Diet and Fertility

The quick answer:  The decline in fertility is an indictment of the modern dietary.  A healthy diet of whole foods, including the fats found in eggs, is essential to conception.



I was once an officer in a medical device company that developed catheters to treat hard-to-reach organs, via the blood vessels.  We developed a method of treating brain aneurysms that saved lives and won us some fame.  Our products were also used to treat liver cancer, giving people a most precious gift—a little more life to live. 

One day we got the idea our catheters could treat a rising problem for women—infertility.  The most common cause of female infertility is failure to ovulate, but blocked fallopian tubes also defeat conception.  So we started a new company, hiring a very capable woman as CEO.   The goal:  Use our catheter technology to access, diagnose, and treat fallopian tube disorders.  The company, named Conceptus Inc., was also a success.


I’ve followed the rise of infertility as a result, and appreciate the anguish of couples who want children but can’t conceive.  About 1 in 8 couples have difficulty conceiving.  There are various causes; about 1/3 of infertility is from the man, another 1/3 is from combined or unknown causes, but about 1/3 is due to the woman, mainly failure to ovulate. 

The topic of female infertility got the attention of scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health; they had an enormous database in the Nurses Health Study, started in 1976.  Because it studied long-term effects of the Pill, they had collected information about attempts to conceive.  An analysis of the data led to an idea that hadn’t gotten much attention:  Failure to ovulate is related to health, particularly diet.  An excellent book followed, The Fertility Diet: Groundbreaking Research Reveals Natural Ways to Boost Your Chances of Getting Pregnant.  From this study and book, here are ten things that improve a woman’s chances for a child (foruntately, these tips have been covered in previous Healthy Changes):

#1  Avoid trans fats.  Hydrogenation creates toxic trans fats and we addressed the primary risk in Healthy Change #2: Never buy deep fat fried foods.  All hydrogenated foods should be avoided.

#2  Use healthy plant oils, such as olive oil or canola oil.  We covered this in Healthy Change #11:  Enjoy traditional fats like butter and olive oil (in moderation).

#3  Eat more plant protein (grains, legumes, nuts) and less animal protein.  You’ll recall we covered this in Healthy Change #20:  Eat twice as much plant protein as animal protein. 

#4  Reduce blood sugar and insulin levels by eating a diet of whole foods (low glycemic index, or G.I.) rather than refined carbs.  We’ve built the case for eating a low G.I. diet in multiple posts, particularly “Are Carbs Good or Bad” with Healthy Change #13:  Write a weekly menu that includes vegetables (4-5/day), whole grains (3/day), and legumes (1/day).

#5  Enjoy a daily serving or two of saturated fat (whole milk, ice cream, or full-fat yogurt).  A surprise finding was the link between skim and low-fat milk and infertility.  Who would have guessed?  Saturated fat has been demonized so much you’re likely surprised to see it recommended, so welcome to the proper role of saturated fats, covered in Healthy Change #11, noted above. 

#6  Take a multivitamin containing folic acid and other B complex vitamins.  This blog has advocated natural sources of vitamins, but want-to-be mothers should consult their doctors.  For all others, we propose Healthy Change #17:  Get your vitamins the traditional way, with a whole food diet of vegetables, legumes, fruits, nuts, whole grains, and a little meat.  (Plus a little noontime sun for vitamin D.)

#7  Get plenty of iron, but from whole foods, not red meat.  A series of posts advocated a whole foods diet, but Healthy Change #22 recommended sparing intake of meat, with minimal processed meat. 

#8  Drink plenty of water, minimize alcohol, coffee and tea, and avoid sugary drinks.  This blog advocates water also, with a little fruit juice, as in Healthy Change #6:  Drink lots of water; make it your main drink.

#9  Aim for a healthy weight (a BMI from 20 to 24 was defined as healthy), but losing 5-10% if overweight can restart ovulation.  In our posts “The Skinny on Overweight” and “The End of Diets” we explored how a healthy diet naturally results in a healthy weight.  Unfortunately, a lot of shame has been put on the overweight.  Shame doesn’t motivate as powerfully as truth. 

#10 Exercise daily; if you’re already exercising step it up a little but not to excess.  Healthy Change #5:  Get at least 30 minutes of exercise, most days of the week.  It’s best if you sweat.  Other posts talked about stretching and resistance exercises.

