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.

Vegan Vitamin B12 – Sources, Absorption, Supplements and Deficiency

Vegan Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin is one of the thirteen essential vitamins that the body requires to survive. 

It is involved in many crucial processes, including (1) creating DNA, cell division and, maintaining and repairing Myelin Sheath (a protective coating around nerve cells).

This water-soluble vitamin is naturally present in some foods, fortified in others or available as a dietary supplement.

Unfortunately, there are limited vegan vitamin B12 sources as plant based foods do not naturally contain this vitamin. Animal products including meat, chicken, fish, eggs and dairy products are rich in this vitamin.

Consuming enough B12 is crucial for proper blood and brain function and it can be stored in the liver for many years. Deficiency can lead to a range of health consequences including nerve damage and pernicious anaemia. 

It is important for those following a vegan or vegetarian diet ensure they are getting enough each day through foods or supplements.

This article explores vitamin b12 on a vegan diet, where you can find it, supplement recommendations and how to avoid deficiency.

How Does Vitamin B12 Function In The Body?

Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient that almost every cell in the body requires for proper functioning.

Vitamin B12 has two main metabolically active forms. These are methylcobalamin and 5-deoxyadenosylcobalamin.

There are two other forms available – hydroxycobalamin and cyanocobalamin. These forms become biologically active after they are converted to the first two forms.

You may see different forms available in different supplements. Hydroxycobalamin is commonly found in Vitamin B12 injections. Supplements often contain methylcobalamin or cyanocobalamin form.

Vitamin B12 is involved in two main enzyme processes in the body. It acts as a cofactor in these reactions, essentially meaning it becomes a “helper molecule”.

Methylcobalamin 

Methylcobalamin acts as a cofactor to the enzyme methionine synthase. Methionine synthase is important for the conversion of homocysteine to the essential amino acid methionine and tetrahydrofolate.

Methionine, is a universal methyl donor. This means it’s essential for a multitude of enzyme processes in the body including DNA, RNA, hormone, proteins and lipids. (2)

Tetrahydrofolate is also produced during this reaction. This is essential as it is an active form of folate, another essential B-vitamin. Deficiency of tetrahydrofolate can also cause megaloblastic anaemia.

5-deoxyadenosylcobalamin

5-deoxyadenosylcobalamin acts as a cofactor in the methyl-malonyl CoA mutase transformation of methyl-malonyl CoA into succinyl CoA in the mitochondria (2). ⁠

A defect in this reaction is thought to contribute to the neurological effects in vitamin b12 deficiency.

How is it absorbed?

The absorption of vitamin B12 contains a number of steps.

In animal based foods, it is found in the form of methyl-, deooxyadenosyl-, or hydroxy-cobalamin.

When this form of B12 nutrition reaches the stomach, two digestive enzymes – pepsin and hydrochloric acid break down the binding protein, releasing the cobalamin portion of the nutrient known as “free vitamin b12”.

When synthetic (man made) B12 is added to fortified food or supplements, it is already in its free form and therefore does not require this separation step.

Free vitamin b12 then combines with Intrinsic Factor (IF). IF is a type of protein secreted by parietal cells in stomach. This complex is then able to be absorbed in final section of the small intestine known as the illeum.

Absorption can also be influenced by age, reduced gastric acidity and other gut disorders.

This vitamin also has many inactive analogues. These are molecules that look like its active form, but actually are not, and can interfere with it’s function and absorption.

How much vitamin B12 can be absorbed at once?

Vitamin B12 absorption depends on how much is consumed at one time. When added to foods such as soy milk or veggie delight sausages in low amounts (less than 5 mcg per dose) it has a similar absorption rate to animal products. It is absorbed at approximately 56% of a 1mg dose.

Meaning, if you drank a glass of Sanitarium So Good Soy milk which contains 1mcg per cup, you would only be able to absorb approximately 0.5mcg.

Some brands of plant based milk are fortified with vitamin B12

 

However, absorption decreases significantly with high doses of B12. Doses above 500mcg have absorption of 1% or less.

This means, that if you take a supplement of 500mcg, you’re only able to absorb 5mcg at one time.

How Much Vitamin B12 Do I Need?

How much you require each day is based on the Recommended Daily Intake (RDI). The RDI is the average daily dietary intake that meets the nutrient needs of 97-98% of the population.

