Infertility is estimated to effect about 10% of couples of reproductive age worldwide but it is likely this number is much higher. In this article we take a deep dive into the essential nutrients for males to consider to optimise fertility on a plant based, vegan or vegetarian diet.
What Causes Infertility
When trying to conceive, the role of optimising fertility is often placed on the female.
However, research suggests that both the male and female play an equal role in initiating a healthy pregnancy. In fact, male factors contribute to half of all infertility cases and approximately 20-30% of all fertility problems are related to male factors alone.
Male infertility can be the result of many different factors including reproductive abnormalities, infection, genetic factors and endocrine disorders. However, 1 in 3 male infertility cases have no identifiable cause.
In these cases, there are a variety of associated lifestyle factors which may likely be contributing. These include:
- over and under nutrition including obesity and low weight
- stress and lack of sleep
- heavy alcohol consumption, smoking and illicit drug use
- environmental exposures such as testicular heat, pesticides and radiation
There is also a growing body of evidence supporting the role of food and nutrition as a factor which can impact male fertility.
A recent review published in 2020 found that various dietary factors can positively or negatively influence sperm quality parameters.
Overall, men with diets rich in fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, fibre rich whole-grains, seafood, lean protein (poultry, beans and legumes) and low-fat dairy products had much better sperm quality than those who had lower intakes of these foods as well as diets rich in saturated fats and red and processed meats.
Can A Plant Based Diet Impact Male Fertility?
Unfortunately the research is less clear.
There is currently limited data available on the impact of a plant-based on male fertility and the few available studies present mixed results.
However, if we consider the general dietary patterns associated with improved sperm quality, there is some overlap with a plant-based diets. This includes a high consumption of fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, wholegrains, beans and legumes which all help boost fertility.
There are also many important fertility friendly nutrients which may be difficult more difficult to attain following a purely plant-based diet. This includes omega-3s and zinc.
Luckily, with some simple modifications and good planning, it is easy to optimise your fertility whilst on a plant-based diet.
What is Sperm Quality
When considering fertility in men, one of the most important parameter to investigate is the health of sperm, also known as sperm quality.
Sperm quality can be measured with a few different parameters including:
- sperm count
- motility and mobility (the ability of the sperm to successfully swim up to fertilise an egg)
- morphology (the shape of the sperm – abnormal sperm shapes can also compromise their fertilisation ability)
- genetic makeup (sperm with genetic defects can compromise fertilisation as well as contribute to miscarriage risk and health complications in offspring)
How to Improve Your Sperm Quality On A Plant Based Diet
1: Choose wholegrains
Zinc is arguably one of the most important nutrients for male fertility. Wholegrains are one of the best plant-based sources of Zinc.
In fact, male zinc requirements are almost double that of women (12mg/day vs. 6.5mg per day) due to their losses in sperm.
Zinc rich wholegrains to add into your diet include oats, wholegrain bread, brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth, freekeh and barley.
2: Snack on nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds offer a diverse range of important nutrients for male fertility.
These include selenium, vitamin E, omega 3 fatty acids and co-enzyme Q10.
As they come with such varied nutritional profiles, diversity is key when choosing which nuts and seeds to add into your fertility diet.
Brazil nuts are the best source of selenium on a plant-based diet. Just 1-2 Brazil nuts per day cover your entire daily needs. Selenium has many fertility boosting properties as it is necessary for spermatogenesis (production and maturation of sperm). It has also been associated with improving sperm count and motility.
Vitamin E plays an important role as an antioxidant helping protect sperm from DNA damage. There is also evidence linking vitamin E to improved sperm count and motility. Sunflower seeds, sesame seeds including tahini, almonds and peanuts are all great sources of vitamin E.
Flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds and walnuts are the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids in a plant-based diet. There is growing evidence supporting the role of omega-3s in improving sperm motility, their fertilisation ability and reducing inflammation around reproductive organs (4,5).
Whilst a vegan algae-based omega 3 supplement is also often recommended for those on a vegan/vegetarian diet to ensure adequate omega 3s, we also recommend including an omega 3 rich nut/seed daily.
