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Diet and nutrition are essential factors in getting your body ready for making a baby, but what male partners consume in the months before conception matters significantly, too.
Fertility foods aren't just for women—there are certain foods that increase sperm count and quality, along with other foods men should aim to avoid when they're trying to conceive.
In fact, men are found to contribute to almost 50% of all cases of infertility. While there are a number of factors that can impact male fertility, sperm quality and quantity are two of the biggest. A man is considered to have a low sperm count if he has fewer than 39 million sperm per ejaculation. It still sounds like a lot, but considering how far sperm have to travel, it's not that many.
The point? It's important for men who are trying to conceive to evaluate their diet so it won't interfere with their chances of conceiving.
It's also good to know that any dietary changes should be put in place at least three months in advance of your ideal conception date, as it takes three months for sperm to reach maturation.
Be sure to discuss any fertility concerns with your doctor, but looking at what's on both partners' plates can contribute to overall sexual health and fertility.
8 fertility-promoting foods that male partners should add to their diets when trying to conceive
1. Oysters & pumpkin seeds
Both oysters (and other forms of shellfish) and pumpkin seeds are naturally very high in zinc, which is one of the best minerals for male fertility—and sexual reproductive health in general. Zinc is involved in boosting testosterone levels, as well as improving sperm motility and sperm count.
Zinc is essential for sperm function and is known as a hormone balancer, while also protecting against heavy metals and cigarette toxins. Oysters are also heralded as an aphrodisiac (so maybe a dinner out for oysters are in order?).
One kiwi contains almost the full daily recommended value of vitamin C for men. Studies have shown oral supplementation of vitamin C improves sperm motility, count and morphology. Other foods that contain vitamin C include red peppers, citrus fruits, tomatoes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage.
3. Dark green, leafy vegetables
Folate (also known as the food form of vitamin B9, or folic acid), which is found in abundance in spinach, kale, romaine lettuce, Brussels sprouts and asparagus, can help produce strong, healthy sperm.
4. Dark chocolate
Swap any milk chocolate for the dark variety, which contains arginine, an amino acid. Supplementation of arginine may improve sperm count and quality over time.
5. Salmon & sardines
The omega-3 fatty acids found in high amounts in fish—especially salmon, mackerel, anchovies, herring and sardines—may help improve the quality and quantity of sperm. For a vegan/plant-based option, try adding chia seeds and ground flaxseeds to smoothies or sprinkled on plant-based yogurt.
6. Brazil nuts
The selenium found in Brazil nuts may help increase sperm motility, especially when combined with vitamin E. Selenium is a trace mineral that's often lacking in Americans' diets, so supplementation may be helpful.
Staying hydrated is crucial for optimal health, and water also helps create healthy seminal fluid.
8. Maca root
Maca root is a Peruvian medicinal herb that has a very long history of use in traditional medicine as a libido booster and may improve semen quality. It's technically a powdered root vegetable that tastes a bit nutty. Sprinkle it on oatmeal or use it in smoothies.
5 foods male partners should cut back on or eliminate while trying to conceive
While adding these nutrient-dense foods into their diet, men should also be cognizant of which foods to steer clear of, too.
1. Fried foods
These hard-to-resist foods can decrease the quality of sperm, thanks to the fact that they contain advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which contribute to oxidative stress.
2. Processed meats
Processed meats (including bacon, ham, sausage, hot dogs, corned beef, beef jerky, canned meat and meat sauces) can lower sperm count.
Ready for Starbucks? Not so fast! Researchers have linked caffeine consumption by both men and women in the weeks leading up to conception to an increased risk for miscarriage.
One or two alcoholic drinks per day are OK for men, but more than 14 mixed drinks in a week can lower testosterone levels and affect sperm count. In fact, studies show that consistent drinking (five or more drinks in a two-hour time frame) have negative effects on sperm, too.
Regular intake of full-fat dairy, specifically cheese, has been associated with poor sperm quality when compared with those who had lower intakes.
Researchers at Harvard found that even three servings per day of cheese was associated with markers of low sperm quality, which might be a reason to skip the cheese while you're trying to conceive.
Changing his diet and eating habits is not an easy task. But when the big picture includes not only bringing a baby into the world, but also maintaining a healthier lifestyle, it's a lot easier to get on board.
Afeiche M, Williams PL, Mendiola J, Gaskins AJ, Jørgensen N, Swan SH, Chavarro JE. Dairy food intake in relation to semen quality and reproductive hormone levels among physically active young men. Human reproduction. 2013 Aug 1;28(8):2265-75. doi:10.1093/humrep/det133
Akmal M, Qadri JQ, Al-Waili NS, Thangal S, Haq A, Saloom KY. Improvement in human semen quality after oral supplementation of vitamin C. J Med Food. 2006;9(3):440-442. doi:10.1089/jmf.2006.9.440
Fallah A, Mohammad-Hasani A, Colagar AH. Zinc is an essential element for male fertility: a review of Zn roles in men's health, Germination, Sperm Quality, and Fertilization. J Reprod Infertil. 2018;19(2):69-81.
Moslemi MK, Tavanbakhsh S. Selenium-vitamin E supplementation in infertile men: effects on semen parameters and pregnancy rate. Int J Gen Med. 2011;4:99-104. Published 2011 Jan 23. doi:10.2147/IJGM.S16275
A version of this story was originally published on October 7, 2019. It has been updated.