Every year, U.S. News and World Report ranks several dozen of the most popular diets from best to worst. Many of those diets focus on weight loss, heart health, or overall healthy living. But one eating plan has a much more specific goal than that: The Fertility Diet, which tied this year for 11th overall best diet, was designed to help women get pregnant.
The Fertility Diet is not new; in fact, it’s based on a long-running study of nearly 18,000 women that began in 1991. Years later, after publishing their results in Obstetrics & Gynecology, two of the study’s co-authors gathered their findings, translated them into consumer terms, and published a book—The Fertility Diet: Groundbreaking Research Reveals Natural Ways to Boost Ovulation & Improve Your Chances of Getting Pregnant—in 2007.
Although The Fertility Diet was written more than 10 years ago, co-author Jorge Chavarro, MD, associate professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, tells Health that most of what he recommended back then still makes sense today. He also says that, with a few exceptions, following this type of eating plan is healthy for anyone—whether they’re trying to get pregnant or not.
Here are the basics on the Fertility Diet, what has changed over the years, and why some women might want to give it a try.
What foods can help you get pregnant?
Back in the 1990s, Dr. Chavarro and his colleagues knew that being overweight could reduce a woman’s chances of getting pregnant. But they also wanted to know if nutrition played an additional role in fertility, independent of body weight. So they followed nearly 18,000 women for eight years, keeping track of who got pregnant and how often they ate and drank specific foods, beverages, and supplements.
“What we found is that, with a handful of exceptions, the same things you would recommend for the prevention of cardiovascular disease or for overall longevity or for general healthy eating vastly overlaps with what we would recommend to prevent risk factors for infertility,” Dr. Chavarro says.
Specifically, the Fertility Diet suggests that eating a diet rich in healthy fats, whole grains, and plant-based protein may help improve a woman’s egg supply—which could help her ovulate more regularly and get pregnant more easily. These foods can also help regulate blood glucose and insulin levels, which play a role in ovulation as well.
On the other hand, consuming a lot of saturated fats, refined carbohydrates, sugary sodas, and red meat has been linked to diminished egg supply and more difficulty conceiving, according to the book.
One difference between the Fertility Diet and a more general diet is the amount of folic acid recommended. Dr. Chavarro says that his initial research found—and subsequent research has backed up the idea—that high doses of folic acid are associated with a greater likelihood of healthy pregnancies.
“Folic acid is a very important factor in the prevention of infertility, at even higher levels than what we recommend for the prevention of birth defects,” says Dr. Chavarro. Leafy greens, fruits, and nuts are high in folate (the form of folic acid that occurs naturally in food), and taking a multivitamin with 400 micrograms of folic acid can also ensure that you’re getting adequate levels.
Following this diet is no guarantee that a woman will get pregnant, says Dr. Chavarro. (And he points out that it’s not designed to address male fertility issues.) But research shows that these steps may be helpful, even for with conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome, uterine fibroids or polyps, or endometriosis.
What about dairy?
There’s one element of the Fertility Diet that hasn’t exactly stood the test of time, however. Dr. Chavarro’s initial research found that women who consumed high-fat milk, cheese, and yogurt were more likely to conceive naturally than those who consumed skim and low-fat dairy.
“This is contradictory to what you’d recommend for something like cardiovascular health,” he points out. The study authors weren’t sure why this might be the case, but they suspected that it may be because high-fat dairy is known to stimulate the production of a hormone called insulin-like growth factor (also known as IGF-1), which may be related to ovulation and fertility.
But studies since then have been contradictory or inconclusive; some have found no relationship between dairy (high- or low-fat) and fertility, while others have found that high-fat dairy was actually linked to worse pregnancy outcomes.
“Of all the findings published in our book, that’s the one that has been least consistent in the literature throughout the years,” says Dr. Chavarro. “In the book we’re very cautious about presenting that finding, and I think since then we’d add an extra layer of caution on top of that. It may turn out that we got this one wrong.”
Should you try the fertility diet?
Along with being conducive to conception, the Fertility Diet may also come with other perks. “You’re likely to shed pounds on the Fertility Diet,” according to U.S. News’ review. “Although this is a diet geared toward improving fertility, you’ll also notice weight loss as long as you follow the recommendations carefully and exercise regularly.”
It’s also not a particularly difficult diet to adhere to either. (U.S. News ranked it tied for fifth for easiest diets to follow in 2019.) “There are no niche or exotic ingredients to contend with,” the review states, and most restaurants will offer at least a few options that fit the diet’s general criteria. “Still, the dietary changes will take some planning and getting used to, with attention paid to nutritional facts printed on food labels.”
If you’re trying to get pregnant, following the Fertility Diet may improve your chances, says Dr. Chavarro. But he points out that nutrition can’t address all of the causes of infertility, including genetic problems, blocked fallopian tubes, infections, or problems with a partner’s sperm. If you’ve been trying for more than a year to get pregnant without success (or for more than six months if you’re over 35), talk with your doctor about what other steps may be needed.
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