A summary of the  RDI for vitamin B12 based on the Nutrition Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand (2):

For children under 12 months of age the RDI cannot be determined and therefore Adequate Intake (AI) is used.  The AI is based on the average daily nutrient intake deemed to be adequate based on estimates of healthy groups.

The nutrient reference values (NRVs) for Infants is measured by adequate intake (AI) and is outlined above (2):

Vegan Vitamin B12 Food Sources:

Our bodies can not create B12, meaning that it must be eaten in the diet. 

Vitamin B12 is bound to protein. It is found in all animal foods with the exception of honey.  This includes meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products (3).

Individuals who follow plant-based diets must rely on fortified foods and supplements to meet their daily requirements.

Vegan vitamin B12 food sources include:

  • Certain plant-based milks (i.e. Sanitarium soy milk)
  • Nutritional yeast
  • Reduced salt Vegemite (note: the original vegemite is not fortified with B12)
  • Certain meat substitutes (i.e. Vegie Delights products)

If you are wanting to meet your daily needs through fortified foods it is essential that you read the ingredients list and nutritional panel as not all products listed above will be fortified with this nutrient.

Products fortified with vitamin B12 will have this listed on the nutrition panel

It is also important to note that nutritional yeast, may not be a reliable source. The vitamin levels contained within nutritional yeast can vary between brands, meaning it is not recommended as a sole source B12.

The table above outlines the vegetarian and vegan vitamin B12 food sources (4,5)

If you want to try and meet your requirements through food alone you will need to consume 2-3 servings of fortified foods, at least 4 hours apart for optimal absorption. 

The number of servings required daily will vary depending on which fortified products you consume. Due to this not being feasible for many individuals, it may be beneficial to consider a vegan vitamin b12 supplement.

Poor Sources of Vitamin B12

Some vegan foods claim that they contain B12. This includes tempeh, seaweed, organic foods and spirulina. Unfortunately these contain inactive analogues. This means, when analysing these compounds in the lab they may look like vitamin B12, but they are not biologically active meaning they have no use in the body and can actually interfere with the absorption of active b12. 

Some plant foods, such as unwashed potatoes can contain vitamin B12 on their surface. This is due to soil residue or contamination. Unfortunately, this is not a reliable source of this vitamin for vegans. Relying solely on unwashed food products can place you at higher risk for deficiency and food poisoning.

Signs of Vitamin B12 Deficiency

As Vitamin B12 has wide spread use throughout cells in the body, deficiency can cause significant effects.

A 2013 systematic review investigating the prevalence of deficiency among vegetarians and found rates of 62% amongst pregnant women; 32% amongst vegetarians; and 30% to 76% amongst vegans (depending on the definition of deficiency) (6)

Deficiency can be common amongst vegans and those following a mostly plant-based diet. 

Studies have also shown deficiency to occur in up to 40% of older adults. This has been linked to issues with absorption, gastrointestinal conditions and use of certain medications.

Sign of vitamin B12 deficiency include (3):

  • Megaloblastic anemia, meaning red blood cells are not produced properly and are larger than normal
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Constipation
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Numbness
  • Tingling of the hands and feet

Signs of deficiency in infants include (7):

  • Failure to thrive
  • Movement disorders
  • Developmental delays
  • Megaloblastic anemia

Although textbooks state that deficiency can take 2-5 years, our dietitians have seen deficiency occur in as little as 6 months. It is essential to commence supplementation or ensure you are eating adequate amounts as soon as you adopt a completely plant based diet

It is also important for plant-based eaters to regularly check their blood status. Failure to do so can increase the risk of irreversible brain and nerve damage. 

What is the best test for Vitamin B12 status?

There are a number of tests available that test vitamin B12 status.

Serum Vitamin B12

Traditionally, vitamin B12 status is assessed by its concentrations in blood (serum) levels.

Unfortunately, there have been recent concerns that these tests are unreliable in the interpretation of the intermediate range of vitamin b12. Some studies have indicated vitamin B12 deficiency may occur at intermediate levels.

According to pathology laboratories in Australia, normal range of serum B12 is defined as 220-900 pg/ml and deficient is <220 pg/ml.

“Active Vitamin B12” or Holo-Transcobalamin

Another test that is commonly used in Australia is called holo-transcobalamin or “active vitamin b12”. This test is often offered as a follow-up test to individuals who have low serum b12 levels.

The Holo-transcobalamin test looks at the total B12 available for tissue uptake. Studies have found that this test has a similar accuracy to the test of serum levels of vitamin b12.

