Many different lifestyle factors affect a woman’s fertility. For women who have struggled to conceive naturally, assisted reproduction technologies such as IVF may be needed. IVF can be an involved and expensive process with no assurance of success, so researchers are looking at lifestyle habits that can improve the odds of a successful birth. One such factor is the woman’s diet before starting IVF.
Good nutrition should be of benefit to a woman’s reproductive health but what type of dietary pattern may be more favourably linked to this? The Mediterranean diet being rich in vegetables, fruit, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and olive oil is one potential candidate and there has already been some preliminary research to show a positive link with improved IVF outcomes.
Exploring the link between the Mediterranean diet and IVF outcomes further, Greek researchers looked at the diet of 244 healthy weight women. A six-month snapshot of their usual diet was taken at the time they enrolled at an assisted reproduction clinic for their first IVF treatment in Athens, which is an ideal place to study the Mediterranean diet. From the diet survey, each woman was given a diet score based on how closely her eating aligned with a Mediterranean-style diet.
Women who ate most closely to a Mediterranean-style diet were more likely to fall pregnant and have a live birth compared to women with the lowest adherence to the Mediterranean-style diet.
To put some hard numbers to the findings, women in the highest scoring group had a 50 per cent chance of a successful pregnancy compared to just 29 per cent in women with the lowest diet scores. These numbers were closely matched to the likelihood of having a live birth. Allowance was made by the researchers for differences in weight, physical activity, anxiety scores, cause of infertility and a range of other factors between the diet groups
The link between diet and higher fertility on IVF was only seen in women under 35 years of age. This could be because of hormonal changes and fewer available eggs in older women that could mask the positive influence of diet.
When it comes to conceiving a baby, diet and lifestyle are just as important for men as for women. Previous work from the same research team found that semen quality in men was linked to adherence to the Mediterranean diet.
The study can only point to a Mediterranean diet being linked to improved IVF outcomes – it cannot prove that it was the diet itself that improved the chances of pregnancy. How the results apply to all women trying to conceive is also unclear.
If the Mediterranean diet can have a direct effect on reproductive health, it could be because of the wide range of beneficial nutrients in the foods especially the healthy fatty acids in nuts, fish and olive oil. A lower glycaemic index of carbohydrates in the diet could also play a role.
The key message from this new research is that woman should be encouraged to eat a healthy diet in the lead up to any planned pregnancy. A Mediterranean-style diet ticks all the boxes for a ‘healthy diet’. For women under 35 years of age who are going through IVF, there could be even a stronger reason to make such dietary changes to help increase the chances of a successful pregnancy and delivering a live baby.