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12 June 2019

Men, your sperm is affected by what you eat

The research on diet and male fertility is still fairly new, but there is evidence that nutrition can affect male fertility. Our nutritional experts weigh in on the topic.

An estimated 10% to 15% of couples experience infertility, and often it is viewed as the woman’s problem. However, statistics show that problems with male fertility may be involved in around one-third of infertility cases.

What does food have to do with it?

Sperm quality and motility can have multiple causes and may be influenced by a variety of factors such as genetics, general health, weight status, fitness, psychological conditions, poor diet, smoking, stress, and metabolic conditions involving hormones.

In addition, adequate nutrition is of vital importance, and some foods and nutrients are associated with greater fertility benefits than others.

Waistline is of importance

Conceiving is more difficult if you’re overweight. In fact, it’s believed that weight issues cause up to 12% of infertility. Overweight men are more likely to have a lower sperm count and produce poorer quality sperm.

Excess weight appears to alter hormone levels by lowering testosterone and increasing oestrogen levels which negatively impact sperm. Men with a BMI greater than 35 kg/m 2 or a waist circumference higher than 102cm are more likely to have a lower sperm count and higher numbers of sperm with DNA damage, compared to normal-weight men.

When trying to have a baby, men should strive to reach a healthy body weight through dietary modifications and physical activity. The good news is that a small amount of weight loss can have a significant impact. Even a 5–10% weight loss (e.g. a 110kg male losing 5–10kg) can improve the odds of conception.

Nutrients and lifestyle choices that can influence fertility

A healthy, balanced diet including a wide variety of foods will ensure you get a wide variety of nutrients needed for male fertility. Certain nutrients are of special interest:

Fats

The type of fat consumed impacts both on the quality and quantity of sperm. According to a study, published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine in 2012, a diet higher in saturated fats (found in fatty meats, high fat dairy, processed foods, and tropical oils such as coconut oil) was related to lower sperm count. However, a diet higher in omega-3 fatty acids was related to a more favourable sperm structure.

Our reproductive system requires a variety of vitamins, minerals and nutrients to function optimally. Fruits and vegetables contain phytonutrients that act as antioxidants, which protect sperm from oxidative stress that can cause sperm damage, deformity and possibly infertility. They are important because they are rich in antioxidants, which inhibit the free radicals that can damage sperm DNA. 

Zinc

The mineral zinc plays a vital role in fertility since it is associated with sperm count and quality. This mineral is involved in the creation of the outer membrane and tail of sperm. Men should aim to meet their recommended intake through diet before taking a supplement. The daily requirement a day is 11mg and can be achieved by including foods high in zinc in the diet. Examples are oysters, nuts and seeds, beef, shrimp, lentils and wholegrain cereals.

Alcohol

Excess alcohol can affect sperm quality. Men should not drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week (one unit is equivalent to a 30ml measure of spirits, a standard glass [150 ml] of wine and 340ml beer). Alcohol can be found in semen shortly after drinking, and can therefore directly interfere with conception and insemination.

Smoking

In men, smoking causes lower sperm count and motility plus abnormalities in sperm shape and function. Smoking also causes oxidative damage to sperm, which could be responsible for birth defects and other diseases.

Top Tips

  •  Eat three nutrient-rich meals daily with optional snacks to meet your calorie requirements, should you be underweight.
  •  Eat foods from all food groups, including fruits and vegetables, whole grain carbohydrates such as corn, rolled oats, seed/health breads, quinoa, unrefined maize, wild brown rice and bulgur wheat and healthy fats such as vegetable oils low-fat dairy, plant (beans, nuts, soy) and lean animal protein.
  •  Choose mostly whole and unprocessed foods, for example fresh fruit instead of fruit juice.
  •  Eat more plant protein and less animal protein. Replace one serving of meat daily with a plant protein source, e.g. by replacing the famous steak for dinner with a cottage pie made with lentils. 
  •  Choose carbohydrates that are high in fibre and slowly digested to help control blood sugar and insulin levels.
  •  Drink more water and skip sugary foods and beverages.
  •  Fruits and vegetables are great sources of vitamin C, carotenoids, and other phytochemicals, which may enhance fertility.
  •  Incorporate fatty fish rich in omega 3s, such as salmon, pilchards, mackerel and sardines in your diet a few times a week.  
  •  Include foods high in zinc by for example snacking on nuts and seeds, and swap the mutton curry for a bean curry for dinner.

Image credit: iStock

 
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