One of the most common questions I am asked as a fertility dietitian is whether going vegan can improve fertility. So, in the spirit of #veganuary we are diving into this topic head first!
But first, a quick distinction:
- Vegan diet = diet free of meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, honey and all products of animals
- Vegetarian diet = diet free of meat, fish and poultry but includes eggs and dairy (also known as lacto-ovo-vegetarian)
- “Plant-based” diet = a term that has recently emerged that has different definitions depending on who you ask, I see it more similar to “flexitarian” where people follow a dominantly vegetarian style of diet with a plant focus, but still include small portions of meat, fish, poultry on a less frequent basis.
So, is going vegan a good idea if you are trying to enhance your fertility and chances of conceiving? Let’s get into the pros and cons.
Pro: Eating more fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts & wholegrains
As a dietitian, I am NOT going to be the one to complain about eating more plant foods including:
- Nuts & seeds
- Legumes & beans
These all provide essential nutrients for fertility including antioxidants to help fight inflammation, fibre, B vitamins including folate which is key for preventing neural tube defects in early pregnancy and is found in fortified breads and cereals and dark green leafy veggies. Nuts and seeds provide healthy fats and a range of minerals including zinc and selenium. Legumes and beans provide plant-based protein, zinc, magnesium, B vitamins and plant-based iron – critical nutrients for men and women when trying to conceive too! So there are definitely upsides to a vegan diet!
You can read more about why these nutrients are important in the pre-conception period here.
Pro: Vegetable Protein vs Animal Protein
A vegan diet, by nature, is focused more on plant proteins from beans, legumes, tofu, tempeh, nuts and seeds as well as wholegrains and plant-based milks. Many people actually forget that foods such as bread and pasta do offer some protein to the diet too, in fact a single slice of seeded bread can provide up to 4 grams of protein per slice!
Worried about soy and your hormones? Get the facts here.
Research in the fertility nutrition space has shown that even just 5% of the total calories (FYI that’s 25 grams of protein in a standard 2000 calorie or 8700 kJ diet) being from vegetable protein over animal protein, reduced the risk of ovulatory infertility (Chavarro et al., 2011)!
So it looks like it is worth even just borrowing this little nugget of information and incorporating more plant foods for fertility, without necessarily going fully vegan can be a positive first step!
Want my vegan Satay Tofu Soba Noodle recipe? Get the recipe here.
Pro: Plenty of Fibre
One of my favourite parts of a well-planned vegan diet is the abundance of dietary fibre that’s on offer! From fruits, veggies, wholegrains and legumes and beans the opportunity to meet the 25-30 gram per day target becomes much simpler with the abundance of plant foods on offer.
The benefits of getting enough fibre are numerous from feeding the gut microbiome with prebiotics to keep the gut bugs healthy, to keeping you regular which is key for removing any hormone waste products leaving the body – obviously important for optimal fertility.
Want my fibre-rich vegan rice paper roll recipe? Grab it here.
I hear you thinking, “well sounds pretty good so far, maybe I should be going vegan for my fertility?”, here’s the cons (for balance) for you to consider before taking the plunge:
Con: Nutrient Deficiencies
Just like any other dietary pattern with some level of restriction, there is a risk of nutrient deficiencies. This can be absolutely critical during the lifestage where you are thinking about becoming pregnant and nutrient demands are increasing to support you and your baby throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Here’s a brief run down for the nutrients you need to be mindful on when following a vegan diet:
- Vitamin B12: naturally found exclusively in animal foods, important for nerve health, and supports folate in its role in building DNA in our cells – critical when wanting to build a new life! Whilst we don’t need much B12, we do need some daily and it can take a while to find out we are deficient. Look for added B12 in soy milks and other products such as nutritional yeast and incorporate these regularly, or consider supplementation. Read more about B12 in prenatal supplements here.
- Iron: a nutrient that many women struggle to get enough of, during pregnancy a woman’s requirements soar from 18 mg pre-pregnancy to a whopping 27 mg! It is challenging to get by without supplementation during pregnancy, but choosing iron-rich plant foods and combining with sources of vitamin C such as fruit, lemon juice, chilli, broccoli, spinach, tomato or capsicum can help with absorption. Avoiding foods or supplements containing high levels of calcium or zinc and avoiding tea and coffee for 1-2 hours around meals can help too as these can all inhibit the absorption of iron! Get more tips about iron here.
- Zinc: zinc is critical for the DNA found in the sperm and the egg! Zinc is typically found in meat, fish, seafood, chicken and turkey. However, on a vegan diet, you can get zinc from legumes and beans, nuts & seeds!
- Iodine: iodine is critical for protecting baby’s developing brain health, found in seafood and also in fortified breads and cereals due to the addition of iodised salt. On a vegan diet, opt for seaweed as a snack or make homemade sushi and ensure you are using iodised salt at home. Check the back of your prenatal supplement to ensure you are getting enough iodine too.
- Vitamin D: there has been mixed evidence about vitamin D and its role in fertility, no doubt it is a critical nutrient for our bones and immune health too. Getting enough vitamin D can be challenging for most adults, of course, the best source is the sun, followed by vitamin D fortified mushrooms when following a vegan diet. Get your levels tested and speak to your GP about supplementation if you are deficient.
Need help choosing a vegan prenatal supplement that’s right for you? Book in for a 30 min express prenatal supplement consult.
Con: Don’t buy into the vegan “junk” food
Once you get started on a vegan diet, you may start noticing “oh hang on a second, chips are vegan, this coconut ice-cream is also vegan, and this fizzy drink too!” – you get the picture. Instead of focusing on what we call core food groups, the label of “vegan” gets us all excited and validating any food choice under the sun.
We know that minimising sugary drinks and processed foods is important when trying to conceive (Hatch et al., 2018).
Now, this isn’t to say you can’t enjoy these foods just like anyone else! But just like any dietary label, don’t let it make you blind to the other properties of the food and what they really have to offer for you.
With the rise of plant-based meat alternatives, we need to really keep these processed foods in check as they have been shown to be high in salt and may not be as healthy of an option as they appear on the surface.
Con: No evidence to support vegan style diet specifically for fertility
Unfortunately, at this time, there have not been any specific studies comparing the fertility of those following a healthful vegan diet versus those following Australian dietary guidelines or something similar, so it is hard to know the direct effect of a vegan diet on fertility. Just because the evidence is lacking it doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be of benefit, but it doesn’t give us any guidance.
- Incorporating more plant foods is a great idea when trying to conceive, focus on fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, legumes and beans and nuts & seeds as well as extra virgin olive oil – all these foods are definitely going to benefit you as a couple when trying to conceive.
- However, if you don’t feel inclined to go cold turkey on meat, poultry, fish, dairy and eggs – that’s okay! These foods have important nutrients to offer for your fertility health too.
- Don’t forget to monitor your iron and B12 levels as being deficient may interfere with your fertility, ensure you prioritise fortified foods such as plant-based milk with added B12 or nutritional yeast, and combined plant-based sources of iron with vitamin C (e,g. chickpeas and tomato) to help absorption.
- Be mindful of any kind of restriction when trying to conceive or pregnant, especially if you have a strained relationship with food or a history of one as this can really bring up mental health challenges for some people too.
- Get help from a dietitian to ensure you’ve got your bases covered.
I support many women trying to conceive and pregnant who choose to follow a vegan style diet for a variety of other reasons and it is definitely do-able with great planning, expert advice and support!
Book yourself in for a FREE 15 min discovery call and let’s talk about planning a well-balanced vegan, vegetarian or plant-based diet to support you before pregnancy.