Boost Fertility on a Plant Based Diet – 5 Tips

HOW CAN YOU BOOST FERTILITY ON A PLANT BASED DIET

When should you start thinking about prenatal nutrition?

In this article, we’re going to take a deep dive in how to boost fertility on a plant based diet. It’s never too early to start thinking about optimising your diet for fertility. Research suggests that 3 months prior to falling pregnant is thw most important window as it takes 90 days for an egg to mature.  Therefore, the 3 month lead up to conception is a key period to support egg health, optimise chances of conception and build up stores of essential nutrients such as folate, iron and iodine. 

vegan male fertility

Can nutrition impact male fertility?


It takes two to conceive a baby and as such the male’s nutrition is just as important. Sperm maturation takes roughly 60-70 days to occur.  The male partner’s nutrition in the 3 month lead up conception also plays a role. 

Key nutrients that men need to consider include:

  • Zinc: low zinc levels have been associated with infertility. Plant-based sources of zinc include pumpkin seeds, cashews, almonds, chickpeas and sundried tomatoes. Read more on zinc here
  • Vitamin C: This nutrient acts as an antioxidant protecting the sperm from damage. Men with low levels of vitamin C have been found to have a higher likelihood of having sperm dysfunction.
  • Folate: low folate levels are linked with poor quality sperm. Foods rich in folate include broccoli, brussel sprouts, peas, chickpeas and kidney beans.
  • Vitamin E: As a powerful antioxidant this nutrient helps to protect sperm from damage known as oxidative stress. It also helps to improve the motility of sperm (how well they move) and increase sperm count. This nutrient is rich in sesame seeds, tahini, sunflower seeds, spinach, pumpkin, sunflower oil and peanuts.
  • Selenium: Lower selenium levels have also been found in men with fertility issues. As a nutrient that is often lower on vegan diets, selenium is one to pay particular attention to. It is richest in brazil nuts, but can also be found in sunflower seeds and beans.

Do plant-based diets improve fertility?


Plant-based diets are often criticised as being insufficient to provide adequate nutrition for pregnancy. However, this is not the case. A well planned vegan diet can meet all the nutritional requirements for a healthy pregnancy. 

Plant-based diets are often higher in antioxidant rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, legumes and wholegrains. These are all fertility friendly foods and provide a wealth of health benefits for families trying to conceive

Are you planning to conceive in the next year? Get expert advice from our plant based pregnancy dietitian

There are some nutrients which can be harder to obtain on a plant-based diet. These include such as iron, zinc, iodine and omega-3s. This is especially relevant pre- and during pregnancy when nutrient requirements are increased.

 

plant based pregnancy dietitian

 

Here are 5 top tips to improve your fertility whilst on a plant-based diet: 

1: Stock up on dark green leafy veg


Green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, rocket and silverbeet are rich in many essential pregnant micronutrients.

In particular, they are a great source of folate. This nutrient is vital in the early stages of pregnancy for foetal development and the prevention of neural tube defects

It is recommended that couples looking to conceive aim to eat 1-2 serves of green leafy vegetables per day (1 serve = 1 cup raw or ½ cup cooked). 

This may look like tossing them into salads, wilting into pasta sauces/curries/casseroles or blending it into a smoothie. 

As dietitians, we always promote a food-first approach which it comes to getting in your nutrients. However, due to the increased requirements for folate in early pregnancy, consuming a prenatal vitamin containing at least 400mcg folate per day is recommended. 

The amount and type you may require can vary from person to person. It may be beneficial to consult our fertility dietitian to determine which supplement is best for you.

 

green leafy vegetables are important to boost fertility on a plant based diet

2: Increase foods rich in plant-based iron 


Iron requirements almost double to 27mg/day when pregnant. Optimising iron stores before falling pregnant is helpful in helping to decrease the risk of becoming deficient during pregnancy.

Those following a plant-based diet require up to 180% more iron than omnivores. This is due to plant-based foods containing non-haem iron. This form is more difficult for the body to absorb, thus requiring a higher amount.

Adding an iron rich food at each meal and snack is essential both pre and during pregnancy.

Those following a plant-based diet require up to 180% more iron than omnivores.

