Forget the oysters and champagne. Here is the real science behind the foods that are more likely to help you get pregnant.
About 15% of heterosexual couples report struggling with infertility, and it is a nearly even 50/50 split between whether the issue is on the male or female side of the equation . Interestingly enough, diet can have an effect on both ovulatory function, and sperm count and quality [1,2]. While we can’t make any promises that eating a certain way will get you pregnant, we can recommend some healthy food choices that are known to support a healthy reproductive system and a healthy body in general. These foods are safe and healthy to enjoy whether or not you are hoping to grow your family.
Benefits of the Mediterranean Diet
In terms of male fertility support, there has been a lot of research supporting the consumption of antioxidants to improve sperm production and function, as oxidative stress can be a factor in male infertility issues . For women, fertility is often related to irregular ovulation, which is often related to hormone regulation, and strict adherence to the Mediterranean diet has shown statistical improvements to the fertility of women with ovulatory infertility . Moreover, once you become pregnant, sticking to the Mediterranean diet has been shown to decrease the risk of developing pregnancy-associated complications . The Mediterranean diet is also rich in antioxidants and supports healthy levels of inflammation, which benefits the fertility of both parents-to-be.
The Mediterranean diet is heavy in vegetables, legumes, and fruits, low in saturated and trans fats (always choose olive oil if possible). It values lean animal proteins such as fish and poultry over fatty ones such as beef or pork, and encourages the selection of whole grains and elimination of processed foods and refined carbohydrates . A good rule of thumb for following the Mediterranean diet is to choose whole foods that are naturally low fat, and nothing that is labeled low-fat or non-fat. The less a food is processed the better. It also allows for the addition of a little bit of red wine if you choose to imbibe and encourages dieters to enjoy meals with others, dining slowly and relaxing while you eat. Sounds pretty good, right?
Here is a recipe for a Mediterranean shakshuka, a dish that is especially high in natural antioxidants and can be served for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Not only is it delicious, it also may become your new favorite because it’s a one-pan recipe (which means less clean up) and once you are comfortable cooking it you can get creative with additions based on what’s on your fridge. It also pairs well with a slice of homemade whole wheat sourdough if you’re a home fermenter.
The backbone of any shakshuka is tomato-red pepper sauce with baked eggs. In this recipe, we will add artichoke hearts and spinach for added vitamins and antioxidants.
Tomatoes, while technically a fruit, are low sugar and packed with beneficial nutrients. They are the major dietary source of the antioxidant lycopene, and also an excellent source of vitamins K and C, potassium, and folate . Folate is arguably the most important nutrient for the early development of a fetus, so if you are eating to boost your fertility, it is also a great time to eat to prepare your body to best nurture a baby. A mother’s folate status is directly related to the neural tube formation in her baby and this process happens so early on, developmentally, it is before most women know they are pregnant. The neural tube will later become the baby’s spinal cord and brain, so you don’t want to underestimate the importance of folate at conception and throughout the first trimester.
Bell peppers are, like tomatoes, technically a fruit, but very low-calorie. While also a great source of folate, vitamins C and K, and potassium, bell peppers additionally provide vitamin E and beta-carotene (which your body converts to vitamin A), two powerful fat-soluble antioxidant vitamins. They are rich in carotenoid antioxidants, which have been shown to support vision and eye health, among other benefits . The spice paprika, which is included in the recipe, is made of dried bell pepper as well.
Even though they have had a controversial past in terms of health benefit analyses, eggs are now often referred to as a “superfood”. More modern research has shown that although they do contain a significant amount of cholesterol, it does not usually translate to higher LDL (bad) cholesterol levels in the blood . Eggs do however raise your HDL (good) cholesterol levels, which are associated with a healthy cardiovascular system, among other benefits . In terms of “whole foods”, what could be more nutritious than a food that contains absolutely everything a baby chicken needs to grow? Not only are eggs high in protein, they contain all nine essential amino acids, which means your body is getting each type of material it needs to make new proteins in your cells. They also contain healthy fats to keep you feeling satiated, and numerous vitamins and minerals.
Feta cheese is a traditional Greek crumbling cheese made of sheep or goats milk. Although the Mediterranean diet prescribes avoiding saturated fat, it does not advise against dairy. Even full-fat feta is a naturally low-fat cheese (75 calories per serving versus cheddar’s 155 calories for example). It provides calcium, protein, and significant serving of vitamin B-12. Feta is packed with such strong flavor that you don’t need to add much to your dish for it to impart its creamy and tangy influence.
The following recipe also contains spinach and artichoke hearts. An interesting fact about these two vegetables is that their antioxidant profile actually improves when they are cooked [7,8]. Nutrients locked inside become more absorbable when they begin to break down in the cooking process. There may be a trade off in spinach; it loses some vitamins to the cooking process as it gains in others, but in terms of antioxidants, cooked spinach is a better choice. This is only true, however, as long as you are steaming, roasting, or adding raw veggies to a dish that will be baked. When veggies are boiled or fried, many nutrients are lost into the surrounding water or oil.
Spinach, Artichoke, and Feta Shakshuka
- 3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 large white or yellow onion, thinly sliced
- 1 red bell pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
- 3 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 can artichoke hearts, drained
- 2 generous handfuls raw baby spinach
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp sweet paprika
- sprinkle cayenne pepper
- 1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes
- ½ tsp salt
- ¼ tsp black pepper
- 1 cup crumbled feta
- 6 large eggs
- Chopped scallions for garnish
Preheat the oven to 375° F and heat olive oil in an oven-proof skillet over medium heat on the stove. Cook the onion and bell pepper in the oil until the onion is translucent, then add the artichoke hearts and spinach and stir until spinach starts to wilt. Add the garlic and stir until fragrant (about 2 mins). Add paprika, cumin, and cayenne and cook for one more minute. Pour in the whole can of diced tomatoes with all of the juice, add salt and pepper (adjusting to taste), and stir until everything is evenly distributed. Let the mixture come to a boil, turn it down to a simmer, and let it thicken for about ten minutes.
Turn off the stove, stir half of the crumbled feta into the tomato mixture and then make small pockets with your spoon into which eggs can sit, evenly spaced throughout. Crack each egg gently into its pocket without breaking the yolks. Sprinkle the remaining feta over the top of the dish, and put the pan into the preheated oven. Keep a close eye on the egg whites and bake only until eggs have just set, leaving the yolks runny (about 15 minutes). Sprinkle with scallions or cilantro and serve immediately.