Dossier: Planning a family

Food and fertility

What should you eat and what not? This question is important not just during pregnancy, but beforehand too, because some foods and vitamins have a positive effect on fertility, some prepare the body for pregnancy, while others promise a lot but do little. An overview using the traffic light system.

Green: recommended

Vitamins and minerals
Iron, calcium, vitamin D, folic acid
Vitamins and minerals are essential for your unborn child. To build up a good supply right from the start, you can start taking vitamins three months before pregnancy. Seek advice from your doctor to make sure you take the right amount.

  • Vitamin D is essential for strong bones and a healthy immune system. A vitamin D deficiency can lead to infection or even miscarriage.
  • Calcium supports the mother’s circulation and her nervous and muscular system. It also strengthens the bones and teeth. Too little calcium during pregnancy can lead to osteoporosis in the child later on.
  • Iron is responsible for the production of haemoglobin, which transports oxygen to the organs and muscles. Iron deficiency can lead to serious complications such as premature birth or anaemia in the child. Research also shows that women with sufficient iron reserves have a higher fertility rate.
  • Folic acid reduces the risk of serious birth defects, so you must make sure to get enough of it.

Water and unsweetened herbal tea
Make sure you drink enough water or unsweetened herbal tea. Liquids are good for the cervical mucus, the vaginal discharge that plays an important role during fertilisation.

Dairy products
Yoghurt, milk, cream cheese and other dairy products are recommended because of their calcium content (see above). Research also shows that women who eat one serving of whole milk products a day are less likely to experience irregular ovulation. Your daily protein intake should comprise one-third animal-based proteins such as meat, eggs and milk products, and two-thirds plant-based proteins such as pulses.

Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds supply high-quality omega-3 fatty acids which support the regulation of hormones.

Fatty fish such as salmon is also rich in omega-3 fatty acids and therefore highly recommended. You can also eat it raw as long as you’re not pregnant. You should avoid fish with a high mercury content before falling pregnant (see below).

Berries not only taste good, they’re also rich in antioxidants, which protect egg cells from damage. This is particularly interesting for women from their mid-30s, as the number of eggs falls with age and fertility decreases.

Amber: yes, but in moderation

Meat and food containing iron
It’s important to get enough iron if you want to fall pregnant (see above). It’s therefore advisable to eat iron-rich food such as meat or shellfish (muscles, shrimps, etc.) twice a week. However, you shouldn’t eat any more than this, because too much animal-based protein is unhealthy and can have a negative impact on fertility.

Coffee and black tea
Caffeine is harmless when consumed in moderation, but you shouldn’t have more than 200 mg per day, which is equivalent to one cup of coffee. Higher doses of caffeine impairs fertility.

Wine lovers don’t need to worry, because the occasional glass won’t do any harm. However, excessive alcohol can cause irregularities in the lining of the uterus. It can also disrupt ovulation and the menstrual cycle. It also affects the levels of oestrogen and progesterone. Alcohol can also have a negative impact on male fertility.

Simple carbohydrates (white bread, pasta, etc.)
Opt for wholegrain instead of white flour products. Simple carbohydrates raise insulin and blood sugar levels. A permanently high insulin level can disrupt your cycle.

Red: best avoided

It may be hard, but if you’re pregnant you and your partner should really stop smoking. Nicotine decreases the motility of sperm.

Fish with high mercury content
Tuna (in cans) and swordfish have a very high mercury content. As this heavy metal is stored in the body and is harmful for your unborn child, it's best to avoid these foodstuffs.

Bad carbohydrates
Beer, sweetened drinks, chips, pizza, cakes and pastries, etc. are laden with empty calories, but deliver few nutrients. These foods should be limited to small amounts and only eaten occasionally.

Four questions for Barbara Pfister-Lüthi

Barbara, what should women eat if they’re trying to get pregnant?

Healthy eating doesn’t have to be complicated. You’re halfway there if you follow the basic recommendations. The food pyramid published by the Swiss Society for Nutrition (SGE) provides sensible guidelines*: sugar-free drinks, fruit and vegetables several times a day, wholegrain products at least once a day, foods high in protein once a day, fatty ready-made products only occasionally, high-quality vegetable oils daily. Combined with any necessary supplements, this is an ideal nutritional basis for pregnancy.

What are the most common myths regarding fertility and nutrition?

You can safely ignore any approach touting a single foodstuff as a cure-all, because fertility problems can’t be resolved by eating just one thing. For example, broccoli is supposed to detoxify the body and cleanse it for pregnancy. Or eggs are recommended as a natural way of preparing a woman’s hormones for pregnancy.

There are a wide range of supplements to choose from. What do you recommend?

It’s often difficult to know what supplements to take. A good product should offer a combination of different vitamins, minerals and trace elements, primarily folic acid and unsaturated fatty acids such as DHA. Folic acid helps prevent spina bifida in newborns, while DHA is an important fatty acid for a child’s brain and eye development. It’s important for a woman to start taking folic acid three to four months before falling pregnant. A good supply of antioxidants, such as zinc, is said to help boost fertility. If you eat a varied diet with a lot of wholesome foods you’ll naturally be consuming a lot of antioxidants, which are valuable protective substances.

What do you advise women who’d like to lose a few kilos before getting pregnant?

Being overweight or underweight can place undue stress on the body and impact on your hormones, which can reduce fertility. The same thing tends to happen with extreme crash diets and very one-sided eating habits. The reserves built up during pregnancy – a weight gain of between 12 to 15 kg – are a valuable energy store for breastfeeding and are broken down during the following months.

*A free brochure on nutrition during pregnancy and breastfeeding can be downloaded from the website of the Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office (FSVO) (available in German, French and Italian).

Barbara Pfister-Lüthi, qualified nutritionist and lactation consultant