Foods for fertility like roe and wild-caught fish, cod liver oil, liver, oysters and butter – represent nutrient-dense solutions for couples who are struggling to conceive, planning to conceive and for mothers who wish to nourish her child in the womb. Prior to the advent of industrial agriculture and the processing of food, these foods for fertility held a sacred place in the human diet.
Populations went to great lengths to secure nutrient-dense foods like liver and roe and butter prepared from cows grazing and rapidly growing green pastures. In the absence of these foods which offered an abundance of antioxidants, fat-soluble vitamins, trace minerals and wholesome fats, our nation has suffered an epidemic rise in infertility and in birth defects. Folate, zinc, DHA, EPA, preformed vitamin A and vitamin D all play crucial roles in the reproductive health of men and women as well as the health of babies developing in the womb.
A fertility diet lacking these essential foods is not a fertility diet at all, so be wary of websites advocating casseroles filled with noodles and prepackaged seasoning mixes or zucchini and banana breads while omitting the foods for fertility listed below which are rich in vitamins A, D, E, K2, folate, zinc as well as DHA and EPA.
You’ll also find encouragement to consume other wholesome and healthy foods including grass-fed beef and lamb, pasture-raised lard, mineral-rich bone broths, fermented foods, soaked whole grains and coconut oil. These guidelines are based on the traditional practices of healthy native peoples across the globe and are particularly dense in vitamins, minerals and healthy fats known to play an essential role in fertility, reproductive health and fetal development.
Roe and Wild-caught Fish
Roe, or fish eggs, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA, vitamins D and B12 as well as trace minerals. Traditionally heralded as a sacred food for pregnancy and lactation, roe is a powerfully rich superfood, teeming with nutrients. It’s high ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids favors fertility in both men and women.
Salmon roe was particularly prized among the arctic peoples1 studied by Weston A Price, a nutritional researcher who traveled the world examining the effects of modern versus traditional diets on native populations (read his work here).
Price also found that landlocked peoples still adhering to their traditional diets went to great lengths to obtain fish roe for women of childbearing age as an insurance that they might bear healthy babies.
Indeed low omega-3 levels are implicated in male infertility as men suffering from infertility suffer significantly lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their sperm than men of normal fertility2. I
n laboratory studies, supplementation with DHA (a fatty acid prevalent in fish roe and cod liver oil) restored fertility to infertile mice3. Fish roe and caviar typically offer an omega-3:6 ratio of approximately 10 to 1, and regular consumption of this sacred food could certainly improve omega-3 levels among both men and women.
- Where to Get It: Order Wild-Caught Fish Here, and Salmon Roe Here
- How to Serve It: Taramasalata, Salmon with Chipotle Bourbon Butter, Salmon with Cream and Herbs, Salmon Chowder
Cod Liver Oil
Cod liver oil, much like fish roe, is potently rich in DHA, EPA and vitamin D; however, it is also rich in preformed vitamin A. Supplementation with both omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, as provided by cod liver oil, offers promising results in the treatment of women suffering from infertility4.
Similarly, supplementation by foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids may be particularly important in the treatment of polycystic ovarian syndrome – the most common cause of infertility affecting women5.
Cod liver oil, and many other fertility foods, is potently rich in fat-soluble vitamin A. Poor maternal intake of vitamin A is implicated in malformation of the palate1 particularly around the time of conception6 as well as throughout pregnancy while high intake of vitamin A is not associated with similar risks7.
Where to Get It: Order minimally processed, extra virgin cod liver oil here.
How to Serve It: Serve cod liver oil off the spoon, and, if the flavor doesn't suit you, follow it up with a strong-tasting treat like orange juice, a bit of chocolate or something else you enjoy.
Eggs from Pasture-Raised Hens
Egg yolks from pastured hens, much like fish roe, are deeply nutrient-dense – rich in fertility boosting omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins A and E as well as choline. Choline is of particular importance to the preconception and pregnancy diet as requirements for the developing nervous system. Most pregnant and lactating women are not consuming adequate choline for their developing babies and researchers are calling for increased consumption of choline-rich foods among pregnant and lactating women8, 15. Choline is particularly critical in tooth development9 as well as brain development10, 11. Indeed, a mother’s intake of choline during pregnancy may improve the capability for memory in her child11, 12, 13. Beyond an essential role in brain development and the capacity for memory, promising studies found that maternal intake of choline might significantly decrease cognitive dysfunction seen in Downs Syndrome, at least in mice14.
Recommendation: Try eating two or more eggs, plus additional yolks daily.
Serve this Fertility Food: Eggs can be fried, scrambled, served with greens or in freshherb frittatas or frittatas brimming with vegetables like this frittata with Swiss chard and potatoes. Alternatively, consider mixing them into soups like homemade cream of chicken soup or in smoothies like our healthy strawberry milk shake. For a double dose of fertility boosting foods, consider serving ouefs en cocotte with lox.