Another concern with this test is that it is only offered for patients with low serum b12 levels. This means that patients with normal b12 levels but are actually deficient are not tested.

In Australia, deficiency is defined as serum holo-transcobalamin levels below 35pmol/L.

Metylmalonic acid (MMA) 

Metylmalonic acid (MMA) is a strong indicator of vitamin B12 status.

Their measurement highlights the existence of of deficiency.

It is recommended that an appropriate strategy assess vitamin B12 status is to measure blood (serum) levels of vitamin B12, and follow up low values with MMA.

It is important to note however that this test is not reliable in people with impaired kidney function, common in older people.

Unfortunately MMA is not readily available in Australia.

Homocysteine 

Increased levels of homocysteine can also be an indicator for deficiency. As vitamin b12 stores fall, serum homocysteine levels increase.

Serum homocysteine levels greater than 9 µmol/L suggest the beginning of depleted vitamin B12 stores and levels greater than 15 µmol/L indicate depleted reserves.

Interpretation should be used with other indicators as levels may also increase with folate deficiency.

What is the best supplement to take? 

There are a variety of different B12 supplements available on the market.

Supplements are available as liquids, tablets, lozenges and injections. For the prevention of deficiency, oral supplements are primarily used.

Cyanocobalamin is the most stable and widely studied out of all forms. It has been shown to help prevent and reverse deficiency and therefore is the most commonly form recommended by health professionals. The main exception for this is in smokers, where it is best for hydroxycobalamin to be used.

How frequently should you supplement B12?

There are many different factors that influence how frequently you should supplement vitamin B12. These include age, gender, absorption issues (such as coeliac disease or gastric bypass surgery), increased requirements (pregnancy and lactation), blood test results and ability to remember the supplement.

It would be unethical of us to give you a straight answer as to how much you should have, without knowing your full history and medical background. To work out an appropriate supplement regime for you, book in for a consultation with one of Plant Nutrition and Wellness’s plant-based dietitians

Should vegans supplement Vitamin B12?

Even though there are some plant-based foods fortified with B12, the selection is quite limited and these foods need to be consumed daily to meet the RDI. There are also cases of vegans experiencing deficiency even when having fortified foods.

For this reason it is often recommended that those that follow a largely plant-based diet to take a supplement. 

This is important for all vegans, but especially those with higher requirements such as pregnant and breastfeeding women.

To work out an appropriate supplement regime for you, book in for a consultation with one of Plant Nutrition and Wellness’s plant-based dietitians

This article was written by Plant Nutrition and Wellness’s founder Kiah Paetz and contributed to by Dietitian Intern Tessa Funk.

How do you build muscle on a vegan diet?

Everything you need to know about meal timing, protein requirements, calorie needs and vegan food ideas by Vegan Sports Nutritionist Leah Higl

The core principals used to build muscle on a vegan diet is very similar to an omnivorous diet.

In my time working with a range of athletes and weekend warriors, there are a number of areas I see vegans struggle with. These, in turn, can reduce their ability to reach optimal performance.

These include:

  • Not eating enough calories to reach their athletic goals
  • Having lower protein intakes than what is optimal for building muscle
  • Not optimising what foods they are eating in and around their training.

 

Here are my three biggest tips to build muscle on a vegan diet!

Leah Higl is the Vegan Sports Dietitian at the PNW Clinic

1. To build muscle you need to eat sufficient calories

There are two major factors that are important for anyone (vegan or not) trying to get bigger and stronger. Without these, gaining muscle is near impossible or at the very most, extremely slow.

Firstly, it is essential to have a resistance training program that is targeted to muscle growth. Secondly, it is important to eat enough calories to promote physiological adaptations (muscle growth) from the program.

What are calories?

Calories are a unit of measurement that describes the energy in food. This is our energy input. The body also burns a certain number of calories through physiological processes keeping you alive. This is our energy output and is known as our basal metabolic rate or BMR.

Additional calories are burnt performing any kind of activity such as standing, walking, eating food and doing structured exercise. The more you move, the more calories you burn. The total sum of all the calories you burn daily is known as your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).

In order to gain muscle on a vegan diet, it is recommended that you eat in a caloric surplus. This means, eating more calories from food than your TDEE.

 

Building muscle in a very energy-intensive process. Without consuming a sufficient amount of calories, your body will not have enough energy to build lean body mass.

 

How much more calories do I need to build muscle?

