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Does Being Vegetarian Hurt Your Chances of Having a Baby?

Katrina Wharton | 2, November 2014


Vegetarians usually have better health outcomes, and indeed, that's usually the motivation behind the lifestyle. Researchers noted that Seventh Day Adventists live an average of ten years longer than most Americans who eat meat. They decided to see how sperm quantity and quality in this healthy vegetarian group to meat-eaters. They expected to see better sperm quality among the vegetarians. However, the results surprised researchers at Loma Linda Medical Center in Southern California.

The researchers targeted an area in southern California where a large population of Seventh-Day Adventists live. People of this faith believe meat is impure, and only eat a vegetarian diet as part of a healthy lifestyle. The study looked at sperm samples from 443 meat eaters, 5 vegans and 26 vegetarians.

The four year study found that the vegetarians had a significant difference in sperm, but not in the way anticipated. Meat eaters had an average of 70 million sperm per mL compared to 50 million for the vegetarians. What's worse, the vegetarians' sperm also had much lower motility, with only a third of their sperm being active, compared to 60 percent of the meat-eater's sperm.

Dr. Eliza Orzylowska, an OB from Loma Linda University Medical Center in California, stated about the research, "We found that diet does significantly affect sperm quality. Vegetarian and vegan diets were associated with much lower sperm counts than omnivorous diets."

She continued on to say, "Although these people are not infertile, in is likely to play a factor in conception, particularly for couples who are trying to conceive naturally. The old fashioned way."

Possible Reasons Vegetarians Have Lower Sperm

We know a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains is a healthy one. We also know limiting meats to lean cuts and portions that are appropriate is important. But why would a vegetarian diet, one that is balanced, affect sperm quality? Researchers and other medical professionals have a few theories on this.

One possible culprit is soy. Soy is a mainstay in many veggie diets, but soy is known to be a phytoestrogen, which may affect fertility. For this reason, the researchers from the Loma Linda study recommend limiting soy prior to trying to conceive.

"It's hard to tell people not to be vegetarians if they are trying to conceive, but I would caution against using soy, at least for 74 days beforehand, which is the time it takes for sperm to be replaced," said Dr. Orzylowska.

Another possible fertility connection with vegetarians may be vitamin B12 deficiency. Being deficient in any important vitamin or nutrient can impact reproductive health, and many vegetarians are known to struggle to keep vitamin B12 levels up.

However, another study found a compelling possible explanation for the lowered sperm in vegetarians; pesticides. Harvard University conducted a study of men who visited Massachusetts General Fertility Center, and looked at 155 men who were at the clinic between 2007 and 2012. Those who ate the most fruits and vegetables had 70 percent lower sperm quality and 68 percent lower sperm motility than meat eaters.

Dr. Jorge Chavarro of Harvard and one of the study authors pointed out that, "On the one hand, fruit and vegetables may have a positive effect on fertility, especially fruits very high in antioxidants."

He continued to say that the other side of the coin is that pesticides could have opposing effects, however.

What this Means for You

While the final word is still not out on what is best for a man's fertility diet, some general guidelines can be gathered from the research so far. Avoiding soy products when preparing to pursue pregnancy seems wise for potential fathers. Also, don't forgo fruits and veggies; just make sure you eat those with lower pesticide residue, or for those foods that have the most potential for pesticide residue, opt for organic.

To that end, check out the lists of the dirty dozen, or the foods noted to be highest in pesticides.

  • Apples
  • Strawberries
  • Grapes
  • Celery
  • Peaches
  • Spinach
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Imported nectarines
  • Cucumbers
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Imported snap peas
  • Potatoes

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