Oysters, Clams and Mussels
Shellfish, particularly oysters, are a rich source of vitamins D and B12 as well as the minerals zinc, copper, selenium and iron. Just six medium oysters provide as two-thirds of the daily value for vitamin D and nearly three times the daily value for vitamin B12. These are nutrient-dense foods that featured widely in the diet of early humans. For pregnant women and women planning to become pregnant, vitamin D is of particular importance as it helps to mitigate glucose regulation, develop healthy bones and it even helps to tone the uterus – helping the uterus to contract properly during labor16. For women suffering from polycystic ovarian disease, vitamin D is particularly promising as it offers beneficial effects on insulin resistance19. A low-glycemic diet rich in these critical nutrients is also essential to improving fertility16. Low maternal vitamin D levels are implicated in infertility, gestational diabetes, preeclampsia and an increased risk of c-section17, 18, making foods rich in vitamin D like shellfish as well as cod liver oil and pasture-raised lard of critical importance to women of childbearing age.
Oysters, clams, mussels and other shellfish are also a potent source of the mineral zinc – a nutrient that’s particularly essential for the reproductive health of men and, like many other nutrients, is best absorbed from animal food sources. Poor intake of zinc and poor concentration of zinc are implicated in male infertility19. Similarly, men suffering from low blood serum levels of copper are also at greater risk of suffering from infertility20 - shellfish are particularly rich in copper as well as zinc. Consumption of the mineral zinc alone as well as in combination with antioxidants like vitamins C and E shows promising results for men suffering from infertility. Zinc on its own or in combination with vitamins C and E improves sperm quality in infertile men21.
For women, too, zinc is essential to reproductive health and to the health of infants developing in their wombs. In a study of pregnant Canadian women, those with the highest overall intake of zinc were the least likely to suffer from symptoms of depression22. And while zinc may help pregnant women to better moderate stress thus reducing depressive symptoms, her intake of zinc also affects her developing baby. Low maternal intake of zinc is associated with asthmatic symptoms in children23. Maternal zinc deficiency is also implicated in birth defects, low birth weight, intrauterine growth retardation, a tendency toward high blood pressure, behavioral problems, impaired immune function and fetal death24. Given these risks, isn’t it optimal to choose a naturally nutrient-dense diet?
Liver, that much loathed food, is, perhaps, one of the most nutrient-dense and valuable additions for couples who are planning to conceive and who wish to optimize their children’s nutrition in the womb. Liver is a rich source of folate, vitamin B12, pantothenic acid, riboflavin, niacin and vitamin A. Preformed vitamin A or retinol which is only found in animal food sources is particularly important as is folate as insufficient intake of either vitamin A or folate is implicated in birth defects including malformation of the palate, neural tube defects. Prior to the advent of modern agriculture, modern food processing and the industrialization of our food supply, the human diet was rich in both these nutrients and foods naturally dense in both folate and retinol were particularly prized among native peoples1. As the human food supply evolved away from whole foods and nutrient-dense organ meats to processed foods, the diet of those in industrialized societies began to lack these critical nutrients giving rise to epidemic proportions of birth defects and neural tube defects in particular. The federal government eventually mandated fortification of certain cereal products with folic acid; however liver still represents the single best food source of folate. A single 100-gram portion of pan-fried chicken livers contains three times as much folate as an equivalent serving of raw spinach – a food heralded for its folate content.
Despite concrete evidence implicating low maternal intake of folate with neural tube defects in their developing babies, the role of folate is more varied and complex. Indeed, low folate intake is implicated in both male25 and female infertility16 while supplementation with antioxidants that include folate reveals improved outcomes for infertile men26 and women. Women suffering from polycystic ovarian syndrome, the most common cause of infertility, suffer from particularly low levels of folate and B vitamins and supplementation with folic acid improved their condition27. The inclusion of foods rich in food folate – like liver – may be of particular importance to these women.
Recommendation: Try eating liver about once a week.
Serve this Fertility Food: Among the most appetizing ways to serve liver is in a chicken liver pâté; alternatively, try fried chicken livers or mix ground liver with ground meat at a ratio of 1:4 in dishes like classic meatloaf.
Butter and Full-Fat Dairy
Butter and cream produced from cows grazing on rapidly growing green grasses were considered a fertility booster among traditional societies and held sacred. While modern diet gurus encourage women to eschew these nutrient-dense foods in favor of margarines, vegetable oils and dairy substitutes, such butter and cream are potent sources of fat soluble vitamins A and K2. Preformed vitamin A, also found in abundance in liver and cod liver oil, helps to improve reproductive health and reduce risk of birth defects. Vitamin K2, a nutrient critical to reproductive health and growing babies, is of particular importance and those suffering from gluten-intolerance are more likely to suffer from inadequate levels of this vitamin as well as many other micronutrients critical for fertility. Indeed, inadequate vitamin levels adversely effect the fertility of celiac sprue sufferers28. A recent study of over 18,000 women found that consumption of low-fat and skim milk products resulted in decreased fertility while consumption of full-fat dairy products saw increased fertility making good quality butter, heavy cream and whole milk good choices for women planning to conceive29.