Iron rich foods include:

  • Tofu
  • Soy products
  • Legumes
  • Wholegrains such as amaranth and oats
  • Nuts including almonds and pistacios
  • Seeds particularly pumpkin and hemp seeds
  • Tahini
  • White potato
  • Leafy greens 
  • Fortified products such as weetbix

Consuming a food rich in vitamin C such as citrus fruits, kiwi fruit, strawberry, broccoli and lime juice can help boost absorption further. Add lemon juice to a bean-based salad or use a tomato base in a chickpea curry.

Due to the high requirements of iron during pregnancy, obtaining enough from food can often be difficult and an iron supplement may be necessary. 

Our vegan fertility nutritionist can help guide you further on supplements and assist in developing a nutrition plan with you to boost your fertility on a plant based diet. 

3: Eat plenty of wholegrains


Wholegrains are an important food to boost fertility. This category include foods such as oats, barley, brown rice, freekeh, buckwheat, bulgur, quinoa, wholegrain bread, flour and pasta. These foods are excellent sources fertility friendly nutrients such as zinc, iodine and iron. These micronutrients are vital during prenatal nutrition but can be more difficult to obtain on a vegan diet. 

Research suggests women who eat more wholegrains have a greater chance of implantation compared to those who don’t. Zinc may also help to reduced the risk of preterm births.

To add more wholegrains into your diet, try:

  • Swapping white bread for wholegrain varieties
  • Having rolled oats as overnight oats or porridge for breakfast
  • Adding freekah into a roasted vegetable salad
  • Swapping white rice for brown rice or quinoa 

4: Boost up your omega-3 


Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role as an anti-inflammatory food for fertility.

They work by decreasing inflammation around reproductive organs which can help improve egg quality, sperm quality, chances of conception and maintaining a healthy pregnancy. 

Good sources of plant-based omega-3s are flax seeds, chia seeds and walnuts. These can be added into your morning muesli, made into a chia pudding, blended into smoothies or added to salads. An algae-based omega-3 supplement containing DHA and EPA may also be beneficial to consider. 

Our vegan fertility dietitian can also provide you with a prenatal omega-3 test. This test can help assess your omega-3 status. Your dietitian can use this information to develop an individualised fertility diet plan to improve your levels. 

5: Cut down on processed foods

Highly processed foods such as cakes, biscuits, sugary drinks, ready meals and fake meat alternatives are high in added sugars. 

A diet high in added sugars has been linked to infertility in both men and women. 

In particular, consuming one or more sugary drinks (e.g. soft drinks, energy drinks) per day has been linked to a 20% reduction in the change of conceiving

Processed foods are also often high in saturated or ‘bad’ fats. These fats are associated with negative fertility and pregnancy outcomes.

In Summary

There are many nutrients to consider when trying to boost fertility on a plant based diet. When trying to conceive, it is recommended you fill your diet with an abundance of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, wholegrains and legumes and start on a prenatal supplement regime which is right for you. 

For more individualised advice on how you can optimise your plant-based diet for fertility you can book in to see our plant based fertility dietitian here. 

 

This article was written by fertility dietitian Georgia D’Andrea.

Are Gut Health Supplements Worth The Money?

With a new supplement on the market each week, consumers are inundated with new products. With so much conflicting information about what’s really healthy, this truly begs the question are gut health supplements worth the money?

Gut health refers to the balance of microorganisms that inhabit the gut; include different bacteria, fungi, archaea, viruses and protozoans (1). These microorganisms are collectively called the gut microbiota. 

Advances in research of the gut microbiota are beginning to show how important a healthy gut may be in increasing overall health (2). Health outcomes of a balanced gut include optimised immunity, physical and mental health (3).

The excitement surrounding gut health has consequently caught on across many food and supplement companies. Marketing claims on these products often boast an array of benefits, including improved digestion, relief from digestive disorders, and improved immunity.

Worldwide, probiotic supplements command a US$37 billion dollar market (4). Other supplements such as collagen, reached US$293 million in the US in 2020 alone (5)

The hype is reflected in the sales, though are these supplements really living up to their claims?

Let’s further explore what the evidence has to say and ask the question – are gut health supplements worth the money?

Collagen

Collagen is a popular supplement suggesting several health claims. 

These include improved:

  • Skin health
  • Joint health
  • Hair and nail growth
  • Gut health

Collagen supplements often claim to improve gut health by healing the gut lining (6). When the gut lining is in poor shape, various food particles, bacteria and pathogens may be able to pass through the gut lining (7). This may result in several inflammatory diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and several metabolic diseases (8). 

