The fertility diets women trying to conceive should know about

So you decided you're going to have a baby. You've stopped your birth control and started popping prenatals. Now it's time to get down to business, right? Not necessarily. There might be a little more to it than that.

It's not as easy as you might think for some women to get (and stay) pregnant. In fact, an estimated 6.1 million women in the U.S. — about 10 percent of the reproductive-age population, encounter some troubles during the process. Almost 12 percent of women have received infertility services in their lifetime. And 1 in 8 couples have trouble getting pregnant or sustaining a pregnancy.

Reasons for infertility

Why are the numbers so high? The most popular — and possibly most scientifically-backed reason, is age. More and more women are waiting until their 30s to try to conceive. Unfortunately, this is also the same time that fertility is declining, particularly after age 35. A healthy, fertile woman has a 20 percent chance of getting pregnant with each month of trying. By the time she reaches 40, those chances go down to less than five percent.

It has also been argued that environment factors in to decreased fertility. Common chemicals like chlorine, cosmetics, vehicle exhaust, and even fragrances could possibly weaken or damage the reproductive process for men and women. And who could forget about stress

While there are a whole host of medical treatments available to treat infertility, from in vitro fertilization (IVF) to donor eggs or sperm, to assisted hatching, there is one thing more and more couples are turning to when trying to conceive — something as simple as dietary changes.

The new approach to fertility

Superfoods, vegetables, high-protein diets and low-protein diets, whole grains or no grains at all — every expert seems to have a different approach, and a different opinion.

Is there research to back it up? Not a ton. Do we know exactly what couples should be eating for increased fertility? Maybe and maybe not. It's possible that we know more about the best diet for livestock to follow in order to conceive more than we know the best diet for people. But if the food you eat affects how long you live, the health of your heart, and a long laundry list of other diseases, there's good chance that it, too, can affect your chances of making a healthy baby.

So where do you start? Here are five diets that women trying to conceive will want to know about.

The slow-carb diet

In 2009, Harvard Medical School launched the Nurse's Health Study, which looked at the effects of food on the fertility of 18,000 women. It found women with ovulatory infertility who followed this eating plan had a 66 percent lower risk of ovulatory infertility and a 27 percent reduced risk of infertility from other causes than women who didn't follow the diet closely. With those results, they released a book called The Fertility Diet and is now what many doctors recommend to women trying to conceive.

The diet warns against "fast carbs" such as fruit juice, white bread, and pastries, but encourages "slow carbs" that are rich in fiber like fruit, whole grains, vegetables, unflavored milk, and legumes. Trans fats are the devil of this diet. That means step away from the chocolate peanut butter bacon doughnut immediately.

On the bright side, though, full-fat dairy is a good thing. In their study, it seemed to offer protection against infertility while low-fat dairy did the opposite. It also showed a link between high animal protein consumption and increased infertility.

Last but not least, keep your weight in check.The key to this diet is a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 20-24. Infertility is least common in this range, but increases when weight goes up or down.

The fertility diet inspired by our ancestors

For every traditional doctor's advice, there's a non-traditional nutritionist or functional medicine physician who believes it's a much wiser idea to follow our ancestor's success than to rely on today's experts.

Enter Weston A. Price, the dentist who turned the standard American diet on its head. Celebrated for his theories on the relationship between nutrition, dental health and physical health, he believes that the advent of industrial agriculture and processed food is what has sent us all into alarming infertility rates. According to him, and his many followers, we should instead be focusing on traditional, sacred foods that our ancestors ate when they were trying to conceive.

Through his research, he found that the healthy and fertile tribal people of Africa and Asia had diets that contained at least 10 times as much vitamin A as the American diet during his time (1920s and 30s). Their sacred diets included things such as spring butter, fish eggs, and shark liver.

His advice for the modern woman is a little more attainable. In this fertility diet, fat is good. From eggs with their yolks to oily fish to butter — at least four tablespoons a day. Animal protein is also highly encouraged here, with instructions to eat fresh beef or lamb daily and fresh seafood two to four times per week. as well as lots of vegetables and full-fat dairy. There are even a few items in this diet that may cause unintended face-scrunching, such as, fermented cod liver oil, fish eggs, bone broth by the mug, and fresh animal liver once or twice per week.

The fertility nutritionist approach

Angela Heap is a qualified Nutritional Therapist from the College of Naturopathic Medicine and has completed special training with fertility foods and epigenetics. Her clients come to her, often desperate for answers as to why they can't conceive when they're doing all the "right" things. She comes back to them with a very specific program made just for that couple.

