How to Optimize Your Fertility Diet
By Cutting Out Processed Foods

Written by: Dr. Ashley Eskew, MD, MSCI

Edited by: Dr. Will Haas, MD, MBA

Last updated: August 11th, 2020

Processed Food

Ever make it out of the grocery store WITHOUT a single pre-package food item? 

It’s tough not to reach for a food item or two that has been processed, especially with all the stress of our day-to-day hustle. 

Besides the convenience factor, they also just taste so delicious. 

And the more delicious and processed they are… the more likely that they’re impairing the full benefit of the pro-fertility diet that you’re trying so hard to implement. 

We totally get that eliminating ALL processed foods may not be possible, so let’s talk about the top 3 most common ones and just how you’re going to remove them without feeling deprived, or overwhelmed.

What are “processed foods?”

Processed foods are simply foods that have undergone some sort of transformation from its original form. 

That may seem vague, but think about it…

Do you think you could find that perfectly salted cheezy square growing on a plant in nature? Not so much.

Food processing can range from grinding grain to fermenting vegetables to the much more complex industrial methods employed to make convenience foods.

For the purposes of this blog we are focusing on “highly processed” convenience foods:

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    Bag of chips/pretzels/snack mix

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    Boxed cereals

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    Granola bars

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    Microwave ready meals

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    Sugar-sweetened sodas

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    Meats including hot dogs, pepperoni, beef jerky, deli meats etc

The 3 most common fertility-threatening processed foods

Sugar-sweetened beverages

It is estimated that the average American consumes just over 150 pounds of sugar per year which equates to 3 pounds of sugar per WEEK (or 6 cups or 773 calories! eek!)

We’re most accustomed to seeing sugar added to soda – unless of course you’re a diet cola kind of girl (more on that topic later…)

However, you’ll often see extra added sugar in some unsuspecting places like your favorite kombucha or fruit juice (as if the fruit wasn’t sweet enough to begin with). 

And as you may remember from our blog post on Minding Your Beverages, the number 2 ingredient in most regular sugar-sweetened sodas (second to carbonated water) is high fructose corn syrup. This food-like substance wreaks havoc on your body by overworking the glucose/insulin loop resulting in inflammation and hormonal imbalance.

Remember, consuming just one sugar-sweetened soda per day has been associated with:

Additionally, intake of as little as 1 serving per day has also been associated with a 12% reduction in IVF cycles resulting in a live birth.

So, if your trying to optimize your fertility, start by eliminating sugar-sweetened beverages:

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    Energy drinks

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    Sweet tea

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    Soda

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    Coffee beverages

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    Sports drinks

Of course, beverages are not the only guilty part. Other commons sources of hidden sugar include:

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    Canned fruit

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    Dried fruits

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    Ketchup

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    Yogurt

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    “Energy bars”

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    Low-fat or fat-free snack

But again, keep it simple with one simple lifestyle upgrade – ditch the sugar-sweetened beverages. It may seem like a small step, but it will have a big impact on reducing inflammation and hormonal disruption. 

Processed animal meat

Before the meat lovers in our community gasp, we aren’t about to tell you to stop eating meat. 

We are suggesting that you eliminate processed animal meat. 

Processed meat includes things like pepperonis, hot dogs, bratwurst, spam and bacon (yes, how dare we call out bacon).

As you may remember, we talked about the importance of swapping out animal meat for plant protein in our blog on the Decoding the Fertility Diet series (the one about protein).

When compared to consuming conventional animal meats, increased intake of plant-based sources of protein (like beans, nuts, legumes, tofu, and tempeh) has been associated with a lower risk of ovulatory infertility and a higher likelihood of clinical pregnancy and live birth following IVF.

Processed meat not only carries the same risk as conventional animal meat (like chicken, turkey etc), but when it’s processed it’s often full of other ingredients like sodium nitrite, hydrolyzed milk protein, dextrose (aka – sugar), corn syrup, carrageenan, xanthan gum, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and the like. 

These types of foods are somewhat inherently addictive due to these additives, which in our opinion, adds to the list of reasons but they’re best to avoid.

Cereal

Who doesn’t love a good bowl of cereal, right? 

Growing up, anything that had marshmallows in it was my favorite – and mostly just the marshmallows 🙂 

Now there are certainly some good choices out there when it comes to cereal, especially ones that are actually made with real whole grains (not just ground up wheat). 

And yes, almost all cereals are fortified with folic acid as you know from our post about that important fertility nutrient. 

But most cereals, like the ones I ate growing up, are also loaded with sugar and other additives (like yellow number 5, high fructose corn syrup, gelatin, modified corn starch etc.). Eww.

Not to mention, the majority of people eat cereal with low-fat or skim milk, which has been associated with an increased risk of ovulatory infertility as well.

So give your cereal a good look over and decide whether it’s supporting your fertility. 

Consider swapping it out for some homemade granola (now one of my favorite breakfasts!), slow cooked oats, overnight oats, chia pudding or the like. Strive for food combinations that are recognizable as their whole forms… not including a whole marshmallow 😉

5 quick tips to remove processed foods

five tips to remove processed foods

Tip #1: Start slow

We understand that it’s hard to break a habit or completely remove these 3 things overnight. 