Co-enzyme Q10 (also known as CoQ10 or ubiquinone)
CoQ10 can be difficult to get on a plant-based diet. Research has found that men struggling with infertility tend to have lower levels of coQ10 in their sperm when compared to fertile men.
This is likely due to CoQ10’s antioxidant ability to protect sperm from damage. CoQ10 has also been linked to improvements in other sperm quality parameters including sperm count, motility and morphology (6,7,8).
3: Eat the rainbow
It is widely agreed that eating enough fruits and vegetables is a staple part of a healthy and nutritious diet. This is especially important when trying to conceive as these foods are packed with fertility friendly vitamins and minerals.
Most people are aware of how important folate is during the pre-conception period for women. It also plays an important role in male fertility. Folate is a key nutrient for creating healthy viable sperm being essential in the process of spermatogenesis.
As such, loading up on folate rich green vegetables such as spinach, kale, lettuce, beet greens, broccoli, avocado and asparagus is a great way to help boost the health of your sperm.
CoQ10, as mentioned previously, is also found in some fruits and vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, oranges and strawberries.
Vitamin C is the main antioxidant found in male semen.
Similarly to vitamin E, vitamin C plays an important role in sperm production by protecting sperm from DNA damage.
It’s pretty easy to meet vitamin C needs by eating our 2 fruits and 5 a day. Foods richest in vitamin C include citrus fruits, kiwifruit, strawberries, capsicum, broccoli and spinach.
Lycopene is another antioxidant associated with improved male fertility.
Potential benefits include protection of sperm from DNA damage and increased sperm count and viability.
The easiest way to spot lycopene rich produce is to look at its colour. Lycopene is responsible for giving foods their red and orange colours.
Tomatoes (especially cooked tomato), guava, watermelon, grapefruit, red capsicum and papaya as well as red cabbage are all excellent sources.
As lycopene is fat-soluble, it needs to be paired with a source of fat for optimal absorption. Some easy ways to do this is by cooking vegetables in olive oil, adding avocado or tahini-based dressing to salads or pairing fruit with a handful of nuts.
4: Be mindful of your caffeine intake
Some evidence suggests that large caffeine intakes can reduce male fertility.
Caffeine can be found in coffee, tea, energy drinks, cola, and to a smaller extent chocolate.
A 2017 review on caffeine and male fertility found that drinking caffeine was associated with increased DNA damage in sperm and prolonged time to conception.
Other studies have found caffeine consumption may also reduce sperm volume, count and concentration.
We recommend limiting caffeine to less than 200-300mg per day which is around 2-3 cups of coffee.
Does Male Need To Focus On A Fertility Diet?
In short, yes! Not only can your diet improve your chances of conception, but what you eat can even impact the health of your future child.
This is due to a process known as epigenetic programming (the modification of gene expression).
Whilst still in its infancy, there is emerging evidence linking male pre-conceptional exposure to lifestyle factors such as smoking, diet and exercise to the genetic makeup of future offspring via sperm modifications.
This suggests that what you eat in the lead up to conception can potentially impact the susceptibility of your child to developing future health complications.
In fact, a recent study done in mice found that the offspring of male mice fed a poor diet prior to conception had higher body fat, altered gut bacteria profiles and metabolic issues such as poor blood sugar control and markers of fatty liver disease.
Whilst this study was only conducted in mice and we can’t be certain the results translate to humans; it is still worthwhile to consider.
Are male pre-natal supplements necessary?
For the average healthy man, maintaining a well-balanced diet will provide you with all the nutrients necessary to optimise your fertility.
However, if you have known poor sperm quality, are struggling with conceiving, have existing deficiencies or health issues or are following a restricted diet such as a vegan diet, supplements are likely to be of benefit.
Current research indicates that male fertility supplements can improve sperm health as long as they contain the right nutrients.
Particular nutrients to look out for include zinc, selenium, CoQ10, omega 3 and folate.
When should you start implementing a fertility diet?
On average, spermatogenesis (sperm maturation) takes roughly 74 days from start to finish but this can vary person to person. As such, the 3 months prior to conception is a key period to focus on your nutrition.
However, evidence suggests that for optimal benefit, male pre-natal nutrition and supplementation should start roughly 6 months prior to conception.
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.