Can Carbs Impact Fertility? What to Eat this Holiday Season for Fertility Wellness

My eyes scan the table and narrow in on the pecan pie, the chocolate truffles and mugs full of hot chocolate with whipped cream. I find the carrots and celery and load them onto my plate with a heaping spoonful of hummus and walk away feeling fully happy and satisfied. Ha ha ha. Yeah right! Ok, maybe I put carrots and celery on my plate, but I also carefully put the spoonful of hummus on the plate so as not to touch my cheesy bread rolls and slice of pecan pie. I may even go back for seconds. Later, however, I will be full of food-regret and wish I had only had the carrots, celery and hummus.  I’m supposed to eat like a rabbit for optimal health, right?

 

With Halloween candy laying around and holidays coming up, what do the experts say about how and what to eat for a healthy body and fertility wellness?  In other words, if you are wondering how much pecan pie our bodies can really handle and if those bread rolls really will make you gain weight, read on to learn what the research shows.

 

It Comes Down to Moderation & Balance

We humans like to simplify things as much as possible. We like to say things like 'fat is bad' and 'carbs are bad', but it's typically not that simple. Sure, sometimes it is, for example, we know smoking is bad and that eating too much sugar is bad. But it's not so simple with most things in life. Honestly, with all the research that has come out over the past decades saying this or that, it seems like nothing has really changed.  Here is a quote from the New Yorker that pretty much sums it up: "What this means for most of us is that common sense should prevail. Eat and exercise in moderation; maintain a diet consisting of balanced amounts of protein, fat, and carbohydrates; make sure you get plenty of fruit and vegetables. And enjoy an occasional slice of chocolate cake," (source).


While that makes sense, when trying to apply ‘balance and moderation’ to everyday life, it can get confusing: what exactly is balance and moderation? Let’s look at the research, particularly with regards to fertility.

 

How Carbs Impact Fertility:

First of all, not all carbs are bad for you. In fact, if you’ve tried either the paleo diet or totally eliminating carbs, you may find that there are complications with eating too much meat. Replacing animal sources of protein with vegetable sources of protein have been noted to reduce ovulatory infertility (source).  In fact, Belgium’s new food pyramid puts meat along with sugar and pizza (source). Getting enough protein is important, so take precautions to add other sources protein rich food sources if you do decide to reduce your animal protein intake.  Here is a great resource to learn more about what to eat. 

 

It's reasonable to moderate your meat intake and observe a few meat-free days per week. Although red meat may have nutritional value in the protein and iron content, alternative foods such as fish, poultry, beans, or legumes can provide similar benefits. -William Kormos, MD

 

Basically, carbohydrates are sugars that come in two main forms: simple and complex.  The difference between a simple and a complex carb is how quickly it is digested and absorbed.  Complex carbs such as those found in whole grain bread and most fruits and vegetables have been found to be healthier than simple carbs (source). It's the simple carbohydrates such as white bread, white rice and cookies that are causing a problem. When we eat simple carbs our body breaks them down into sugars. The sugars are absorbed into our blood stream which causes our pancreas to release insulin. Insulin is a hormone that helps the body  use or store glucose for energy (source). 
 

It may be hard to believe that eating simple carbohydrates can have an impact on your fertility levels – but here is the science:  When you eat carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into sugars. These sugars are absorbed into your blood stream causing the pancreas to release more insulin in response. If you eat foods high in simple carbohydrates, your body will need to release a lot of insulin. One of the side effects of high insulin is that it can increase the production of male hormones by the ovaries and therefore increases the hormone levels in the blood (source). This hormonal imbalance may affect the balance that is necessary for reproduction and ovulation and may result in ovulatory infertility (source). 


While cutting out sugar won't help fix physical impediments such as cervical abnormalities, or tubal blockages, it can help to minimize ovulatory dysfunction and promote a healthier you, pregnancy and baby.  A landmark study, The Nurses Health Study, which followed more than 18,000 women, looked at diet and lifestyle over an eight year period among women hoping to conceive. The study revealed that women who ate a higher proportion of the easily digested carbs (simple or “fast” carbs), such as sugared soda drinks, white bread and potatoes, increased their chances of developing ovulatory infertility.  Specifically, the results showed that women who ate a high-glycemic diet had a 92% (yes 92%!) more chance to have ovulatory infertility.


In contrast, the women who ate  a higher proportion of the more slowly digested carbs that are richer in fiber had improved fertility. These foods included vegetables, dark breads, brown rice and beans (source). 

 


According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the maximum amount of added sugars you should eat in a day are: Men: 150 calories per day (37.5 grams or 9 teaspoons). Women: 100 calories per day (25 grams or 6 teaspoons).


The majority of us exceed 25 grams of added sugar per day (source). One cup of hot chocolate, for example, my contain 25 grams or more of sugar alone.  So, can you eat that piece of pie? Occasionally, like once a week, should be fine. Especially, if you are able to stick to the recommended daily amount of added sugar. Watch out for added sugars to foods that you wouldn't suspect having sugar such as breads, sauces, and salad dressings. 


Also, exercise is as effective as some diabetic medications are for your body to use glucose more effectively . So if you decide that Friday is dessert day or you are going to a holiday party, plan on exercising beforehand. Even exercising in the morning will help your body later that evening. If you don’t have time to exercise beforehand, a walk afterwards can help too (source). Exercise!


Long story short is avoid fad diets, stick to AHA recommended maximum amount of daily sugar, eat a balanced diet full of fruits, vegetables and health grains.  

 

More Resources: 

  • https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/medialibraries/urmcmedia/fertility-center/education/documents/fertility-diet.pdf