Do you spend time thinking about your reproductive health? If you’re trying to conceive we can imagine that the answer is yes. But what if you’re not actively seeking pregnancy? Does the phrase “reproductive health” ever cross your mind?
If it doesn’t, here’s why it matters: Our reproductive hormones are a vital part of the broader endocrine system, which encompasses our glands throughout the body, the hormones made by these glands, and the receptors in various organs and tissues that respond to the hormones.1 When one part of the hormone system is out of whack, it is not uncommon to see imbalances elsewhere.
Consider this a slightly scientific way of saying: keeping your reproductive health balanced is as vital as maintaining the rest of your health—for all women. Thankfully, maintaining our wellness usually doesn’t require radical actions. One of the simplest ways to keep your cycle and hormones in harmony is to carefully consider how you’re fueling your body. To guide us through some tips on how to eat to support our reproductive health, we checked in with Stephanie Lauri, RD, CLEC, Registered Dietitian and Certified Lactation Educator.
How can we support reproductive health with nutrition?
“The reproductive system is extremely sensitive to influences from the external environment,” Lauri explains. To begin with, “minimize practices like smoking, alcohol and excessive caffeine (under 500 mg per day, or three to five cups of brewed coffee).” Next, “it is important to acknowledge and address any nutrient deficiencies and intervene through diet changes and possible supplementation,” Lauri suggests. “Some common deficiencies among adolescent girls and young women are iron, iodine, folate, vitamin B12 (especially for those who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet), calcium (specifically for those who avoid dairy products, due to the increased requirement during adolescent growth), and vitamin D (depending on sun exposure and skin pigmentation).”
What are the best foods you can add to your diet to support reproductive health?
“Focusing on a well-balanced, nutrient-dense diet including animal and plant proteins, colorful fruits and vegetables, and nuts and seeds, is a great place to start,” Lauri suggests. Think “meat, poultry, and low mercury fish (like salmon, cod, freshwater trout, whitefish, shrimp) for protein, bioavailable iron and vitamin B12, and other essential nutrients like zinc, selenium, B-vitamins and iodine). Iron deficiency anemia is the most common form of anemia worldwide in adolescent and reproductive women,” Lauri advises. Also focus on “dark leafy green vegetables to provide vitamin A, folate, antioxidants, fiber and colorful fruits and vegetables to provide antioxidants.”
- Meat & Poultry
- Low Mercury Fish (Salmon, Cod, Freshwater Trout, Whitefish and Shrimp)
- Nuts & Seeds
- Colorful Fruits & Vegetables
- Dark Leafy Greens
- Healthy Oils (Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Coconut Oil or Avocado Oil)
- Nutrient-Enriched Grains
What are the least nutritionally valuable foods to minimize in your diet?
“Highly processed oils like corn, soybean, canola, safflower, sunflower, and grapeseed oils, which lead to body system inflammation. Swap these oils with extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, or avocado oil,” Lauri suggests. Also look out for “refined grains—meaning products made with white flour—that do not have nutrients added to it. Refined grains do not contain fiber and cause a more rapid spike in blood sugar leading to more cravings and energy crashes. Instead, look for products that are ‘enriched’ with added nutrients like folic acid, iron, and B-vitamins,” Lauri explains. Also, ditch the “sugary drinks like regular sodas, energy drinks, and juices, as they spike blood sugar and provide no micronutrients.”
Highly Processed Oils (Corn, Soybean, Canola, Safflower, Sunflower and Grapeseed Oils)
Refined White Grains
Added Sugars (Including sugary drinks like soda, energy drinks or juices.)
What type of diet is best for reproductive health?
Lauri suggests, “the Mediterranean diet pattern, which is low in saturated fat, high in complex carbohydrate and high in fiber. Following a Mediterranean diet also increases the likelihood of achieving adequate intakes of zinc, B vitamins, vitamin A, vitamin E, magnesium and vitamin C. It uses olive oil as an added fat instead of vegetable oil like the typical western diet,” Lauri advises.
How many calories should we be eating to maintain reproductive health?
“Eating disorders and obesity are the primary nutrition problems most likely to interfere with reproduction in developed countries,” Lauri says. “Menstrual periods often cease after a ten to 15 percent decrease in normal body weight, indicating a positive balance between overall energy consumption and energy expenditure is crucial. Exercising too much, eating too little, and being under too much stress can lead to metabolic and hormonal problems—which can lead to the condition known as functional hypothalamic amenorrhea (HA), which can cause you to lose your menstrual cycle for several months. For those with HA, you may require a minimum of 2,500 calories per day to restore your cycle,” Lauri advises.
“On the other hand, for those with overnutrition, ovulation may be achieved with minimal weight loss which is likely related to an alteration in total energy balance.”
2 M.A. Hanson et al. / International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics 131 S4 (2015) S213–S253
3 Sharma et al. Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology 2013, 11:66
4 Wynn A. Effects of Nutrition on Reproductive Capability. Nutrition and Health. 1983;1(3-4):165-178
5 Human Reproduction Update, Vol.12, No.3 pp. 193–207, 2006