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Why Nutrition is just as important as ART in your Infertility Journey

By Susana Ritchey, MS, RD, LD

If I were in your shoes, I’d be skeptical too. Health claims can be outrageous these days, so taking a sensationalist headline with a grain of salt is always wise. Even though it seems like nutrition’s impact on fertility must be small compared to the impact of assisted reproductive technologies (ART), I’m here to defend my bold claim!

As you likely already know, ART is EXPENSIVE. One study from 2011 found that the average out-of-pocket costs of intrauterine insemination (IUI) ranges from $11,000-$20,000 per successful outcome. Individual rounds may be less expensive, but many couples will need to undergo multiple rounds. Another study reported an estimate that a successful live birth outcome can range from $66,000-$114,000 for individuals undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF).

For many couples, this type of investment is simply out of reach. For other couples who are able to pay, the pressure to conceive during each round of treatment is emotionally and physically exhausting. Because of the immense amount of pressure, it is reasonable that couples do everything they can to increase their chances of conception and viability.

Fortunately, there are some effective alternatives or supplemental therapies to ART. My favorite (since, you know, I’m a dietitian) is nutrition. One study that was published in 2019 looked at implantation, pregnancy, and live birth outcomes in women following certain diets. They ranked women’s adherence to each diet in quartiles. When they compared the bottom quartile (least adherent to diet) with the top quartile (most adherent to diet), they found that the odds of live births were 28% higher for the top quartile of women. This is an incredible result for women trying to conceive. 28% could mean the difference between one round of IVF versus two rounds. Three versus four. Nutrition could save you thousands, tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on fertility treatments. It could save precious time, which is the real enemy of those trying to conceive. It could save tears, anger, and disappointment.

Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that nutrition therapy will lead to conception. It is not a magic pill. That being said, if someone told me there was something I could do that would increase my chances of winning the lottery by 28%, I would definitely be doing it, and I know most of you would too.

The determination of an individual trying whole-heartedly to become a parent is unmatched. The babies I have known that were born to couples through fertility treatments have been loved so deeply. Because of the desire, love, and motivation of many of individuals trying to conceive, I understand why many women and men take drastic nutrition actions that they read about online or discuss with their physicians. Many women cut out dairy or gluten. Some go keto or plant-based. Others spend hundreds of dollars on supplements.

Unfortunately, despite the good intention, many diets are not effective. At their worst, they can actually be harmful (more on that another time…). How is it that Jillian at work got pregnant first try, eating nothing but Cheetos, yet many women with excellent fertility-minded nutrition are not able to conceive? Obviously, physiology plays a big role. Jillian likely does not have barriers to reproduction, such as PCOS or endometriosis. The other explanation is that nutrition is not as straight forward as it looks. Infertility encompasses many different disorders, disease states, deficiencies, and genetic variables. Sometimes it simply has no known explanation at all. Given everyone’s infertility journey is so different, it makes sense that everyone’s nutrition therapy may need to be a little bit different. So, when Julie at the gym tells you that her cousin had a baby after she cut out gluten, she’s not taking into account that you are completely different people with completely different situations.

Spending time online researching nutrition makes sense. It’s taking advantage of a powerful tool that is significantly more accessible than expensive drugs. The problem is that a lot of (arguably, most) nutrition advice on the internet is misleading, inaccurate or STRAIGHT UP GARBAGE. That being said, it doesn’t always look like or read like garbage. Many people are passionate about certain nutrition trends, and they fully believe what they write. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make pseudoscience true. Smart people are fooled by diet culture every day. It is persuasive and compelling, and everyone is vulnerable to it. Never be ashamed that you tried something you thought could help, however; from here on- let’s stop throwing spaghetti at the wall and hoping it sticks. Let’s treat nutrition intentionally. Let’s stop throwing money at armchair experts, Julie’s cousin, or 16-year-old influencers.

Instead, invest in your personal nutrition journey. Figure out what is happening in YOUR body. Figure out what will work for YOU. Registered dietitians are credentialed nutrition experts who treat nutrition as their profession. Most importantly, they prescribe individualized nutrition plans based on your symptoms, labs, experiences, preferences, and lifestyle.

Randomly cutting out gluten or trusting the advice of a not credentialed practitioner is like throwing spaghetti at the wall. If you are already spending $12,000 on a cycle of IVF, it makes sense to invest in a professional who can increase your odds of conception and a healthy outcome. If you’re hoping to avoid IVF, it makes sense to invest in nutrition as well. Furthermore, even if your nutrition journey does not end in conception, few people regret investing in their health.

Given the increased chances of taking home a healthy baby, and the possibility of saving thousands of dollars, I hope you understand why I believe targeted, individualized nutrition therapy is just as important as ART. Given the price of nutrition compared to ART, investing in your nutrition journey just makes sense whether you’re using reproductive technology or not.

If you are wondering if nutrition could increase your chances of conceiving, feel free to reach out. I offer free consultations with no pressure or expectation that you work with me further. My goal is to help women and couples do what they can with nutrition to maximize their chances of bringing home a healthy baby.

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