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Mediterranean Diets, Glycemic Index and Fertility – Connecting the Dots

by Beth Heller, MS

New data presented at the annual meeting of ESHRE (European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology) suggests a Mediterranean-style diet, that focuses on minimally processed foods and higher intakes of monounsaturated fats, may triple chances of successful IVF outcomes.

Essentially a Mediterranean style diet is one that emphasizes fruits and vegetables, moderate amounts of minimally processed grains, limited added sugars, reduced intake of saturated fat and increased intake of monounsaturated fats from sources like olive oil, nuts and seeds.  Our nutrition programs at Pulling Down the Moon have always been based on a low-glycemic, modified Mediterranean-style eating pattern.  This is because we long ago connected the following dots:

1.  Good blood sugar regulation is critical for optimal hormone balance.  Ovaries are sensitive to insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar.  In cases of overweight or eating a highly processed diet, levels of this hormone can become higher than normal.  The problem for fertility is that insulin can confuse hormone receptors on the ovaries that are designed for reproductive hormones and disrupt communication in the control center of our reproductive function, the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary axis).

To ensure that our body is producing insulin effectively (only when needed and at the lowest necessary level to get the job done) we want to avoid not only overeating but also the overconsumption of sugary foods and processed grains.  At Pulling Down the Moon we counsel our fertility patients to closely control their blood sugar and adopt a low-glycemic dietary approach.   The Glycemic Index is a measure of the effects of ingested carbohydrates on blood sugar levels.  Technically, a food’s Glycemic Index is how much a 50 g portion of the food raises a person’s blood sugar.   A food with a high glycemic score raises blood sugar amply and quickly.  Lower glycemic foods break down more slowly and release glucose into the blood more gradually.  The level of processing and the amount of fiber a carbohydrate contains can affect its glycemic score.  Generally, minimally processed carbs that are naturally good sources of fiber are the lowest glycemic choices.

A Mediterranean-style diet is low glycemic because it eliminates most “fast” carbs and includes more healthy fats, which in turn slow the entry of carbohydrate into the blood stream.  There is no room in the Mediterranean food plan for dietary “crutches”  like processed low-fat/sugar-free snacks, processed frozen meals and artificially sweetened foods and drinks.  Our Therapeutic Nutrition, ART Recovery/Prep Program and our FirstLine Therapy for Fertility Weight Loss program all use this Mediterranean-style focus on whole foods and low glycemic eating to reset the sweet tooth and replace poor dietary habits with radiantly healthy ones.

2.  Chronic inflammation is bad for fertility and implicated in conditions like poor egg quality, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, endometriosis and fibroids.  Foods that promote inflammation are sugary foods, saturated fats and transfats.  Any fertility-friendly diet is going to include friendly fats.  In fact, we encourage all our patients to let go of the “low fat” mentality and embrace foods like nuts, seeds and healthy oils.  In addition to providing important anti-inflammatory compounds, these foods are filling and give our meals a richness that satisfies our hunger.  Eating lots of fruits and vegetables provides important  antioxidant compounds that support anti-inflammatory action.

3.  The beneficial bacteria in our gut prefer to eat “Mediterranean-style.”  Healthy strains of bacteria, like lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, really love to dine on soluble fiber and “pre-biotics” found in many fibrous foods like beans and lentils.  Unhealthy bacteria thrive when the diet is high in red meat and saturated fat.  A health gut is essential for optimal health and fertility.  When our gut is functioning correctly we efficiently absorb nutrients from food, have regular bowel movements and no gastro-intestinal discomfort.  Scientist also theorize that gut bacteria may also play a role in hormone balance and cancer prevention by speeding the removal of excess estrogenic compounds from the body.

Enlisting the help of a fertility-nutrition specialist can be one of the most rewarding things you can do on the fertility journey.  Our nutritionists are not only able to work with you to meet your specific goals (lose weight, defeat your sweet tooth, gain weight, manage PCOS, cleanse) they are also knowledgable about nutrition supplements that may support fertility outcomes.  To book your in-person or phone consult call us at 312-321-0004 (Chicago Area) or 301-610-7755 (DC Metro).