 

While collagen may seem like a good choice in healing the gut lining, there is no evidence to support these claims.

Several studies have found an increase in various markers of skin health such as collagen density and skin elasticity (9). Therefore, if youthful skin is your goal, collagen may be effective in this respect. 

However, be wary of “gut health” claims, as there is not yet sufficient evidence to back these.

Bone Broth

Bone broth is prepared by boiling bones over an extended time period, usually 24 hours. In this process, various nutrients such as amino acids, collagen and minerals are leached into the broth.

 

Boosting the immune system and aiding digestion are some of the marketing claims promoting bone broth. However, like collagen, there is currently no evidence supporting the proposed benefits of bone broth in the context of gut health.

In fact, several studies have highlighted the potential risks involved with diets high in bone broth. This is due to the presence of heavy metals such as lead (10,11). 

Lead is a heavy metal that often accumulates in bone. This can leach into the broth during preparation. While hazards are relatively low, lead contamination is a risk that should be considered when consuming bone broths.

Probiotics

Probiotics contain live bacteria that aim to improve the balance of “good” bacteria in the gut. 

Claims surrounding probiotics include gut health promotion, alleviation of digestive discomfort symptoms (8) and improved mental health (12,13). 

Research exploring the field of probiotics has expanded rapidly, with 20 315 papers containing the term “probiotic” being published by 2019, compared with 760 papers prior to 2001. Additionally, probiotic sales are expected to reach over $64 billion by 2023 (5).

It is clear that probiotics are popular amongst consumers, researchers, and manufacturers alike – but how much do we really know about their proposed health benefits?

Several studies have found positive improvements in various health outcomes with probiotic consumption. 

However, it is important to note that the majority of this literature is in populations with existing health conditions. 

The most promising evidence concerns conditions such as various bowel disorders, and antibiotic-associated and infectious diarrhoea (14).

There is some evidence to suggest probiotic consumption may improve immune, gastrointestinal and female reproductive health in healthy adults (14). Despite this promising evidence, it is important to acknowledge that the effect of probiotic consumption on human health is a relatively new and evolving field. Therefore, further research is needed before we fully understand how probiotics can improve our health. 

Overall, probiotics show a promising means improving conditions such as infectious and antibiotic associated diarrhoea (14). However, the efficacy of probiotic consumption in the healthy population is questionable, and therefore should be taken with a grain of salt until more substantial research emerges.

Gut Health and Diet

It should come at no surprise that dietary habits strongly influence the gut microbiota (15). 

Here are some evidence-based methods to improve gut health:

  •   Eat less animal proteins, saturated fat, sugar and salt as they may stimulate the growth of “bad” bacteria (15).
  •   Eat more plant-based proteins such as beans and lentils, as they may promote the growth of “good” bacteria and stimulate the production of beneficial metabolites (16,17).
  • Eat plant based prebiotic foods including garlic, onion, chickpeas, cooled potato and artichoke. Prebiotics provide fuel to the healthy gut bacteria in the digestive tract.  
  • Eat a variety of plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains and legumes. Consuming a variety of plant foods may be beneficial in positively diversifying the gut microbiota (18).
  •   Eat more of omega-3 fatty acids, as they may be beneficial in improving gut microbiota composition (15).

 

 Summary 

Gut health is an emerging field of research, and much is still unknown about the gut microbiota and its effect on health. 

Consequently, navigating through the health claims of products and evidence can be incredibly confusing and overwhelming. 

Many supplements such as collagen, bone broth and probiotics may claim to improve gut health, however there is little research to support these claims. 

Are gut health supplements worth the money? Essentially, no.

Supplements may not be effective, therefore improving your diet can be a great way to improve your gut health. If you are unsure about how to improve gut health through diet, speaking with a dietitian can be a great place to start!

 

If you’re following a plant-based or vegan diet and want to make sure you’re meeting all your nutritional needs, take control and book in with one of our expert plant-based dietitians.

This blog was co-written by student dietitian by Jade Wrigley. You can connect with Jade on Linkedin.

Vegan Sources of Iodine – Foods, Supplements, Deficiency

Iodine is an essential trace element that supports the production of thyroid hormones. These hormones play roles in regulating the body’s metabolic rate, ensuring normal growth and development of tissues and help the body mature. 