"Every couple is different," says Heap. "Diets vary so much from couple to couple. I go into the real nitty gritty. I look at test results and deficiencies. I do a nutrient profile to see what their fats look like. Their basic levels of nutrients. Iron, zinc, the things that are really important to fertility. And then I tailor the diet around that."

Because of this, she can't recommend an exact formula for any one couple to follow. But there are some things that she says are non-negotiables for ANY couple who want to increase their fertility health. Her recommendations include giving up caffeine and alcohol completely, increasing your protein and switching to at least 80 percent organic food. She also recommends a huge increase in your vegetable intake. "Most women have about three to four servings of vegetables a day. I get them to eat about 10," she said.

"You're born with all of the eggs that you have. But what you eat can cause fluid membranes to be hard. It's about having the right level of nutrients so that you can improve that. You can make a change to the outer layer of the eggs and improve the egg quality by the right kind of nutrients," says Heap.

The compromise

Sometimes, traditional and non-traditional methods work best when combined. At least that's the stance of Sami David, M.D., a reproductive endocrinologist and Jill Blakeway, L.Ac, a Licensed Acupuncturist and Board Certified Herbalist. They wrote a book together called, Making Babies: A Proven 3-Month Program for Maximum Fertility that recommends using both western and eastern medicine to dramatically increase your chances of fertility.

The book follows a regimen that actually changes with a woman's cycle, asserting that there are certain foods that are advantageous to each phase.

Starting with menstruation, you'll eat foods rich in iron to replace blood lost. Iron-rich foods include meat, beans, fish, leafy greens, and seeds. Vitamin C is the best compliment to these foods because it helps your body absorb the iron. Find it in bell peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, kiwi, and citrus.

After your period, the follicular phase begins. Estrogen levels are on the rise as your body works to develop a follicle. Nuts, seeds, green vegetables, legumes, eggs, and fish should help the process along preparing you for the next part.

When you reach ovulation, you want to give your body all the support it needs to release an egg that's there to stay. Fish oil, leafy greens, whole grains, eggs, legumes, meat, and fish are what they recommend. Also, drink plenty of water. The more hydrated you are, the thinner your cervical mucus, and the easier it is for the sperm to get to the egg.

Last but not least, you enter the luteal phase. Fertilization and implantation occur here, so they say you should feed your body for cell growth to promote conception. Beta-carotene can help keep hormonal balance and bromelain can help support implantation through its anti-inflammatory properties. Try carrots and sweet potato for beta-carotene and pineapple for bromelain. They recommend avoiding cold or raw foods during this period, as you'll want to create higher temperatures in your body to hold the pregnancy if you conceived.

The partnership approach

It's common for women to do all the work when it comes to fertility – she's the one carrying the baby, she's the one monitoring her cycle, and she's the one who becomes extra careful about her every move during the process. But plenty of studies out there have found men's diets to be just as important in the process.

According to Dr. Mark Perloe, medical director of Georgia Reproductive Specialists, infertility is a 50/50 issue. Problems with the man's reproductive system account for 30 percent of couples' infertility, while a combination of the problems that affect both men and women together account for another 20 percent.

On the positive side, because new sperm is created every two to three months, it's not hard for a man to turn his health — and his sperm — around with a few changes to his diet.

Vitamins C and E both have antioxidant properties and have the ability to protect the sperm's DNA. Men should up their amounts of citrus, broccoli, potatoes with their skins, strawberries, and liver for vitamin C. For vitamin E, try wheat germ and almonds.

Also, a man needs zinc for healthy testosterone. Because zinc can be damaged when foods are cooked, it's a common deficiency in both men and women. Foods in their raw state like pumpkin seeds, green peas and sesame seeds are good choices.

In some studies, supplementing with L-Carnitine has shown to help normalize sperm motility in men with low sperm quality. The best foods for L-Carnitine are nuts, seeds, and many vegetables, including artichokes, asparagus, beet greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, garlic, mustard greens, okra, and parsley.

And women aren't the only ones who need folic acid. According to a one study, men with a high intake of this vitamin had fewer abnormal sperm. Get folic acid from leafy greens, legumes, orange juice, and asparagus.

Talk to your own doctor

Although all of this advice and scientific studies come from a good place, it's very easy to get wrapped up in all of it. Before you know it, you're eating liver for breakfast, pineapple between every meal, and washing it down with a gallon of water, along with all of the vitamins that you might have missed throughout your day. But remember, stress is an important factor, too, so don't stress about it too much.

Make sure to talk to your doctor before starting any diet, especially if there's a chance you might be pregnant.