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.
#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%.)
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
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