Iodine is richest in seafood and bread. Unfortunately, there are limited vegan sources of iodine. This means that those following a plant-based diet need to be conscious about meeting their needs.

This article discusses the role of iodine in the diet, how much we need and whether we should consider supplementation.

Iodine and The Thyroid

Iodine is needed for the synthesis of thyroid hormones. 70-80% of the body’s iodine is located in the thyroid gland.

A hormone known as thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) is the central regulator of the thyroid.

TSH is produced from the pituitary gland. This is a small, bean-shaped gland located in the brain.

TSH regulates how much the thyroid makes of triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (t4), two thyroid hormones. This helps to protect the body against thyroid dysfunction known as hypothyroidism (low thyroid function) or hyperthyroidism (high thyroid function).

When TSH is released from the pituitary gland it tells the thyroid to absorb iodine and create and release T3 and T4.

The thyroid hormones are important for our body as they contribute to (1,2):

  • Proper control of the metabolism
  • Cell production
  • Hormonal balance
  • Heart, muscle and digestive system function
  • Central nervous system and bone development for infants and foetuses
  • Intellectual function for children

Uptake of iodide may be inhibited by goitrogens  (substances that exist naturally in food, explained below)

Selenium is also important in iodine metabolism. This is due to its presence in one enzyme that helps to form the thyroid hormones.

Maximising Iodine Absorption

Some foods contain chemical components that act to block the uptake of iodine into our bodies (1).

Goitrogens are a type of compound found in some raw green leafy vegetables. These interfere with the synthesis of thyroid hormones by impairing the binding of iodine.

Sweet potato and corn contain chemicals that compete for the same receptors as iodide (iodine when bonded to another element), blocking the uptake by the thyroid (1).

Examples of foods that inhibit iodine absorption include:

  • Soy
  • Flaxseeds
  • Raw cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts)
  • Sweet potato
  • Corn/maize products

Goitrogens are inactivated by heating or cooking.

Eating these foods does not seem to be an issue unless they are consumed in large amounts of combined with iodine deficiency. Goitrigens can worsen an iodine deficiency or contribute to a goiter developing.

Iodine Toxicity

The upper limit for adult males and females is 1100mcg per day.

In some cases goiter develops slowly as a consequence of long term iodine intakes that are much higher than the body needs.

The role of excessive iodine in thyroid disease or disorder is not clear. For a small group of people with underlying thyroid conditions, excessive iodine in the diet may result in hypothyroidism, the formation of a goiter or hyperthyroidism.

There has been incidences where products containing toxic levels of iodine has contributed to thyroid conditions. Such as in the case of Bonsoy soy milk which was fortified with toxic levels of iodine. It contained 6250mcg of iodine per cup – 5 times the upper limit. Bonsoy has now been reformulated.

How Much Iodines Do Vegans Need?

Iodine requirements are the same for vegans and non-vegans. It is important to note however, that women who are pregnant or lactating have higher iodine requirements. 

Below are the daily iodine requirements for the population as stated by the Nutrient Reference Values for Australians and New Zealanders (1, 2). 

Vegan Sources of Iodine

In Australia, iodine is a mineral most readily found in the sea. Iodine requirements are met without effort for vegans that eat nori, kombu, or wakame types of seaweed.

For those that don’t, iodised salt is the next best source.

While there can be small amounts of iodine in various fruits and vegetables, exact quantities cannot be determined.

This is due to the iodine content of foods heavily reliant on the individual soil that they are grown in (1). In Australia, most soil is iodine poor resulting in minimal amounts.

Below is a list of vegan foods high in iodine (2,4,5,6) 

How Do Vegans Eat Enough Iodine?

It can be confusing to understand how to make sure you’re meeting your iodine needs each day. The day on a plate meal plan below, can help make sure you meet your iodine needs as a vegan.

Want to make sure that you’re always getting enough iodine in your diet? Why not try one of our 7 day vegan meal plans!

