I tried a fertility, and IVF-friendly diet for 30 days, recommended by Dr John Yam, obstetrician and gynaecologist, Gleneagles Hospital. Here's what I did and what I thought of it. BY KIMBERLY TAN
My Medical History and IVF
Unfortunately, I’m not one of those women who can fall pregnant super easily. I’ve had my fibroids removed and my tubes are blocked, hence the step to try IVF. In order to improve my chances and my overall health, Dr John Yam recommended a fertility-friendly diet,
Watch your weight
Although there is “no hard proof any particular diet will affect fertility”, Asian women should have a BMI of 19 to 23. He explains, “Women at the extremes of body weight tend not to produce eggs at regular intervals, affecting their chances at IVF.” In particular, those who are underweight or have less than 22 per cent body fat tend to have difficulty conceiving.
Aside from having difficulty conceiving, obese women might also face pregnancy complications like miscarriage and premature labour. Hence, he advises women to have a well-balanced diet and exercise regularly. Men too, are not exempt. Dr Yam says that obese men can have “less than ideal sperm parameters and therefore reduced fertility.”
Implement these lifestyle changes
Other lifestyle changes include not smoking and avoiding passive smoking, as it negative impacts your IVF chances. Moreover, he recommends limiting your daily caffeine intake to less than 200mg, i.e., two cups of coffee or four cups of tea. Lastly, he advises avoiding alcohol if going for IVF, as excessive alcohol intake (four or more drinks per week) may reduce success rates and increase the risk of miscarriage.
Of these, I usually try to walk every day and resistance train thrice a week. I don’t drink, but I can’t resist a cup of black tea (no sugar or milk). Although his guidelines state I could have three cups of tea per day, I mostly had one every other day.
What to Eat
Dr Yam recommended the Mediterranean diet, with less red meat and saturated fat, more seafood and more vegetables and fruit, as he says it has been shown to increase IVF success. The diet is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, which is important for the couple. A study showed that 1,800 mg of Omega-3 fatty acids, taken daily over about half a year, “led to an improvement in the quality of sperm”. Where possible, Dr Yam also advocates purchasing organic produce.
Definitely avoid trans fats, which affect fertility and can clog up your arteries, leading to cardiovascular disease. Additionally, avoid processed foods which contain potentially harmful chemicals and additives that could negatively impact the reproductive process. Furthermore, he recommends eating more vegetable protein like beans, nuts and tofu, and less animal protein. For sources of iron, he prefers dark green leafy vegetables to red meat. Choose whole grains and complex carbohydrates over simple carbohydrates. He also suggests cooking with healthy fats like canola and olive oil.
Keto and Calcium
Some research I’ve previously done advocates for a more keto-type diet, where your body burns fat instead of carbohydrates for energy. This state, ketosis, can result in weight loss, and may be helpful for those who are obese, and suffer from conditions like polycystic ovaries and positively affect sperm quality. However, Dr Yam says “it’s probably not safe to be in a state of ketosis around the time of conception, or, indeed, for the rest of pregnancy, as baby needs carbohydrates as an energy source and to grow.”
Additionally, boost your calcium levels with a glass of whole milk, or a scoop of ice cream or full-fat yoghurt. However, as ice cream is highly processed, Dr Yam advises to take it in moderation. He adds that milk fat contains specific hormones that may help with fertility. A good alternative for the lactose-intolerant or vegans is soy milk.
My Personal Experience
My Actual Diet
For protein, I ate a lot of salmon, some canned tuna, and scallops. When I ate out, I tried, as far as possible, to opt for the seafood option rather than my favourite beef. I also bought tons of vegetables and tried to have at least a good helping each meal. For example, my breakfast usually consisted of two poached eggs on wholegrain toast, paired with lightly grilled kale, rocket, mesclun or spinach and tomatoes on the side.
I also took multivitamins, folate, and CoQ10. I usually took the multivitamins when I felt I hadn’t gotten much greens that day, and tried to take the folate and CoQ10 pills daily. In particular, folic acid or folate (the natural form found in food) helps your baby’s brain and spine development, while co-enzyme q10, or CoQ10, is important for cell function and the growing embryo.
Where I deviated from the plan
Admittedly, I didn’t choose a wide range of vegetarian protein, mainly because the nearest supermarket had a limited variety. I mainly ate cashews and chickpeas as my non-meat sources of protein, and took probably a cup of almond milk with my oats for breakfast.
While I mostly followed the Mediterranean diet, the resulting recipes were more Asian in nature, usually fried rice with loads of veggies, chickpeas and cashews, cooked in olive oil, sesame oil, liquid aminos and sriracha.
Honestly, this diet was pretty doable, as long as you made sure to prep a good deal of your meals beforehand, or cook for yourself at home. When dining outside, I’d opt for dishes like yong tau foo or sliced fish beehoon, where I could easily add or ask for more vegetables. However, it wasn’t perfect – cooking so much made me dread the inevitable washing up – and I ate out a few times a week. I always felt full and didn’t snack as much between meals, while still avoiding the dreaded post-lunch slump.
What about results? Between July and end August, I had apparently lost about 3kg of weight, not bad considering I weighed myself while feeling immensely full still. I never did weekly weigh-ins because the idea behind this diet was not to lose weight. Rather, I wanted to keep myself as healthy as possible going into IVF.