A Mediterranean diet could boost fertility in both women and men

Science and Health

Following a Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of heart disease, women’s strokes, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, excess weight, rheumatoid arthritis and depression, and it improves sleep – but that’s not all.

Now, Australian researchers have determined that it can also improve fertility in both women and men. 

Writing in the peer-reviewed, online journal Nutrients under the title “Anti-Inflammatory Diets in Fertility: An Evidence Review,” University of South Australia scientists said the diet – which emphasizes vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, olive oil, fish, chicken, eggs and yogurt – can be a nonintrusive and affordable strategy for couples trying to conceive, improving fertility, the success of assisted reproductive technology (ART) and sperm quality in men.

“The anti-inflammatory properties of a Mediterranean diet can improve couples’ chances of conception,” the researchers said.

Infertility is a global health concern, affecting 48 million couples and 186 million people.

“Deciding to have a baby is one of life’s biggest decisions, but if things don’t go as planned, it can be very stressful for both partners,” according to Dr. Evangeline Mantzioris, program director of the nutrition and food sciences degree and an accredited sports dietitian at the University of South Australia.

“Inflammation can affect fertility for both men and women, affecting sperm quality, menstrual cycles and implantation, so we wanted to see how a diet that reduces inflammation, such as the Mediterranean diet, might improve fertility outcomes,” she said. “Encouragingly, we found consistent evidence that by adhering to an anti-inflammatory diet – one that includes lots of polyunsaturated or [other] healthful fats, flavonoids (such as leafy green vegetables), and a limited amount of red and processed meat – we can improve fertility.”

By comparison, a Western diet comprises excessive saturated fats, refined carbohydrates and animal proteins, making it energy-dense and lacking dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals. Typically, such a diet is associated with higher levels of inflammation.

Understanding the association between anti-inflammatory diets and fertility

Simon Alesi, a researcher at Australia’s Monash University, said understanding the association between fertility and anti-inflammatory diets such as the Mediterranean one could be a game changer for couples hoping to start a family.

“The Mediterranean diet is consistently ranked among the healthiest diets in the world,” he said. “But knowing that it may also boost your chances of conceiving and having a baby is extremely promising.”

“The Mediterranean diet is consistently ranked among the healthiest diets in the world. But knowing that it may also boost your chances of conceiving and having a baby is extremely promising.”

Monash University researcher Simon Alesi

More research needs to be done, of course, “but at the very least, shifting to a Mediterranean diet will not only improve your overall health, but also your chances of conceiving,” Alesi said.

Infertility is creating a significant economic and social burden for couples who wish to conceive, being associated with suboptimal lifestyle factors, including poor diet and physical inactivity.

Modifying preconception nutrition to better adhere to food-based dietary guidelines is a noninvasive and potentially effective means for improving fertility outcomes, the researchers said.

Among infertility cases, half are attributed to female-factor infertility and 20% to 30% to male-factor infertility, while 20% to 30% are due to a combination of both male and female factors. Current treatment options include ovarian stimulation with or without intrauterine insemination and/or in-vitro fertilization (IVF).

The high costs of IVF and other assisted reproductive technologies have made these options prohibitively expensive for many couples who wish to conceive. While there are less expensive alternatives, these are often less effective because of poor sperm quality, leading to premature degeneration before they reach the fallopian tubes.

Lifestyle-related risk factors, including stress, obesity and suboptimal diet, have been shown to exacerbate infertility. But they are largely modifiable, highlighting the need to identify nonintrusive and affordable strategies that can mitigate the risk factors and potentially improve fertility outcomes, the researchers concluded.