Regularly consuming foods in their whole form that are deeply nourishing is essential for overall health, and this is especially true for reproductive health. This post takes a deep dive into the subject with a focus on proper nutrition to help achieve this state.
When using the term “deeply nourishing,” it brings to mind Ayurveda and the concept of the dhatus. In Ayurveda, it is believed that nourishment occurs over approximately thirty to thirty-five days with seven layers of the body, the dhatus, that are nourished in order (lymph, blood, muscle, adipose, bone, nervous, reproductive).
This means that the food you consumed in the last month is currently affecting the growth, development, and function of your body. Note how the nervous system and reproductive tissue are the deepest tissue layers and last to receive nourishment; so, if nourishment is inadequate, they are the first to suffer.
This is where the current concept of nutrient density comes into play, and here’s a nutrient density definition: This is a term used to describe foods that are high in nutrients—including vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy fats—and are comparatively low in calories.
Generally speaking, foods that are closer to nature, in their whole form or minimally processed, are more nutrient dense. Less nutrient dense foods often fall into the category of ultra processed foods such as breakfast cereals, processed meat and meat substitutes, processed cheese, soft drinks, chips, candy, and so forth.
Vegetables are an essential part of a healthy diet, and they can also play a role in improving reproductive health. In fact, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that eating vegetables can improve fertility. For example, a study of over 2,000 women found that those who ate the most vegetables were more likely to ovulate regularly and have a higher chance of getting pregnant. Studies have also shown that women who eat more vegetables are less likely to experience infertility, have a lower risk of miscarriage, and have healthier pregnancies.
Eating plenty of vegetables can also help to reduce the risk of pregnancy complications. For example, a study of over 10,000 women found that those who ate the most vegetables had a lower risk of gestational diabetes. Vegetables are a good source of fiber and are generally lower in carbohydrates, which can help to regulate blood sugar levels. Fiber can also help to prevent constipation, which is a common concern during pregnancy.
Plus, fruits and vegetables are a good source of essential nutrients that are important for reproductive health in both men and women. That’s right! Reproductive health is not just an issue that women need to be concerned about; the nutritional status of the father also matters.
These nutrients include:
Folate: Folate is a B vitamin that is essential for cell growth and development. It is especially important for pregnant women as it can help to prevent birth defects of the brain and spinal cord.
Folate is just as important for men as it is involved with healthy sperm production and embryo formation. Folate is critical to glutathione (AKA the master antioxidant) formation, which helps reduce damage to the DNA contained in sperm.
Sources: Dark green leafy vegetables, broccoli, spinach, asparagus, Brussels sprouts
Tip: There is often controversy about whether it is better to obtain Vitamin B9 as folate (the natural form from food) or as folic acid (used in food fortification and many supplements) based on genetic variants (such as MTHFR). Available research shows a protective benefit when using prenatal folic acid supplements for mothers with and without MTHFR variants.
The take home message: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all women of reproductive age get 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid each day in addition to consuming food with folate from a varied diet to help prevent neural tube defects.
Iron: Iron is a mineral that is essential for red blood cell production. It is important for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding as they need more iron to support their increased blood volume, and their iron stores are also supplying the fetus and infant.
Sources: Spinach, sweet potatoes, peas, broccoli, string beans, beet greens, dandelion greens, collards
Tip: Vegetable sources of iron are best paired with an acid like citrus or vinegar to increase iron absorption.
Vitamin C: Vitamin C is an antioxidant that helps to protect cells from damage, and this is important for both men and women’s reproductive health. It is also important for the absorption of iron.
Sources: Citrus, strawberries, tomatoes, orange/red/yellow bell peppers, broccoli
Tip: Eat foods rich in Vitamin C raw. Cooking quickly decreases the amount of Vitamin C in fruits and vegetables.
Zinc: Zinc is a mineral that is important for immune function, wound healing, and cell growth. It is also important for production of testosterone and sperm production.
Sources: Spinach, radish sprouts, edamame, broccoli, kale, garlic, and mushrooms
Tip: If you consume meat, zinc absorption is substantially higher in the presence of protein from animal sources than plant-based protein. So, if you add animal protein to vegetable forward meals, it significantly increases the amount of zinc you can absorb.
Omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fatty acids that are important for brain and heart health. They are also thought to be beneficial for fertility and fetal development.