Day on a plate

Breakfast: approx. 39μg

2 slices bread/toast (not organic) (84g) + ½ a med avocado + ½ med tomato + 30g of hemp seeds + squeeze of lemon juice 

 

Lunch: approx. 190μg

2 rolls of vegetable sushi (with cucumber, carrot and avocado – 200g) with low sodium soy sauce

Vegan miso soup (including 1tsp miso paste)

 

Dinner: approx. 65μg

Mediterranean vegetable fettuccine (with 2 cups mixed vegetables roasted with ¼ tsp iodised salt)

 

Snacks: 0.5μg 

1 med banana + ¼ cup plant-based yoghurt + 30g almonds.

 

Total: 295.5μg

Iodised Salt and Risk of High Blood Pressure

Consuming too much salt (or sodium) is linked to a range of health conditions. These include hypertension (high blood pressure), heart failure and renal disease.

For optimal health, it is recommended to limit sodium intake below 2000mg per day. With this said, sodium is still needed to perform a range of biochemical reactions such as maintenance of blood plasma and cell production.

Consuming ¼ teaspoon of iodised salt equates to 575mg sodium with 65μg of iodine, just under half the daily iodine requirement for an adult. It is important to monitor salt levels of your diet, especially if you have a chronic condition. However, consuming iodised salt will certainly help you meet your iodine needs (6).

Signs of Iodine Deficiency

Iodine deficiency has many negative effects on growth, development and thyroid metabolism. It is also one of the most common causes of preventable intellectual disability in the world (7).

This is especially important during pregnancy and infancy as iodine deficiency can cause irreversible effects.

Iodine deficiency disorders result from inadequate thyroid hormone produced as the result of inadequate iodine.

Whilst mild iodine deficiency is somewhat prevalent in Australia, severe deficiency can lead to conditions such as hypothyroidism.

Hypothyroidism is frequently accompanied by goiter.

When the body does not have enough iodine, TSH levels remain high. This causes the the development of a condition known as a goiter. A goiter is the enlargement of the thyroid gland. This is produced as the body attempts to trap more iodine in the thyroid from the circulating blood and produce thyroid hormones.

This is one of the earliest signs of iodine deficiency.

 Symptoms of hypothyroidism include:

  • Dry skin
  • Hair loss
  • Fatigue
  • Increased sensitivity to the cold
  • Weight gain
  • Decreased fertility rate
  • Muscle weakness and stiffness

Additionally, very severe iodine deficiency (below 30μg/day) during pregnancy can lead to a condition called cretinism in infants and children.

This can be particularly scarring as it can affect their development physically and mentally with an increased risk of intellectual disability (1,2).

Are Vegans At Risk of Iodine Deficiency

No, not just vegans are at risk of developing an iodine deficiency. Iodine deficiency has been a global concern for over 100 years. In the 1920’s, iodised salt was introduced as a way to increase the population’s iodine intake.

Moving forward to the early 2000’s, studies showed nationally that Australians are still not getting enough iodine, regardless of being vegan or not.

Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) made a decision that from 2009, all bread on the market (with the exception of organic bread) was to use iodised salt as their bread conditioner (2,3) to help boost iodine levels nation-wide.

Groups Most At Risk Of Iodine Deficiency

  • People who don’t use iodised salt
  • Pregnant women
  • People who have limited seafood
  • People living in areas with iodine-deficient soils
  • People who have a large intake of goitrogens

How Do I Know If I Have Iodine Deficiency?

how to check iodine deficiency

You may experience iodine deficiency without having any symptoms.

The best way to access your iodine levels is through a urine test ordered through your doctor. Your doctor may also wish to do a blood test to check your thyroid levels, due to the link between iodine and thyroid.

If you have a visible sign of deficiency such as a goitre or enlarged thyroid gland, your doctor may order an ultrasound to measure the shape, size and texture of the thyroid. (8)

 

Do Vegans Need and Iodine Supplement?

While it’s completely attainable to meet your needs following a vegan diet, there may be some instances where an iodine supplement may assist. This may include pregnant or breastfeeding mothers with higher requirements.

If you also do not regularly consume vegan sources of iodine, it may be beneficial to consider iodine supplement. Before starting a supplementation regime, it’s best to speak to your dietitian to have supplement plan that is individualised to you. 

This blog was co-written by PNW Clinic founder Kiah Paetz and student dietitian by Leanna Fyffe. You can connect with Leanna on Linkedin.

If you’re following a plant-based or vegan diet and want to make sure you’re meeting all your nutritional needs, take control and book in to see one of our expert vegan dietitians.