The study didn’t address the issue of male impotence except to infer that what was good for the goose was most likely good for the gander.  (The guys need to take better care of their health too; in the last 50 years, it's reported, male semen counts have fallen 50%.)

Reduced-fat Milk

The last Healthy Change addressed milk, and the Harvard fertility study did also.  The conclusions were a surprise that confounded what we’ve been told about fats (read it twice to be sure you got it right):

  • The more low-fat dairy in a woman’s diet, the more likely she was to have trouble getting pregnant.
  • The more full-fat dairy, the more likely she was to get pregnant. 

Harvard scientists were astonished by the finding that reduced-fat dairy was harmful to the creation of life and could only cautiously recommended saturated fat for couples at conception.  This actually shouldn’t be a surprise; our most critical organ, the brain is mostly fat, and a baby’s optimal food, the mother’s breast milk, is full of fat, especially saturated fat.  In our home, we enjoy saturated fat in moderation; after all, it makes everything taste better.

The Bottom Line

The primary goal of every species is the creation and nurturing of the next generation.  Nothing else matters so much.  The modern diet is linked to two major ills: the rise of chronic disease, as well as overweight and obesity.  Now we've added a third calamity—infertility.  So diet reformation is not just about our health, it’s about the creation of life.

As noted above, there’s a remarkable alignment of the Healthy Changes with the findings of the Harvard fertility study.  So if you’ve had difficulty conceiving in the past but have followed the Healthy Changes over the last year and now find yourself pregnant, it’s just fine with me if you want to name your child “Skip”. :)


We used to hear that eggs were bad because the yolk was full of fat.  People were making omelets of egg whites alone, or buying egg substitutes processed to remove much of the fat.  Imagine—low-fat eggs.  Now we’re told that eggs are back in favor.  You can safely enjoy 4, or even 6 per week, we’re told.

There’s been controversy about battery feeding and confinement of chickens in crowded cages.  The response of the industry was to take the doors off the cages—most eggs now are advertised as “cage free”.  It's one more demonstration of the power of informed shoppers voting with their dollars.

The chicken's feed remains an issue however.  A researcher named Artemis Simopoulos, on a trip to her native Greece, brought back some eggs from chickens fed the traditional way—roaming about eating bugs, seeds, grass, and a little fine gravel.  The eggs were tested and found to be ten-fold higher in the omega-3 fats essential to health, and higher in vitamins, compared to our commercial eggs. 

The healthiness of the egg, Dr. Simopoulos concluded, is tied to the healthiness of the hen.  Even for hens, diet is important.  Adding flaxseed to the feed provides more omega-3 fats in the egg, mostly of the short-chain type.  Adding seaweed or algae adds omega-3 fats of the essential long-chain type.   You pay more for these but in a prior post we pointed out that this is actually an affordable source of omega-3 fats. 

This past weekend I visited a most remarkable farmer’s market—in San Francisco, at the old Ferry Building on the Embarcadero.  It’s a place where you can actually meet the person who raised the food.  I visited with a friendly egg farmer with a handsome mustache, Charlie Sowell from the Rolling Hills Ranch, who put his hen houses on wheels, so he could move them around the pasture by day and close them up at night for safety.  The hens eat the traditional way, from Nature’s bounty.  Traditional?  I hope Charlie is the future too. 

Please comment on your experience with diet and fertility, or finding eggs from healthy chickens.

Photo by Kelli Nicole

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.

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Reader Comments (14)

Thank you so much for this info! It's fascinating and I intend to splurge on some whole fat dairy for my next cycle after reading this! Thanks again!

November 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLynnc

Thanks so much for this post. My husband and I have been trying to conceive for almost five years. I have PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) which causes infertility in many women. I have not had any success with traditional fertility treatments and found it very frustrating when my doctor told us our only option now was IVF. We don't want to go that route so I have been working on getting healthy by changing my diet and exercising. In addition to feeling better, it seems like my reproductive system is working better even though I still haven't ovulated yet. I'm thinking after losing some more weight, things should be back on track.

You made some points about diet that I will add to what I'm already doing. Again, thank you for this post. I think there are many women (and men) who don't realize what a huge effect diet has on fertility.

November 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCindy

Finding good eggs can be hard if you live in the dessert. I order mine from Azure Standard. They have nice dark yolks- almost orange. They taste fabulous. My kids never liked eggs until we switched to these- those store-bought eggs with their pale yolks just didn't taste good to them. I even tried the best quality eggs I could find at Whole Foods, but those didn't cut it either. The ones I get are Mission Mountain brand. They are free range and eat bugs and the traditional chicken diet. They do get some supplemented feed that is soy and corn free- so they aren't fed any GMOs.

