With the ongoing presidential election comes promises of the future, meetings with the public, and presidential hopeful Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s two cents on boosting fertility.
At a recent dialogue session, Mr Tharman humorously recounted the research process for him and his wife, Jane Yumiko Ittogi, to conceive. Back then, they found a positive correlation between the number of baby twins in the Yoruba tribe in Africa and the large amount of yam in their diets. Mr and Mrs Tharman then incorporated yam in their diet, by visiting Teochew restaurants to eat orh nee (yam paste).
Could this correlation be causation? Apparently, yam contains beta-carotene and phytoestrogen, which aids progesterone production and embryo development. Tharman and Jane ended up having four kids — now the real question is: are they all twins?
As a general rule of thumb for boosting fertility, you’ll want to prioritise foods that are high in antioxidants, dietary fibre, folic acid, protein, omega-3 fatty acids and iron. These properties help to improve ovulation and strengthen your body for fertility. As much as you can, try to limit your intake of caffeine, alcohol, refined sugar, and processed food.
Eat more of these foods that support fertility
Fruits & vegetables
A bit of science before we continue: fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants which deactivate the free radicals in your body, therefore reducing the likelihood of damaged sperm and egg cells. They also combat oxidative stress and inflammation in the body, which can damage reproductive cells. Examples of antioxidants are zinc, lutein, vitamin C and vitamin E.
Dark leafy greens are especially helpful in supporting oestrogen levels and metabolism – hello spinach and bok choy. Avocados are also a good choice as they are not only rich in potassium and mono-unsaturated fats, but also offer your body dietary fibre and folic acid, which boosts fertility. Berries are a great option too, as they comprise natural antioxidants and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients.
Plant-based protein and fish
Studies have shown that animal protein is linked to a 32% higher chance of developing ovulatory infertility. Replace your usual pork and beef with plant-based protein, such as beans, tofu and lentils. Not only do they support ovulation, but they are also rich in folic acid, which supports conception and healthy embryo development.
However, do not be extreme in converting everything in your diet to plant-based – your body requires enough protein, healthy fats and essential nutrients before and during pregnancy. When eating meat and poultry, go for lean cuts such as skinless chicken breast/thigh and pork chop with the fat trimmed off.
We get it, this is much more difficult than it sounds. With our fast-paced city life, we often opt for convenience and prefer to settle meals quickly with processed foods, such as ham, bacon and sausages, instant noodles, and microwaveable or ready-to-eat meals. However, it is crucial to have a well-balanced diet in order to maintain healthy levels of nutrition. This then translates to better reproductive health.
Part of the science behind it is that complex carbohydrates that are found in whole foods — such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes — take longer to digest, so glucose is released into the bloodstream more slowly, maintaining stable blood sugar levels. On the other hand, simple carbs found in processed food such as white bread, white rice, baked goods and soft drinks get digested a lot faster, leading to insulin spikes that may interfere with egg maturation and ovulation. Some whole foods also have anti-inflammatory elements, and contribute to hormonal balance.
You can start incorporating more whole foods into your diet by adding sunflower seeds to your yoghurt or salad, and swapping out white bread for wholemeal bread.
Mature cheese & soft-boiled eggs
Mature cheese is high in the polyamine putrescine, which improves sperm and egg health. It also contains zinc and vitamin B6, which play a role in better reproductive health. Examples include aged cheddar and parmesan. Note that it is recommended to eat mature cheese as part of your well-balanced meals, and not as a main part of your diet.
Egg yolks contain vitamin D, vitamin B, omega-3 and other healthy fats, which help greatly with hormonal regulation and managing inflammation. Eggs can also help to meet your daily intake of choline, a nutrient that has been correlated to neural tube development in early pregnancy, thereby decreasing the risk of birth defects.
According to the Health Promotion Board, it’s okay for most people to consume one or two eggs a day. Those with diabetes or high blood cholesterol should discuss with their healthcare professional on their consumption of eggs.
Limit your intake of these
Who doesn’t take caffeine? Coffee and tea drinks basically get us going every day. However, caffeine is known to dehydrate your body and prevent your body mucus from staying moist. This can negatively affect the consistency of your cervical mucus, which reduces the chances of conception.
The good news is, you don’t need to cut caffeine out of your diet. Drink your coffee and tea in moderation, and try to keep your daily caffeine intake under 200mg.
According to HealthHub, a 30ml espresso shot contains 30-50mg of caffeine, so a double-shot cappuccino or latte contains around 60-100mg of caffeine. Similarly, a 250ml cup of brewed coffee contains 60-100mg of caffeine. Therefore, it’s advisable to limit your coffee intake to no more than two cups per day.
To keep your caffeine intake in check, consider caffeine-free drinks such as decaf coffee and herbal teas like peppermint, rooibos and ginger tea. They may not be able to replicate the taste of your favourite kopi o or teh siew dai, but they provide more healthy beverage options for you. Over time, your taste preferences will adjust and you’ll become less reliant on caffeine to power your day.
Another hard compromise, isn’t it? What of all the social gatherings and late night drinks? Well, consuming alcohol affects ovulation, which messes up your menstrual cycle and hormones — this imbalance can reduce the likelihood of conceiving. It also negatively impacts sperm quality for men. A consistently high intake of alcohol not only harms your fertility in the long term, but also negatively impacts your child’s health (assuming successful conception).
Artificial additives, preservatives and refined sugars can be harmful to fertility, and these are often found in processed foods. Examples include sausages, ready-to-eat meals, instant noodles, sweets, chocolates, and sugary drinks like bubble tea. Due to the high refined sugar content, consuming these foods can cause insulin spikes, which irregulates your blood sugar and hormonal balance.
Of course, it is quite impossible to cut out sugar in your life, especially if you subconsciously consume it every day. The next time you order your kopi or teh, you can request for siew dai (50% sugar), siew siew dai (25% sugar) or better still, kosong (zero sugar added). Some bubble tea chains like Liho offer less-processed sweeteners, such as stevia.
When grocery shopping, look out for Health Promotion Board’s Healthier Choice Symbol – these products are at least 25% lower in sugar than similar products within the same category. Also check the Nutri-Grade of beverages – those graded A or B are lower in sugar and saturated fats.
Other lifestyle factors matter, too
There’s no doubt that diet is one important aspect in maintaining a healthy body for conceiving. But there are other areas to look after too, such as your physical activity levels and mental health. Regular exercise reduces the likelihood of ovulation disorders; staying active helps to stimulate egg production. Also, safeguard your mental health by keep your stress levels in check. High stress can cause hormonal imbalance, and potentially set you off track from your fertility goal. Studies have found that increased stress levels correlates to decreased fertility. It is crucial to take breaks when needed, and stay in good mental and physical health both for yourself and your goals.
One last word: balance
As much as fertility means a lot to you, please do not restrict yourself to only eating the recommended foods and cutting out everything else. Obsessing over your diet and refusing to give in to your body’s indulgences and cravings would cause more stress and dissatisfaction to the whole process. It is okay to let loose and indulge in your favourite ice cream or pizza once in a while. Physical health and mental wellbeing go hand in hand, so it’s important to practise balance in your diet.