Recommendation: Try incorporating butter, ghee, or full-fat cultured dairy foods daily.
Serve this Fertility Food: Butter can enhance vegetables (read more about why you need to butter your vegetables), whole milk and cream can be served in olive oil ice cream, blackberry ice cream or cultured to make raw milk yogurt.
Citations and Resources
1. Price, DDS. Nutrition & Physical Degeneration.
2. Safarinejad, et al. Relationship of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids with semen characteristics, and anti-oxidant status of seminal plasma: a comparison between fertile and infertile men. Clinical Nutrition. February 2010.
3. Roqueta-Rivera, et al. Docosahexaenoic acid supplementation fully restores fertility and spermatogenesis in male delta-6 desaturase-null mice. Journal of Lipid Research. February 2010.
4. Mehendale, et al. Oxidative stress-mediated essential polyunsaturated fatty acid alterations in female infertility. March 2009.
5. Llepa, et al. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and other androgen excess-related conditions: can changes in dietary intake make a difference? Nutrition in Clinical Practice. February 2008.
6. Boyles, et al. Oral facial clefts and gene polymorphisms in metabolism of folate/one-carbon and vitamin A: a pathway-wide association study. Genetic Epidemiology. April 2009.
7. Johansen, et al. Maternal dietary intake of vitamin A and risk of orofacial clefts: a population-based case-control study in Norway. American Journal of Epidemiology. May 2008.
8. Caudill. Pre- and postnatal health: evidence of increased choline needs. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. August 2010.
9. Nandasena, et al. Archives of Oral Biology. August 2010.
10. Mehedint, et al. Maternal dietary choline deficiency alters angiogenesis in fetal mouse hippocampus. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. July 2010.
11. Zeisel, et al. Perinatal choline influences brain structure and function. Nutrition Reviews. April 2006.
12. Zeisel. The fetal origins of memory: the role of dietary choline in optimal brain development. Journal of Pediatrics. November 2006.
13. Zeisel. Choline: needed for normal development of memory. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. October 2000.
14. Moon, et al. Perinatal choline supplementation improves cognitive functioning and emotion regulation in the Ts65Dn mouse model of Down syndrome. Behavioral Neuroscience. June 2010.
15. Zeisel. Choline: an essential nutrient for public health. Nutrition Reviews. November 2009.
16. Barger. Maternal nutrition and perinatal outcomes. Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health. November 2010.
17. Barrett, et al. Vitamin D and pregnancy: An old problem revisited. Best Practices & Research, Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. August 2010.
18. Lewis, et al. Vitamin D deficiency and pregnancy: from preconception to birth. Molecular Nutrition & Research. August 2010.
19. Selimoglu, et al. The effect of vitamin D replacement therapy on insulin resistance and androgen levels in women with polycystic ovary syndrome. Journal of Endocrinological Investigation. April 2010.
19. Colager, et al. Zinc levels in seminal plasma are associated with sperm quality in fertile and infertile men. Nutrition Research. February 2009.
20. Yuyan, et al. Are serum zinc and copper levels related to semen quality? Fertility & Sterility. April 2008.
21. Omu, et al. Indications of the mechanisms involved in improved sperm parameters by zinc therapy. Medical Principles & Practice. 2008.
22. Roy, et al. Higher zinc intake buffers the impact of stress on depressive symptoms in pregnancy. Nutrition Research. October 2010.
23. De Luca, et al. Fetal and early postnatal life roots of asthma. Journal of maternal-fetal neonatal medicine. October 2010.
24. Urlu-Adams, et al. Zinc and reproduction: effects of zinc deficiency on prenatal and early postnatal development. Birth Defects Research. August 2010.
25. Mendiola, et al. A low intake of antioxidant nutrients is associated with poor semen quality in patients attending fertility clinics. Fertility & Sterility. March 2010.
26. Ross, et al. A systematic review of the effect of oral antioxidants on male infertility. Reproductive Biomedicine Online. June 2010.
27. Kazerooni, et al. Effect of folic acid in women with and without insulin resistance who have hyperhomocysteinemic polycystic ovary syndrome. International Journal of Gynaecology & Obstetrics. May 2008.
28. Stazi, et al. A risk factor for female fertility and pregnancy: celiac disease. Gynecological Endocrinology. December 2000.
29. Stazi, et al. Chavarro, et al. A prospective study of dairy foods intake and anovulatory infertility. May 2007.