November 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

Is there a reason why the limit is six eggs per week? I also have PCOS, but I am slightly underweight and frequently eat more than six eggs a week.

November 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEmily

Emily, these recommendations, of four, or six eggs per week aren't based on solid science, which would be difficult to prove. It's an informed person's best judgement but everyone is different. Just eat what seems best to you.

November 16, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

Cindy, if you like to read, try the book mentioned above, The Fertility Diet: Groundbreaking Research Reveals Natural Ways to Boost Your Chances of Getting Pregnant. There is much more information than I was able to show in a post. Best to you.

November 16, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

Keep up the amazing work on your site Skip and of course I have to ask, when does your book come out? Simple but well researched advice that you MUST share! As a dietitian, I need reminders and also am constantly learning about food and the incredible impact of food on our health! Kudos to YOU! Keep up the great work :)

November 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDiana

Diane, thanks for the encouragement, from a dietician at that. Don't have a firm plan for a book, just a conviction that the food reformation is important, and a desire to figure out the best way to share the word. I'm fascinated by the complexity of nutrition, and the way that people through history have developed algorithms that make the complexity manageable. We can learn from them, if we're wise. I'm trying to get my arms around it all. Please write and share your ideas. I can be reached at

November 16, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Oh Cindy I totally feel for you! I have PCOS too. My husband and I decided against fertility treatments since we have problems on both ends so to speak. And we don't want to unbalance the hormones even further. We'd been trying for five years. The monthly mourning is brutal on the heart. You just feel like a failure as a woman. It's like, what's the point of being a woman if not to have babies! Trust me I know! The hardest part for me was that I felt like I was a disappointment to my mom. I know I'm not but that was the hardest feeling I had to deal with. Big hugs and happy thoughts being sent your way.

On a happier note, the hubby and I are now in the middle of the application process for adoption. And our kids will be well educated on eating right thanks in part to this blog! If I could go back in time to my teenager self I would slap myself upside the head and tell myself to learn to eat right NOW to avoid the tears later.

November 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRill

I lost a son at 22 wks between my 5 and 6 the child.It was the only miscarriage I ever had. I just know it was because I was at my unhealthiest weight and eating styles. That is all I am saying. Also I will tell you that my close girlfriend is unable to get pregnant -no matter how she and her husband try, and she attributes it to all the drinking /'gateway' drugs she did in high school/college.She is heartbroken.

We raise our own chickens and I love love love my " Ladies" ( hens). We have a small flock of 8-10. We will get more chicks in the Spring and want to add two ducks for their eggs. The seem to be richer and with three teen/tween girls, I think they need it.

Just like us, it is important to feed the "Ladies" well. Our first flock about 5 yrs ago, we went with the novice generic crumble sold at the farm store....processed Heaven knows what. We had healthy egg layers that produced an egg a day
most days. The birds were in normal laying cycle of becoming 'lazy layers' at the two yr wasn't recently did we find that the local, whole grain feed made a huge difference in their egg production, longevity and quality of our eggs and chickens.The feed doesn't even cost any more because it is LOCAL.
I am no rocket scientist, but I see a correlation.

November 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHeather

What an informative post. I don't have much experience with conception, but I know that the diet principles you outlined are good for anyone at any stage in life. My husband and I are trying to eat well now so that when we are ready to have children we will (hopefully) avoid diet-related infertility issues. Again, great post. I'm going to read the book you recommended.

November 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

Isn't it interesting that when I do get pregnant, I CRAVE eggs and want to eat them every day. Hard boiled, scrambled, tucked in egg and cheese sandwiches, it doesn't matter.. my body just wants eggs. It's actually one of the first signs that I might be pregnant. There must be something in eggs that my body needs throughout the entire pregnancy (not just at the start).

November 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrooke

We have a half dozen neighbors who own chickens. One family was getting too many eggs so they let my kids come gather eggs for our family twice a week. What a blessing! In comparing our store bought eggs to the fresh ones we gather it's obvious that the yolks have a deeper yellow color to them.

Thanks for all of your informative posts!

November 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGerb


Thanks again for another great post. My sister and I have been theorizing about this for years, but have never seen any hard science about it (or at least, it's not something people really talk about). Keep up the great work.


November 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

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