Do Grains Belong in Your Fertility Diet?


If we asked 10 people what the foundation of a healthy diet should be, we’d be willing to bet that 8 or 9 of them would give us some variation of “healthy whole grains!” After all, most of us grew up with the USDA food pyramid (now MyPlate) as the picture of an ideal diet. Following conventional nutrition advice would mean that the average American is probably getting 6-10 servings of grains each day and, according to the USDA MyPlate recommendations, only half of these grains need to be whole grains.

So, what’s the problem with eating this many grains? Well, there are several, actually.

Too Many Carbohydrates

According to a recent study from 2015, 52% of the U.S. adult population is either diabetic or prediabetic and many of these people remain undiagnosed. Clearly, we need to be more concerned about our blood sugar! Maintaining healthy blood sugar and insulin levels is also critical for optimizing our fertility (read more about that in this post). Unfortunately, following a grain-based diet is not doing our blood sugar any favors.

Even whole grains, although vastly more nutritious and far less damaging to our blood sugar, should not be consumed in large quantities due to their very high carbohydrate content. This is especially true for people who are already showing signs of poor blood sugar regulation or women who have PCOS. The reality is that ALL carbohydrate foods raise blood sugar (obviously, some more than others). We need to be conscious of this and work toward balance when building our meals.

Now, you may not be diabetic or prediabetic, but that doesn’t mean that your blood sugar is well-controlled. Signs of poor blood sugar regulation include:

  • Being hungry within an hour or two of eating

  • Headaches, shakiness, or irritability between meals

  • Afternoon sleepiness

  • Reliance on caffeine or sugar to get through the day

  • Craving sweets

  • Excessive appetite or binge eating

  • Waking up in the middle of the night and having trouble getting back to sleep

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms or if you suffer from PCOS, you would be wise to consider reducing grains in your diet and adding in more healthy protein and fat sources to help balance your blood sugar. Any grains you do consume should be 100% whole and eaten in small side-dish portions.

Not Enough Nutrients

A common defense of a grain-based diet is that grains are high in fiber and provide us with essential nutrients. Although it’s true that grains do contain some beneficial fiber and nutrients, you will actually get more fiber and WAY more essential nutrients by eating non-starchy vegetables, low-sugar fruits, nuts, and seeds. You will also naturally consume fewer calories and carbohydrates and experience better blood sugar control.

For instance, we can get more fiber (as well as fewer carbohydrates and calories) from eating a serving of broccoli than we can from eating a slice of whole wheat bread. The broccoli also provides a healthy dose of beta carotene, calcium, vitamin C, iron, magnesium, and B vitamins that we won’t get from that slice of bread. This example essentially rings true for all non-starchy vegetables compared to grains.

When we eat a heavily grain-based diet, we leave less room on our plates and in our stomachs for more nutrient-dense, fertility-boosting foods.

Hard to Digest

Grains are the seeds of grass plants and the reason plants make seeds it to make new plants! For this reason, nature has equipped plants with some pretty interesting ways of protecting their seeds from damage so they are able to eventually reproduce. Unfortunately, this includes protection from digestion.

The two primary substances that make grains harder to digest are digestive enzyme inhibitors and phytic acid. Digestive enzyme inhibitors do exactly what their name suggests: they inhibit the activity of our digestive enzymes. This prevents us from being able to properly break down grains to access their nutrition. Undigested grain starches can irritate the gut lining and preferentially feed the wrong types of gut bacteria. A properly functioning gut lining and balanced gut bacteria are both extremely important to fertility because they regulate nutrient absorption from our food and also keep the immune system healthy.

Phytic acid is problematic because it binds to minerals like calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, and zinc in the outer layer and bran of grains. When these minerals are bound up by phytic acid, they aren’t available for absorption. Consuming large quantities of foods high in phytic acid can actually result in mineral deficiencies, especially when these foods replace other mineral-rich foods in our diets, such as vegetables. All of these minerals, especially calcium, iron, and zinc, are needed to support fertility and a healthy pregnancy. Although phytic acid in smaller quantities has been shown to have some protective mechanisms in the body, it is important to avoid consuming excessive amounts.

One way to reduce your exposure to digestive enzyme inhibitors and phytic acid WITHOUT eliminating grains is to simply change the way you prepare these foods. Soaking grains in water overnight before cooking them, or even allowing them to sprout over the course of a few days, can “predigest” them and neutralize some of the phytic acid. These techniques will allow you to digest your grains better and absorb more nutrition from them. Soaking and sprouting, though slightly time-consuming, are very easy to do and you can find simple instructions online for how to get started.