The amount of calories to help muscle synthesis (growth) differs from person to person. However, it typically falls around 300-500 calories or 10% above the individuals TDEE (1).

 

2. Optimise your protein intake

Meeting your protein needs is one of the most important nutrients to consider when building muscle on a vegan diet.

Protein is a macronutrient, alongside fats, carbohydrates and fiber.

Tofu is a rich source of plant based proteins

When I tell people that I am a powerlifter and that I am also vegan, I will immediately get the question “But where do you get your protein from?”.

When having a varied vegan diet, it is quite easy to meet your basic body requirements for protein. Vegan protein sources include legumes and beans, nuts and seeds, tofu, tempeh, seitan, textured vegetable protein and wholegrains.

However, getting enough protein to maximise muscle protein synthesis requires a lot more planning. In fact, I find that many vegan athletes and gym-goers are not meeting the recommended amount of protein to facilitate increases in lean body mass.

 

It is recommended that people looking to increase their muscle mass should consume anywhere between 1.6 and 2g of protein per kilo of body weight per day (2).

 

For an athlete that weighs 80kgs this would equate to 128-160g of protein daily. That’s a fair chunk of protein to consume every day as a vegan, but it is far from being impossible.

To meet these recommendations:

  • Incorporate a protein-rich food in every meal and snack throughout the day including tofu, tempeh, soy milk, edamame, textured vegetable protein (TVP), seitan, legumes, nuts and seeds
  • Aim for at least 30-40g of protein in main meals and 15-20g of protein in snacks
  • Utilise higher protein wholegrains such as a high protein bread and pasta with a higher protein content such as chickpea or soybean pasta.
  • Supplement with a vegan protein powder (if needed)
  • Eating enough protein to optimise muscle gain is a little trickier on a vegan diet than it is on an omnivorous diet but with some extra planning and knowing your way around a block of tofu it can become simple.

 

3. Fuel your training properly

Once you have managed to lock down your calorie intake and protein intake, it is time to take a look at what you are eating around your training.

 

Want to make sure that you’re always getting eating the right foods to maximise muscle growth? Why not book a consultation with our sports nutritionist Leah.

 

Proper pre and post-training nutrition is essential for ensuring you are:

  • Going into every training session well-fuelled for optimal performance
  • Recovering adequately after each session to promote physiological adaptations (muscle growth) to training

We discussed the importance of the macronutrient protein above. However, when fuelling our training the macronutrient carbohydrates is also important to consider.

Carbohydrates are found in fruits, starchy vegetables (potato, corn, sweet potato), rice, pasta, quinoa, crackers and bread. Ideally, your pre-training meal should be 2-3 hours before your session with the option of having a small snack 1-2 hours prior to training.

For a pre-training meal go for something:

  • Rich in carbohydrates to prime your fuel stores
  • Moderate in fibre to avoid gastrointestinal discomfort
  • Low in fat (higher fat meals take longer to digest) (3)

Easy meal ideas include:

  • Soy yoghurt with muesli
  • Fried rice with tofu and vegetables
  • Sandwich with salad and seitan
  • Pasta with vegetables and chickpeas

 

A sandwich is an easy pre-training meal

Easy snack ideas include:

  • Rice cakes with hummus
  • Overnight oats
  • Dried or fresh fruit

After training, additional food should be consumed within the first couple of hours after finishing your session.

This meal should be rich in:

  • Carbohydrates to replenish energy stores
  • Protein to promote muscle protein synthesis (4)

Post-work-out meal ideas include:

  • Smoothie with soy yoghurt or protein powder and fruit
  • Tofu stir fry with brown rice
  • Lentil dal with rice
  • TVP bolognaise with pasta

Take-home tips

To maximise building muscle on a vegan diet make sure to keep a note of the following:

  • Consume 300-500 calories or 10% above your total daily energy expenditure
  • Consume 1.6-2g of protein per kilo of bodyweight per day
  • Have a carbohydrate rich meal or snack 1-3 hours before training
  • Have a protein and carbohydrate rich meal within 2 hours after training

This article was written by Plant Nutrition and Wellness’s resident sports nutritionist Leah Higl. 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 apply to work with one of our expert plant-based dietitians.

 

References

1. Is an Energy Surplus Required to Maximize Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Associated With Resistance Training.

2. Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers.

3. Sports Dietitians Australia: Eating and Drinking Before Exercise .

4. Sports Dietitians Australia:Recovery Nutrition .

 

#vegan #proteinneeds #sportsnutrition #veganprotein