by Beth Heller, M.S.
Nutrition was a big topic at this year’s American Society for Reproductive Medicine conference. Concepts under discussion included the potential role of inflammation in both male and female fertility and the possible value of antioxidants like resveratrol and omega-3 fatty acids in reversing damage done by environmental toxins. Another very simple yet compelling idea was presented by Dr. Gil Wilshire from Missouri. Dr. Wilshire contends that many women, even obese women, are not getting sufficient nutrition for good fertility. Put simply, the typical low-fat, USDA Food Guide diet that we have all been programmed to eat, is low in essential nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins that are essential for our body’s health and reproduction.
Dr. Wilshire was preaching to the choir on this one. That the poor quality of our modern diet – from the over consumption of fast foods and overly processed meals, to the belief that “low-fat means healthy” – puts all of us at risk for less than optimal nutritional status is a cornerstone of our fertility nutrition programming at Pulling Down the Moon. What was especially compelling, though, was Dr. Gil’s use of the concept of “feeding up” in his discussion. This idea is old as the hills but almost universally accepted in the medical community: women get pregnant when they are “feeding up” rather than paring down.
The female body is keenly aware of “energy balance,” an evolutionary mechanism that ensures the survival of the human species. When calories are scarce, bodies begin to shut down non-essential body functions…like reproduction. Food, however, is much more than calories. It is also the way our body gets essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals and fats needed for healthy body function. If a woman is consuming a diet rich in calories but poor in nutrients, she can become malnourished. Hence an obese woman who lives on processed foods can have plenty of calories but still be “starving.” And the slender woman who has been told by her fertility doctor to gain some weight in order to conceive may benefit more from shifting to a highly nutritious diet and lowering the intensity of her activity than from simply packing on pounds.
Rather than “feeding up,” we like to say that women get pregnant when they are “nourishing up.” Importantly, the process of nourishing up can take place without the gain or loss of a single pound. It begins with a very healthy diet and good digestion so that essential nutrients are not only present, they are being absorbed and assimilated. Calorie counting is secondary to this objective, even for the obese woman who needs to lose weight. In general we believe that certain nutritional supplements (including a high-quality prenatal vitamin, a probiotic to support digestion and omega-3 fats) can help support the objective of “nourishing up” but the focus should be a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean protein, minimally processed grains and healthy fats.
We also know that nourishment can come in many ways – including the nourishment of true relaxation that comes with yoga practice, nourishment through channeling chi throughout the body during an acupuncture session or the healing touch of massage and reiki. Changing the intensity and intention of our exercise program from “burning and racing” to “energizing and strengthening” can also make a difference.
At a high-tech conference like ASRM it was encouraging to see nutrition on the table, so to speak. It was clear, however, that nutrition will never get the attention of research dollars. Many more people attended the class on Pre-Implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) than the class about nutrition. Doing nutrition research is complicated and funding is scarce because unlike drug research, where there’s potential to patent and produce a pharmaceutical drug that will make billions of dollars, a healthy diet can’t be patented and won’t make anyone rich. Conflicts of interest are everywhere. Governmental agencies that are charged with making nutritional recommendations are also charged with protecting the economic interests of food manufacturers. Our national nutrition association, the American Dietetic Association, is partnering with companies like Coca Cola to get women to drink more Diet Coke in order to prevent heart disease. Yikes!
So what are we to do? In the face of misinformation we must begin to live the truth and spread the word. Have you made changes to your diet that fly in the face of the Dietary Guidelines for America? Have you switched to full fat dairy and sworn off fat-free yogurt? Have you switched to a more nourishing lifestyle through yoga, acupuncture or other practice? If you have, please share your stories and we will feature them in our blog and on via social media. Send your storied to firstname.lastname@example.org subject line: Nourishing Up. You can include your name or let me know that you’d like to remain anonymous.