So we encourage you to start slow – pick just one of these today to start cutting back on. 

If you feel like you do better with going “cold turkey” then by all means do so! 

For starters, maybe swap out your soda or your favorite energy drink for water today. Or have a club soda with fresh lemon squeezed in it instead. Or opt for a regular coffee with a little bit of honey instead of 30 grams of sugar.

If sugar isn’t your thing, swap out one serving of meat per day, or may two servings of meat per day! Or maybe go meatless for a week and see how you feel.

Instead of your favorite cereal, give overnight oats a try or perhaps some chia pudding. Whatever you decide for breakfast, choose something that’s filling and delicious, but doesn’t spike your sugar and isn’t filled with a bunch of additives. 

Ultimately, regardless of whatever speed you implement these changes, just get started! 

Tip #2: Read your ingredient labels

Here’s a quick exercise… Pick up a pre-packaged food and see how far into the ingredients list you make it before you reach something you can’t pronounce. 

Once you see all the additional fillers you’re consuming, it is a little easier to understand how certain foods make you feel pretty crummy and why opting for real, whole foods removes the guesswork. 

So next time you grab a pre-packed food, read the ingredient label. If you come across 5-10 ingredients you can’t pronounce or you don’t know what it is, put it back down. 

Tip #3: Clean out your pantry

Time to leave no stone unturned. 

Open the pantry, fridge, and freezer and take a good look around. What’s your ratio of real, whole foods to packaged and processed foods?

Is there a certain bag of chips or sweets you simply can’t resist? We challenge you to throw it out!

One of my biggest weaknesses used to be a cheesy salty snack mix. Did I eat it because it made me feel amazing afterward? Absolutely not. I most definitely felt worse after I ate it, but in the moment, when I was high on that artificial cheesy flavor, fat and salt it only left me wanting more.

Once I accepted it was literally doing NOTHING for my health (physical or mental) I decided I simply couldn’t keep that type of food in the house anymore. 

Tip #4: Focus on consuming real food

I used to be a BIG fan of food-like substances. Easy microwave meal with 500 calories or less? Sounds like that would be good for my weight loss plan… sign me up!

“Low-fat” energy bars made with “whole-grains” where the first ingredient is a sugar-like substance? Definitely had those for my post-lunch snack most days. They were supposed to give me energy, right?

Although these foods were cheap and convenient, they were wreaking havoc on my body… and certainly didn’t fill me up.

I couldn’t lose weight and I didn’t understand why. I was constantly dragging and kept blaming school or my job… anything but the choices I was making.

The single best thing I’ve ever done for my health is swap out these types of convenience, highly processed foods for real WHOLE FOOD.

But it certainly didn’t happen overnight. I too started small which helped me from getting overwhelmed.

I focused on purchasing fresh or frozen WHOLE vegetables and fruits (no more “fruit or fruit-juice added” for me.

I found simple swaps that still tasted delicious and were EASY to prepare: veggie noodles for traditional spaghetti noodles, quinoa or brown rice instead of white rice. I also finally gave up on my cheesy snack mixes and traded it for a handful of almonds or a piece of whole fruit instead.

Not only did I start losing weight without even trying (after YEARS of focusing on my weight and counting calories unsuccessfully) but I felt SO much better. More energy, less gastrointestinal upset, better sleep, all of it.

It required a little more effort at first, but once I got started, it became easier with each and every passing day.

Tip #5: Remove refined sweeteners 

Refined sugar is a sugar that has undergone a chemical process to remove the molasses that’s naturally found in it leaving you with sucrose. 

From a nutritional standpoint, refined sugar (white sugar) is lacking some minerals that are found in molasses including calcium, potassium, magnesium, and iron.

Unrefined sugars include things like honey, molasses, brown rice syrup, and maple syrup among others. When used in moderation they provide a little more nutrients than refined sugar and are easier for our bodies to digest.

Without a doubt one of the biggest inflammatory offenders is high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). HFCS is a sweetener made from corn starch that has commonly been used to replace refined table sugar because of its cheap cost and the ease of which it’s added into food.

And in case you’re curious, if you break down the nutritional content of HFCS you get 76% carbohydrate and 24% water… and that’s it. No healthy fats, protein or essential nutrients here.

So we suggest ditching refined sugars, especially HFCS.

Final Thoughts

There you have it, a few of the most fertility-threatening processed foods to remove and our top tips to make some sustainable changes over the long term.

If you stick to the principles of the Fertility Diet plate it becomes pretty easy to cut out processed foods. Focus on consuming whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and plant-based sources of protein at mealtime with healthy fats to top it off.

the fertility diet plate

For snacks, reach for a handful of walnuts or almonds, or a piece of whole fruit and nut butter or your favorite hummus with vegetables.

Most importantly… Read your labels. Clean out that pantry. And take one step at a time. 

We’ll be here cheering you on!

With Love & Empowerment,
Dr. Ashley Eskew and Dr. Will Haas
Whenever you’re ready, we're here to help you remove fertility-threatening foods from your diet so you too can increase your chances of getting pregnant.

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