Whilst January is filled with the energy of fresh starts, the supermarkets have a different agenda and are often pushing Veganuary. However, it might be worth knowing more before embarking on this significant diet change, even if it is only for one month. If you're considering trying to conceive this year or are on a tight fertility timeline, then it’s important to understand some of the key nutrients vegan or vegetarian diets may be lacking.
So, can a vegan diet support your conception goals? The answer, like most things in life, isn't a simple yes or no. Both a well-planned vegan diet and the Mediterranean diet, often hailed as the gold standard for fertility, emphasise plant diversity and colourful plates. They share a focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and healthy fats. But the Mediterranean diet also embraces fish, meat, dairy, and eggs. So, why the spotlight on the Mediterranean diet for fertility? Research suggests it optimises hormonal balance, reduces inflammation, and improves egg and sperm quality thanks to its nutrient-rich composition. I’ll highlight the science behind its success and the main differences between this diet and a vegan diet. The blog will highlight the missing nutrients in a vegan diet including choline, iodine, zinc, iron, omega-3s, calcium, and B12 which are crucial for preconception health. I'll unveil their roles in fertility and their richest food sources plus vegan alternatives.
The Mediterranean Diet's Fertility Edge
For couples trying to conceive, finding the right dietary blueprint can feel like navigating a nutritional maze. The Mediterranean diet is hailed as the gold standard for promoting overall health and increasingly recognised for its potential to boost fertility. This diet is characterised by an abundance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, olive oil, fish, and moderate amounts of dairy and poultry. It boasts a wealth of evidence for its fertility-enhancing prowess. For example, a 2019 study tracked over 500 women undergoing IVF treatment, demonstrating that those adhering to the Mediterranean diet had a higher number of embryos retrieved compared to those with lower adherence. The authors attributed this success to the diet's anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, known to improve egg quality and hormonal balance. Men also reap benefits from this diet – a 2023 review found that men with higher adherence to the Mediterranean diet had significantly higher sperm concentration, motility, morphology, and quality, all crucial factors for successful fertilisation. The researchers linked these improvements to the diet's abundance of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, which protect sperm from oxidative damage.
Despite incorporating animal products, the Mediterranean diet shares striking similarities with the plant-based world when it comes to fertility-supporting nutrients. Let's look into some key shared champions:
Monounsaturated fats - Olive oil, the heart and soul of the Mediterranean diet, is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, proven to reduce inflammation and improve insulin sensitivity, both key players in healthy ovulation and hormonal balance.
Fibre - Packed into fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, fibre plays a crucial role in regulating hormones and blood sugar levels, both vital for optimal reproductive health. Lentils, beans, and wholegrains are abundant in both Mediterranean and plant-based diets, forming the foundation of each meal or plate.
Folate - This B vitamin is essential for preventing birth defects and promoting healthy foetal development. Leafy greens, fortified cereals, and beans are abundant plant sources, mirroring the Mediterranean's emphasis on leafy vegetables and moderate poultry consumption.
Antioxidants - From the vibrant hues of vegetables and fruits to the extra virgin olive oil, the Mediterranean diet is a colourful playground of antioxidants. These potent superfoods including vitamin A, E, C, zinc & selenium combat free radical damage, protecting both sperm and egg quality. Plant-based powerhouses like berries, nuts, and seeds are super supportive of fertility.
Preconception Health on a Vegan Diet
Whether you're a seasoned vegan or exploring plant-based possibilities for the first time, ensuring optimal preconception health deserves careful consideration. While a well-planned vegan diet can be incredibly nourishing, there are a few key nutrients that require extra attention during this crucial stage. Let's dive into the missing nutrients in a vegan diet, understanding their roles in fertility and preconception health, whilst highlighting the best sources.
This powerhouse nutrient plays a vital role in foetal brain development and neural tube closure, preventing birth defects like spina bifida. Whilst eggs are the richest source of choline, it can be found in tofu, tempeh, quinoa, chia seeds, lentils, and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and Brussels sprouts, albeit in much lower amounts. However, in preconception and pregnancy choline needs increase substantially so it may be worth considering supplementation.
Crucial for thyroid function and hormone production, iodine deficiency can impact menstrual regularity and ovulation. A plant-based diet is low in iodine due to the lack of dairy and fish, which are great sources. However, a plant based alternative would be seaweed, like nori and dulse, which are also fantastic sources. Get creative with sushi wraps or sprinkle dulse flakes on salads for an extra iodine boost.
