We tend to emphasize what a mother eats; after all, she is the one who carries the child, and what she eats directly nourishes the developing baby. However, there is growing awareness about the role preconception nutrition plays for men, too.
The foods men choose during the preconception period directly influence their overall wellness and metabolic health. And poor metabolic health, as determined by excess body fat, high blood pressure, lipid imbalances, and other markers, correlates with low sperm counts.
Certain foods promote healthy sperm, while others may compromise sperm quality. The time to think about diet and male fertility is before conception.
What is Spermatogenesis?
Spermatogenesis is the development of sperm cells into mature sperm (spermatozoa). This complex process occurs in the testes and involves different cells, hormones, genes, and nutrients. The complete process takes 90 days, but spermatogenesis constantly occurs for continuous sperm production.
Sperm health is paramount to male fertility, and we must understand spermatogenesis in order to address male fertility.
Globally, men are experiencing declining sperm counts, and 50% of infertility cases may be due to male factors, meaning the quantity and quality of sperm. Understanding spermatogenesis and how to increase sperm production is vital to reversing this trend.
How to Increase Sperm Production
Total body health and sperm health go hand in hand. Healthy diet and lifestyle factors that support wellness also support healthy sperm production. This is good news because you don’t need one diet for balanced blood sugar, another for hypertension, and so on. The changes you make to your diet will improve all areas of health.
When it comes to sperm production, you need more nutrients and conditions required for spermatogenesis and less of the conditions that work against it. Diet plays a significant role.
To learn more about factors that influence male fertility beyond diet, read 4 Simple Ways to Increase Male Fertility.
Diet and Male Fertility
Spermatogenesis is subject to environmental influence, including dietary factors. Food can affect sperm production, either positively or negatively. Studies show that a healthy dietary pattern improves semen quality and sperm health.
Western diets, high in calories, processed foods, and sugar, are associated with metabolic disease and a risk factor for male infertility. Conversely, epidemiological studies correlate higher sperm counts and sperm quality with a diet pattern that includes lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and fish, similar to a Mediterranean diet.
A nutrient-rich diet provides the building blocks and cofactors for sperm and semen production. These nutrients include:
Zinc deficiency and other nutrient deficiencies are associated with impaired spermatogenesis. Antioxidants, like vitamin C, vitamin E, and phytonutrients help protect sperm from oxidative stress caused by environmental toxins.
Regarding diet, we also want to avoid toxins in food that negatively impact male fertility. These include water disinfection chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, and phthalates (from food and beverage packaging. Choosing organic food as much as possible is one strategy that helps reduce toxin exposure.
Looking for a way to kickstart your fertility nutrition? Check out my free 7 day meal plan and recipe guide!
Foods to Help Increase Fertility
Foods to increase male fertility are many of the same on my list for female fertility. Everyone in the household can eat the same foods.
Choose whole, unprocessed foods, abundant colorful produce, healthy fats, quality protein, and starchy carbs like root veggies, whole grains, and legumes.
Foods to increase fertility include:
- Kale, spinach, collard greens, arugula, and other dark leafy greens
- Bell peppers
- Broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, cabbage, and other cruciferous veggies
- Broccoli sprouts
- Sweet potatoes
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Dandelion greens
- Winter squash and pumpkin
- Onions, garlic, leeks
- Kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles
- Citrus fruits
Herbs and spices
- Hot peppers
- Black pepper
- Quinoa, brown rice, and other gluten-free grains
- Lentils, chickpeas, black beans, and other legumes
Oils and fats
- Olive oil and olives
- Coconut oil and coconut
- Avocado oil and avocados
- Grass-fed dairy (optional)
- Nuts – walnuts, Brazil nuts, almonds, etc.
- Seeds – flax seeds, tahini, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, etc.
- Wild-caught fish
- Grass-fed beef
- Hormone-free meats
- Oysters and seafood
- Legumes and nuts
Let’s talk about a few categories in more detail.
Protein provides the building blocks for cells, including sperm cells. A single sperm tail carries over a thousand individual proteins required for proper function.
The amino acids that build proteins in the body come from protein-containing food in the diet. In addition, protein-containing foods are typically also rich in minerals, such as zinc, required for sperm production.
Quality protein is vital for maintaining lean body mass, balancing blood sugar throughout the day, and many other aspects leading to greater overall health.
Aim to fill around 25% of your plate with protein-rich foods, with a focus on lean protein sources such as shellfish, salmon, sardines, mackerel, pastured eggs, grass-fed dairy (as tolerated), grass-fed beef, lamb, bison, pastured chicken, and other high-quality options available where you live.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are one of my favorite categories of foods to support fertility in both men and women. Nuts and seeds provide essential fats, minerals, antioxidants, and other phytonutrients. If you think about a nut or seed, both the seed of the plant, each one contains the nutrients required to sprout a new plant when conditions are favorable.