Source: Wild caught S.M.A.S.H. fish (low mercury/high omega 3)—meaning sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon and herring—along with walnuts, chia seeds, and purslane (yes, the garden “weed”)
Tip: Check out the EWG’s seafood calculator to find out how much seafood is safe to consume based on age, gender, weight, pregnancy status, and heart disease.
How Fruits and Vegetables Improve Reproductive Health
In addition to the essential nutrients discussed above, there are a number of ways that fruits and vegetables can improve reproductive health.
For example, they:
- Help to regulate hormones. Optimizing hormone balance can improve fertility. Vegetables that are high in fiber and those that contain sulforaphane (such as kale, collards, broccoli, broccoli sprouts, radish, watercress, and so forth) can help to support balanced estrogen levels (and the elimination of potentially harmful estrogen metabolites).
- Reduce inflammation and oxidative stress. Inflammation and oxidative stress are factors in many health conditions, including infertility. Eating a wide variety of colorful vegetables provides a wide array of phytonutrients that can help to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, which can improve the quality of sperm and eggs and ultimately fertility.
How Many Vegetables Should You Eat?
The CDC recommends that adults eat two cups of vegetables per day, and we know that only one in ten Americans eat enough vegetables. If you are trying to improve your reproductive health, you may want to aim for even more vegetables by slowly making your way up to six to nine cups of colorful seasonal vegetables each day.
Even making small changes can make a big difference.
For example, you could start by adding one or two servings of vegetables to each meal or swapping out an ultra processed afternoon snack with vegetable crudités with olives and organic hummus or a high polyphenol extra virgin olive oil vinaigrette. It is never too soon to start making diet and lifestyle choices that will set you up for a healthy pregnancy later on.
Here are some additional tips for the kitchen to improve fertility:
- Eat a variety of vegetables from all different colors. Each color of vegetable contains different vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that are important for fertility.
- Cook vegetables with healthy fats, such as olive oil or avocado oil, at an appropriate temperature. This will help to increase the absorption of nutrients, fat soluble vitamins, and some phytonutrients.
- Avoid overcooking vegetables as this may reduce certain nutrients and the potential health benefits.
- Try adding one to two servings of vegetables to all of your meals: breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
- Snack on vegetables throughout the day. They are a great source of fiber, which can be very helpful during pregnancy as well to prevent constipation.
- Drink plenty of water. Water is essential for overall health and well-being as well as a natural form of detoxification, and it is also important for fertility.
- Avoid smoking and alcohol consumption. These behaviors can damage sperm and eggs, and they can also increase the risk of miscarriage. Here is our guide for making non-alcoholic beverages with juices and herbs.
- Move, joyfully. Regular enjoyable movement (walking, hiking, yoga, gardening, etc.) can help to improve circulation as well as overall physical and mental well-being, and it can also help to improve fertility.
There are many different types of vegetables that are beneficial for reproductive health.
Some of my favorites are:
Leafy greens: Leafy greens are a good source of folate, iron, and vitamin C. My favorites are mustard greens, spinach, arugula, and dandelion greens.
Cruciferous vegetables: Cruciferous vegetables are a good source of vitamins C and E as well as fiber. Consider including broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts in your meals.
Bok choy: Bok choy is a good source of folate, iron, and vitamin C.
Avocado: Avocados are a good source of healthy fats, which are important for fertility.
Sweet potatoes: Sweet potatoes are a good source of beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A in the body. Vitamin A is important for reproductive health.
Tomatoes: Tomatoes are a good source of lycopene, which is an antioxidant that has been linked with improved fertility.
Tips for Increasing Your Vegetable Intake
If you are not currently eating at least two cups of vegetables a day or you wish to incorporate more (upwards of six to nine cups), there are a few things you can do to increase your intake: Add vegetables to your meals at every opportunity. For example, you can add spinach to your omelet, broccoli to your stir-fry, or tomatoes to your salad. Snack on vegetables throughout the day. Carrot sticks, celery sticks, and cucumber slices are all healthy and refreshing snacks. Make vegetable soup or chili. This is a great way to get a lot of vegetables in one meal. Add microgreens for flavor and nutritional value.
Vegetables are an important part of a nourishing lifestyle, and they can also play a role in improving reproductive health. If you are trying to improve your fertility, make sure to include plenty of colorful seasonal vegetables each day. It’s never too early to start!
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