This mineral is essential for sperm quality and egg health, playing a role in DNA synthesis and egg maturation. The richest sources are oysters and red meat. The issue with plant-based sources is that they also contain ‘anti-nutrients’ such as lectins, which block the absorption of zinc. So ,even if you are loading up on beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds, you may not be getting enough zinc in to hit your daily needs.
Your body needs iron for transporting oxygen to your reproductive organs and supporting foetal development. Iron is available in two forms, haem and non-haem. Haem sources are those found in animal products, particularly liver and red meat. Plant-based or non-haem iron sources are tofu, lentils, beans, quinoa, and leafy greens, are not as readily available, so absorption can be tricky. Pair your iron-rich foods with vitamin C sources like citrus fruits, tomatoes or peppers to enhance absorption. If you are considering Veganuary, I would also check your iron levels before you embark on this dietary change with a full iron panel, like this one from Medichecks.
These essential fatty acids are vital for brain development and reducing inflammation, benefiting both sperm and egg health. While the richest sources are fatty fish, vegans can turn to chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, and algae oil. Grind or soak your seeds for better absorption, and enjoy them in smoothies, baked goods, or simply sprinkled on salads. With the seed varieties, these contain ALA and needs to be converted to EPA/DHA, which is the beneficial forms when it comes to preconception health. Algae oil does contain EPA & DHA although vegan supplements often contain lesser amounts so do check the levels.
This mineral is crucial for strong bones and teeth, critical for both mother and baby during pregnancy. While dairy often comes to mind, small oily fish like sardines are also excellent sources. Vegans can rely on tofu, leafy greens, broccoli, and tahini. If you are considering a calcium supplement, be mindful of levels as too high supplementation can be problematic.
7. Vitamin B12
This essential vitamin is involved in DNA synthesis, nerve function, and red blood cell production. It's naturally absent in plant-based sources, making supplementation crucial for all vegans, especially before and during pregnancy. Choose a reliable cyanocobalamin B12 supplement and incorporate foods like nutritional yeast to increase your intake.
A final note on Protein…
Protein. It's the building block of life, essential for everything from muscle growth to hormone production and fertility. Animal proteins are considered "complete," meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids in the ratios our bodies need. Plant proteins, on the other hand, are typically "incomplete," lacking one or two of these essential players. Animal proteins tend to be easier to digest and absorb, while plant proteins can be slightly trickier for our bodies to break down. The key to meeting your amino acid needs on a vegan diet lies in variety and strategic meal planning and combining different plant-based protein sources to create a complete amino acid profile, which is harder than it sounds. For example, pairing legumes such as beans, lentils, chickpeas, and peas which contain lysine, with grains like quinoa, oat bran and amaranth, offer valuable protein and a diverse range of amino acids. Other protein-rich plant-based foods include nuts and seeds such as almonds, walnuts, hemp seeds, and chia seeds which contain methionine and isoleucine. Vegetables such as leafy greens, broccoli, and artichokes contain some protein, although in very small amounts. However, it's also important to acknowledge that some amino acids are more abundant or only found in animal products. These include collagen, which found in meat, bone broth, and gelatin. Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine, and valine are found in high amounts in meat and dairy. Methionine is an essential amino acid limited in many plant proteins. While legumes are good sources of lysine, other plant proteins like grains are low in lysine.
If you are considering Veganuary or follow a predominately plant-based diet, it’s important to consider the macro and micronutrients that can become more challenging to obtain. Testing your nutrient levels, iron status and using supplementation is important, of which it would be best to work alongside a Registered Nutritional Therapist to ensure your fertility diet is optimised. Book your FREE 20 minute call with me today.
Sun, H., Lin, Y., Lin, D. et al. Mediterranean diet improves embryo yield in IVF: a prospective cohort study. Reprod Biol Endocrinol 17, 73 (2019).
Petre, G.C.; Francini-Pesenti, F.; Di Nisio, A.; De Toni, L.; Grande, G.; Mingardi, A.; Cusmano, A.; Spinella, P.; Ferlin, A.; Garolla, A. Observational Cross-Sectional Study on Mediterranean Diet and Sperm Parameters. Nutrients 2023, 15, p. 4989.