I often recommend seed cycling to women for hormone balance and fertility. Increasing seeds in the diet is beneficial for men as well.
Pro tip: For increased digestibility and bioavailability of nutrients, soak or sprout nuts and seeds.
Antioxidant-Rich Fruits and Vegetables
Antioxidants protect cells from free radical damage associated with oxidative stress and toxins. Sperm are particularly vulnerable to this type of damage and increasing antioxidants in the body through diet protects sperm and the DNA that the sperm carry.
Fruits and vegetables are some of the foods high in antioxidants.
I recommend starting with five servings of vegetables and fruits daily and increasing from there. Choose a variety of colors, including dark green, red, purple/blue, yellow, orange, and white. This is one category where more is better, especially more veggies.
Antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables are foundational, but for added antioxidant protection, consider green tea, spices like turmeric, raw cacao, and supportive supplements as discussed here.
Here’s an easy recipe that adds four servings of antioxidant-rich produce in one simple smoothie:
Future Dad’s Antioxidant Smoothie
Makes: 1 serving
- 1 large handful dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, chard, spring mix)
- 1 cup berries of choice
- 2 tablespoons pumpkin seeds
- ½ avocado
- 1 lime, skin removed
- 1 cup (or more) almond milk, coconut milk, hemp milk, or milk of choice
- Handful of ice (optional)
- Place all ingredients in a high-speed blender and blend until smooth. Enjoy!
Foods to Avoid for Male Fertility
I encourage you to focus on the foods you want to add to your diet. As you increase the foods listed above, you’ll naturally displace some less fertility-friendly foods.
Here’s a general list of ingredients and foods to avoid for male fertility, or at least begin decreasing:
- Ultra-processed foods
- Trans fats – found in deep-fried food and as “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oil on ingredient labels
- Highly processed oils – corn, soy, canola
- Chemical additives and preservatives
- Artificial colors and flavors
- Processed and low-quality meat
- High fructose corn syrup and processed sugar
- Refined grains such as white flour
In addition to this list, avoid any foods you are personally sensitive or allergic to and consider your relationship with sugar and alcohol, which I’ll discuss next.
Excess Fat and Sugar
Fat and sugar aren’t inherently “bad.” We need both fat and carbs to live. But, some caution is warranted in the context of processed foods that are high in fat and refined carbohydrates and displacing nutrient- and fiber-rich foods in the diet.
This fat and sugar combo will wreak havoc on your metabolism, drive imbalances in lipids, raise your blood sugar, increase inflammation, mess with your hormones, and ultimately affect your health and fertility.
The fat that you eat directly affects the fats found in sperm. In addition, not all fats are created equal. Some evidence suggests that diets high in saturated fats, as found in Western diets, and low in polyunsaturated fats (found in nuts, seeds, fish, etc.) negatively affects sperm quality. Increasing omega-3 fats from cold water fish may improve sperm quality and lower inflammation.
The natural sugar in fruits and vegetables is packaged along with fiber and phytonutrients. In this whole food context, sugar isn’t much of a concern. However, eating a lot of sugar from processed foods could lead down a road of metabolic and reproductive consequences.
Increased blood sugar levels are associated with lower testosterone and increased oxidative stress, which can affect sperm production and motility.
You might not be aware that there’s a connection between alcohol and male fertility. Women are often asked to give up alcohol to improve fertility and pregnancy outcomes, yet alcohol affects male fertility too.
There’s no way around the fact that when you consume alcohol, the detoxification process releases toxic by-products that interfere with physiology and create oxidative stress. Heavy drinkers are more prone to poor health and metabolic disruption, including liver disease, and other chronic diseases.
Studies of men with alcoholism show increased rates of sexual dysfunction and infertility because of changes in hormone balance, semen quality, and gene expression (epigenetics).
Reducing or eliminating alcohol consumption in the months before trying to conceive is a step men can take to improve fertility. Remember, it takes sperm 90 days to mature, so consider an alcohol break for at least three months before conception.
Does nutrition matter for male fertility? Absolutely, yes. It’s time that men share in the diet change that improves fertility, conception, healthy pregnancies, and the health of their future children. In addition, the nutrition habits you form now will support your health for years to come, so you can enjoy extra time with your kids as they grow.
For shopping lists and recipe ideas, check out my 4-week meal plan that comes FREE when you pre-order my book, Is This Normal? Although initially presented for women, this is a menu for the whole family and includes the top fertility foods for men.
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