That said, if you have any known issues with your digestive system or if you experience uncomfortable digestive symptoms like acid reflux, bloating, gas, cramping, pain, constipation, or diarrhea, you may want to consider significantly reducing or eliminating grains while you work with a qualified practitioner on rebalancing your gut.

Common Sensitivity

There has been a lot of discussion in recent years regarding sensitivities to grains, especially grains containing a protein called gluten. Though the subject is controversial in the media, quality scientific studies have demonstrated that non-celiac gluten sensitivity DOES exist and that it can cause serious problems for some people.

Contrary to what you may have heard or read elsewhere, problems with gluten encompass more than just digestive discomfort and can also include:

  • Neurological or behavioral issues

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Headaches or migraines

  • Joint pain, swelling, or stiffness

  • Skin problems

  • Autoimmunity

  • Unexplained infertility!

Check out this review and linked studies to dig into the science behind gluten sensitivity. If you suspect that you’re gluten-sensitive, you should first be properly evaluated for celiac disease. If you do not have celiac disease, you can try completely eliminating gluten from your diet for at least 30 days to see how your body responds. If you notice a flare of symptoms after reintroducing it, you would probably benefit from long-term elimination, as well as an in-depth look at your gut health with an experienced practitioner.

Aside from gluten, which only occurs in certain grains like wheat, barley, rye, and triticale, there are two other potentially problematic substances that occur in all grains: prolamins and agglutinins. Both of these compounds (which are subtypes of a larger group of molecules called lectins) have been shown in studies to interact strongly with our intestinal lining, causing damage that can allow large molecules of incompletely digested food into the bloodstream. This is known as increased intestinal permeability, or “leaky gut”.

When large molecules enter the bloodstream through a leaky gut, the immune system flags them as foreign and responds quickly with inflammation. This inflammation may be isolated to a certain area or organ system or it may also be systemic. Certain people may even begin to develop an immune response to their own tissues, which will eventually lead to autoimmune disease. Increased intestinal permeability is now recognized as a precursor to the development of all autoimmune diseases!

Both general inflammation and autoimmunity can cause oxidative stress in the body, which negatively impacts female and male fertility. Oxidative stress is linked to poor egg and sperm quality, impaired fertilization and implantation, lowered IVF success rates, and increased miscarriage risk. Autoimmune disease that affects the thyroid or ovaries will also directly increase the risk of infertility and miscarriage.

Inflammation is also a hallmark of endometriosis, which is one of the most common causes of fertility problems in women. Endometriosis is even thought by many in the scientific community to have an autoimmune component, which means that it is likely significantly influenced by leaky gut. Research shows that 12 months on a gluten-free diet significantly improves pain, quality of life, and other health markers in women with endometriosis.

If you have any of the gluten-related symptoms discussed above, a diagnosed or suspected autoimmune condition, endometriosis, or symptoms of digestive upset, we highly recommend eliminating gluten from your diet for at least 30 days to see how you feel. You may also want to consider eliminating all grains on a trial basis, due to their ability to damage the gut lining.

Now, we know this is a touchy subject for many people and that there is a lot of cultural stigma around being “gluten-free” or “grain-free”. But, ultimately, it is YOUR body and YOUR health and YOU know best. If you feel better not eating gluten or other grains, then don’t eat them and don’t let anyone make you feel bad about it!

So, what’s the ultimate verdict on grains?

Honestly, although we’ve discussed a lot of potential reasons to reduce or avoid grains, we’re not inherently anti-grain. Everyone is different and each person’s ability to tolerate or benefit from the consumption of whole grain should be considered on an individual basis.

For people with robust digestive systems who do not suffer from chronic inflammatory symptoms, blood sugar problems, PCOS, endometriosis, or autoimmunity, grains can be a decent side-dish and a good source of fiber. However, non-starchy vegetables, low-sugar fruits, nuts, and seeds are generally healthier and more nutrient-dense choices.

If you are able to consume grains, it is still a great idea to soak or sprout them prior to cooking to enhance digestion and nutrient absorption. We also want to stress that we DO NOT recommend consuming processed or refined grains because they contain essentially zero nutrition and can wreak havoc on blood sugar and fertility.

Bottom line: if you’re eating a grain-based diet, you probably need to consider cutting back in favor of more nutrient-dense foods, especially if you are trying to get pregnant or are struggling with infertility. If you have any of the specific health problems discussed above, you really should cut out gluten and possibly all grains, at least temporarily. Beyond that, it’s all bioindividual!

Kristin Cornett, NTP