor about taking an iron supplement; in fact, many prenatal vitamins contain a hefty dose of iron.

Since the fertility diet is flexible—it only recommends specific types of foods, such as plant proteins, as opposed to requiring specific foods—it's easy to modify. For example, if you follow a gluten-free diet, you easily can avoid gluten-containing foods as long as you make sure to get enough fiber and plant protein from gluten-free foods. If you've been diagnosed with a food allergy, such as a tree nut allergy, you simply can skip any tree nuts while following the basic tenets of the fertility diet.

The diet does pose a bit of a dilemma for women who have an allergy to milk, those who are lactose intolerant, or those who just don't like milk.

Even if you can't have full-fat milk products, there are other strategies you can follow to increase your odds of getting pregnant such as eating more fruits, vegetables, and plant-based protein, and getting more exercise.

Sample Shopping List

The fertility diet emphasizes dark, leafy vegetables, complex carbohydrates, plant-based protein, and healthy fats. The following shopping list provides suggestions for getting started on the diet. Note that this is not a definitive shopping list, and you may find other foods that work better for you.

Sample Meal Plan

"The Fertility Diet" includes a week's worth of meal plans and 15 recipes for dishes that adhere to the diet, including Red Lentil, Toasted Almond, and Ginger Soup, Broccoli and White Bean Gratin, and Orange-Glazed Salmon.???

To boost fertility, a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, plant-based protein, and healthy fats are encouraged. You can consume some lean protein like chicken and salmon in moderation, but try to avoid red meat. Since it's recommended you limit your caffeine, alcohol, and sugar intake, it might be best to just drink water with your meals. And remember to have a serving of full-fat dairy each day—whether that's with a meal or for a snack or dessert.

The following three-day meal plan is not all-inclusive but should give you a general sense of what the fertility diet looks like. If you do choose to follow the diet, there may be other meals that are more appropriate for your tastes and preferences.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Pros and Cons

Pros
  • Diet is generally healthy

  • Plant-based foods are emphasized

  • Avoids high-sugar foods

  • Steers clear of trans fats

Cons
  • Diet requires calorie counting

  • Emphasis on full-fat milk products

  • May require more meal prep

  • Could include too much iron

Pros

The fertility diet is designed for women who are trying to get pregnant, but many of its recommendations—eat lots of vegetables, avoid sugary foods, and get plenty of fiber—can apply to anyone, not just women who are trying to conceive. However, the co-authors of "The Fertility Diet" are careful to note cases in which their recommendations for resolving infertility may not match the recommendations for an overall healthy diet.

The fertility diet recommends consuming less animal protein and more plant protein. Doing so will boost your fiber intake (high protein plant foods, such as beans, also are high in fiber), and will improve your intake of various vitamins and minerals.

Rapidly digested carbohydrates—the kind found in soft drinks, cakes and other sweets, chips, white bread, and beer—is bad for fertility, according to "The Fertility Diet."

Since the publication of "The Fertility Diet," the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned artificial trans fats, so avoiding them should be fairly easy.

Cons

The authors of "The Fertility Diet" believe that full-fat dairy products can help improve ovarian function and therefore help infertility—that's what their research shows. However, they also state that long-term, eating a lot of full-fat dairy products may not be the healthiest approach for your body. In addition, adding full-fat dairy may mean that you'll have to be more mindful of the other foods you're eating to keep your calorie count (and your waistline) from expanding.

Eating a healthy diet can be time consuming. If you follow the diet as outlined, you'll wind up spending more time on meal preparation, since you'll need to cook healthy ingredients from scratch, which may not always be ideal for your schedule.

Women who are in their childbearing years need far more iron than men, as do pregnant women. But before you take more iron than is included in a prenatal vitamin, make sure to talk to your doctor.

Is the Fertility Diet a Healthy Choice for You?

