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Are Fertility Foods a Real Thing?

The Fertility Diet

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Alcohol, deli meat, sushi: We're heard a lot about what you're not supposed to eat once you're pregnant. But can certain foods actually boost your likelihood of getting pregnant in the first place?

To some extent, yes: Diet and lifestyle can account for as much as 50 percent of infertility, says Jorge Chavarro, M.D., an associate professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and an associate epidemiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital. And in women going through infertility treatment, it accounts for between 10 to 15 percent of the differences in success rates, says Chavarro.

The magic is less in a specific pregnancy superfood and more in how your diet looks overall. So, take a deeper look at some of the must-know factors when it comes to pregnancy food.

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All About Soy

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Soy has gotten a lot of attention as it relates to baby bumps. For the most part, this is because soy contains very weak estrogens, which could work as endocrine disruptors—messing with your body's hormones and thus potentially impairing fertility, says Chavarro.

But the scientific research isn't so clear cut. While some studies do show that soy reduces fertility in animals, others find just the opposite. In the latter, women undergoing IVF who were given a high dose of soy supplements (much higher than you would ever eat), saw an increase in birth rates, says Chavarro. Research has also demonstrated that ladies struggling with fertility who simply ate more soy—mostly soy milk and tofu—saw higher birth rates than those who skipped it. (P.S. Is a Vegan Diet Safe When You're Pregnant?)

High doses of supplements could increase the thickness of the endometrium lining of your uterus, which could help the embryo implant, says Chavarro. However, this effect wasn't seen in women who ate their soy, he says—suggesting there could be other factors at play.

The bottom line: Chavarro says that as of now, humans studies tend to show that soy either helps with—or has no effect—on fertility. So it's up to you: If you love your edamame, great; if it's not your thing, no biggie.

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Folic Acid and B12

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If you're trying to conceive, you've likely had just about anyone and everyone preaching the powers of folic acid and vitamin B12. "They seem to increase ovulation rates in women with no history of infertility," says Chavarro. Both are essential for building DNA, he says. "Anything that requires cell division needs folic acid and B12." The key is to make sure you get enough while you're trying to get pregnant: Chavarro says that in its early days, an embryo can't take either vitamin from its environment, so it might rely on bodily stores of the vitamins to survive.

Up your folic acid intake with lentils and leafy greens and your B12 stores with shellfish, seafood, and dairy—or pop a supplement. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests 400 micrograms (mcg) of folic acid every day, starting at least a month before getting pregnant. The recommended dietary amount for B12 is 2.4 mcgs a day for women—and 2.6 mcg when you're pregnant. (Did you know lentils are considered a pulse? Here are 6 Healthy Recipes That Will Turn You On to Pulses.)

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Don't Cut Carbs, Cut Trans Fats

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Good news for women whose weak spot is bread: Some small studies have shown that females undergoing IVF who also consume whole grains have a higher probability of successful pregnancies and births. They also tend to have fewer problems with infertility trying on their own. That's because a substance called lignin—present in whole grains—appears to increase the thickness of the endometrium lining, says Chavarro.

Another bigger study in the BMJ found that women who ate a diet rich in fruits, veggies, and whole grains had a lower risk of premature birth than those eating a typical western diet. Which brings about the next important point: Trans fats have no place in any healthy diet—but particularly not the diets of those with a baby on the mind. "Women who consume higher amounts of trans fats had more problems with infertility," says Chavarro, and trans fats are linked with an increase in insulin resistance. And this can change the amount of hormones like androgens and estrogens in the blood supply—creating an imbalance would could result in less frequent ovulation, he says.

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Up Your Iron with Plant-Based Foods

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When it comes to iron, your food sources may matter. Chavarro's own research has found that women who loaded up on non-heme—or plant-based—sources of iron (like legumes and nuts and seeds) had a lower risk of infertility. Researchers aren't sure why this is, but considering more than 10 percent of women are iron deficient and pregnant women are more likely to suffer from a deficiency, it's important for your body to stock up. (Don't miss these 10 Iron-Rich Foods for Active Women.)

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High-Fat Dairy May Help

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A high-fat diet might mean a higher chance of a successful pregnancy. Chavarro says studies have shown that the type of dairy you eat could have an effect—though scientists aren't entirely sure why. One study he co-authored found that a diet filled with low-fat dairy upped a woman's chance of infertility while one rich in full-fat dairy decreased that risk. Fill up on these 11 High-Fat Foods a Healthy Diet Should Always Include.

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