The fertility diet is mostly aligned with the federal guidelines for healthy diet. The U.S. Department of Agriculture 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consuming nutrient-dense foods and beverages while staying stay within the recommended limit of 2,000 calories a day for weight management. The USDA also recommends limiting foods and beverages with higher amounts of added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium, and also limiting the consumption of alcoholic beverages.?Federal guidelines include:???

  • Vegetables of all types—dark green; red and orange; beans, peas, and lentils; starchy; and other vegetables
  • Fruits, especially whole fruit
  • Grains, at least half of which are whole grain
  • Dairy, including fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese, and/or lactose-free versions and fortified soy beverages and yogurt as alternatives
  • Protein foods, including lean meats, poultry, and eggs; seafood; beans, peas, and lentils; and nuts, seeds, and soy products
  • Oils, including vegetable oils and oils in food, such as seafood and nuts

The only major difference between the USDA's guidelines and the fertility diet is the dairy section. The USDA recommends skim milk and non-fat or low-fat yogurt, while the fertility diet calls specifically for full-fat versions of dairy products. The fertility diet also limits lean animal protein.

If you're trying to lose weight while you're following the fertility diet program, you may need to count calories to ensure you're not getting too few or too many. An ideal range is around 1,500–1,750 calories per day for weight loss—but those numbers vary based on a variety of factors such as age, weight, sex, and level of physical activity.

Additionally, those at a normal weight may need to count calories to make sure they don't gain or lose while following the diet plan. 2,000 calories a day is usually recommended for weight management. Use this calculator tool to determine the right number of calories for you.

With the exception of full-fat dairy, the fertility diet's recommendations for fruit, vegetables, plant protein, and whole grains mirror what most nutrition experts would consider a healthy eating plan.

Health Benefits

Eating more plant-based food will reduce your intake of saturated fat, which may help your overall health. Swapping out these foods for options that are higher in fiber is a good idea generally. The fertility diet also limits sugar, which is good for your heart. Research shows that cutting back on sugar can reduce your risk for diabetes and other conditions that are influenced by poor diet.???

The fertility diet also restricts trans fats, which can be found in margarine, fried foods, and some baked goods. Natural trans fats, when consumed in excessive amounts, have been linked to heart disease.????

Health Risks

While there are no common risks associated with the fertility diet, research indicates that it's possible to get too much iron.??? It's important to talk to your doctor about your iron intake so you don't overdo it.

Additionally, eating too much full-fat dairy could lead to weight gain.

Similar Diets

The fertility diet shares common characteristics with other well-known healthy diets—here's how they compare:

Flexitarian Diet

"Flexitarian" is a combination of "flexible" and "vegetarian," and the flexitarian diet can be a bit (or a lot) of both. Like the fertility diet, the flexitarian diet relies heavily on plant-based protein and avoids highly refined carbohydrates and added sugar. However, it allows moderate consumption of meat, refined carbs, and sugar.

Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet emphasizes lots of vegetables and whole grains—foods that don't spike your blood sugar. That makes it similar to the fertility diet. Still, while the Mediterranean diet is heavily plant-based, it also allows for plenty of fish and occasional poultry. Those foods are not encouraged on the fertility diet except for in moderation.

A Word from Verywell

Although you can lose weight on the fertility diet, that's not its main purpose; the diet is intended to help women who are having trouble conceiving because they aren't ovulating. Nonetheless, it's a generally healthy diet. Coupled with recommendations on physical activity, the diet should improve your overall well-being and it might help you get pregnant.

Remember, following a long-term or short-term diet may not be necessary for you and many diets out there simply don’t work, especially long-term. While we do not endorse fad diet trends or unsustainable weight loss methods, we present the facts so you can make an informed decision that works best for your nutritional needs, genetic blueprint, and budget, and goals.

If your goal is weight loss, remember that losing weight isn’t necessarily the same as being your healthiest self, and there are many other ways to pursue health. Exercise, sleep, and other lifestyle factors also play a major role in your overall health. The best diet is always the one that is balanced and fits your lifestyle.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • Chavarro, Jorge, et al.?The Fertility Diet. McGraw-Hill, 2009.