Vegan diets are all the rage. Not only is going vegan considered to be one of the healthiest options out there, but if you can stick with it it can be worn as a badge of honour because anyone can attest that it is possibly the hardest diet to stick with long-term. I would argue that it is hard for a reason. A vegan diet involves zero animal products. No meat, no eggs, no dairy. It’s not easy to stop eating all animal products for good.
It is tempting to go down this road, especially for those who are concerned about minimizing our negative impact on the environment, and also concerned about animal rights. No one feels good after learning about the horrific treatment of animals in factory farms or after considering the amount of antibiotics and hormones that are given to animals for human consumption. Even I went vegan for a while because I was just too grossed out by the treatment of animals and I didn’t want to consume animal products that were laced with hormones and antibiotics.
Unfortunately what I didn’t know is the significant impact that diet has not only on health but fertility as well. A vegan diet deprives the body of nutrients that are essential during the baby making periods of life. In spite of all the information out there to the contrary, ensuring adequate intake of all the essential vitamins and minerals needed to grow a healthy baby while on a vegan diet isn’t even possible without supplementation. It’s hard enough to get enough nutrition from food in general without taking vitamins and supplements even when we eat meat, let alone when animal products are off the table.
There are several reasons why a vegan diet may negatively affect fertility and I have listed my top 6 below:
1. Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 works together with folate to produce red blood cells in the body (source). Millions of red blood cells are released into the bloodstream each day and to do this the body needs nutrients such as iron and vitamin B12 (source). Signs of B12 deficiency include:
- Mental fogginess and problems with memory (1)
- Shrinkage of brain tissue (2)
- muscle weakness
- cognitive decline (3)
- decreased mobility
In pregnant women, nursing women and infants B12 deficiency can be dangerous:
Among pregnant women, nursing women and infants, the effects of vitamin B12 deficiency can be particularly devastating. Pregnant women with B12 deficiency carry an increased risk of having a baby born with neural tube defects, a class of birth defects affecting the infant’s brain and spinal cord. Spina bifida, which can cause paralysis, is a type of neural tube defect, as is anencephaly, which is fatal. A B12 deficiency has also been linked to infertility and repeated miscarriages. If your diet doesn’t include animal products and you’re breastfeeding, your baby could also develop brain abnormalities due to a vitamin B12 deficiency (source).
The thing about B12 is that it is only found in animal sources:
B12 is the only vitamin that contains a trace element (cobalt), which is why it’s called cobalamin. Cobalamin is produced in the gut of animals. It’s the only vitamin we can’t obtain from plants or sunlight. Plants don’t need B12 so they don’t store it.
A common myth amongst vegetarians and vegans is that it’s possible to get B12 from plant sources like seaweed, fermented soy, spirulina and brewers yeast. But plant foods said to contain B12 actually contain B12 analogs called cobamides that block intake of and increase the need for true B12.
The effects of B12 deficiency on kids are especially alarming. Studies have shown that kids raised until age 6 on a vegan diet are still B12 deficient even years after they start eating at least some animal products (source).
Vitamin B12 is clearly essential for growing a healthy baby, and it is not possible to get enough B12 from a vegan or even vegetarian diets. Even people who eat meat on a regular basis can be deficient in vitamin B12. Something to consider when in those baby making years. The best food sources of vitamin B12 include organ meats like liver, kidneys and heart, eggs, poultry, beef, lamb, etc.
2. Vitamin A (retinol)
Vitamin A (retinol) plays an essential role in maintaining a healthy immune system, good eyesight (source), healthy skin and fertility (source). Although vitamin A can be derived from plant sources, the carotenes (such as beta-carotene) have to be converted into retinol in the body and as a result the most usable form of vitamin A is derived from animal sources (source). The best food sources of vitamin A include cod liver oil, liver, seafood, beef, poultry, eggs and dairy products.
Vitamin A is important in both male and female reproduction. In men, vitamin A helps the body to produce healthy sperm by aiding in spermatogenesis. In women, vitamin A is not only integral in the production of healthy ovum, facilitating implantation and sustaining pregnancy, but it is also integral in fetal development throughout pregnancy (source). Vitamin A plays a vital role in the development of fetal organs specifically the heart, the central nervous system, the circulatory system, and the skeletal system (source). Vitamin A deficiency in pregnancy can lead to either a malformation of any of these organs or systems or miscarriage if the fetus fails to develop normally. Vitamin A has also been implicated in the production of peak cervical mucus which is essential in ensuring the sperm survive long enough to reach the fallopian tubes for implantation (source) (source).
Although it is possible to get vitamin A from plant sources, vitamin A from animal sources such as cod liver oil and liver contain significantly higher levels of vitamin A in the form of retinol which the body can use readily because it does not need to be converted into a usable form. Not everyone is able to convert carotenoid forms of vitamin A (plant-based) to retinoid forms (usable vitamin A in the body), meaning that it is possible to eat lots of carrots and other plant-based sources of vitamin A and still be deficient (source).
When following a strict vegan diet, obtaining sufficient levels of vitamin A to support fertility and pregnancy may not be possible without supplementation, and given the integral role that vitamin A plays in fertility as well as growing healthy babies it is important to act accordingly. Another important fact is that supplementing with synthetic forms of vitamin A instead of relying on high quality animal food sources can increase the risk of vitamin A toxicity (source). When it comes to vitamin A and many other nutrients, food sources are often more beneficial than supplementing with synthetic versions.
3. Vegetable Oils/Industrial seed oils
It’s hard to be a vegan or vegetarian without eating processed food. Meat replacements like ‘veggie’ burgers, tofurky, imitation cheeses, vegan ‘butter’ spreads, vegan ‘cream cheese,’ and all the vegan snack food that comes in boxes in the health food section all fall under the umbrella of processed food. It can become kind of like a game to find food that tastes like the food you used to know and love but doesn’t contain meat or dairy. Somehow the vegan hype convinces the masses that highly processed food in packages and boxes is healthier than one ingredient foods like ‘butter,’ ‘eggs’ and ‘chicken’. Check out this link to 2 videos that show the difference between producing butter and producing canola oil for a jarring visual of the stark difference in the level of processing required to make vegetable oil and oil products like shortening and other vegetable oil spreads compared to making butter.
Back to the point, vegetable oils. All processed food contains some form of vegetable oil. Just read the labels. Canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, etc. Vegetable oils negatively impact fertility by causing inflammation in the body and disrupting the hormonal balance. Vegetable oils are highly refined unnatural oils that our bodies are just not meant to consume:
The fat content of the human body is about 97% saturated and monounsaturated fat, with only 3 % Polyunsaturated fats. Half of that three percent is Omega-3 fats, and that balance needs to be there. Vegetable oils contain very high levels of polyunsaturated fats, and these oils have replaced many of the saturated fats in our diets since the 1950s.
The body needs fats for rebuilding cells and hormone production, but it has to use the building blocks we give it. When we give it a high concentration of polyunsaturated fats instead of the ratios it needs, it has no choice but to incorporate these fats into our cells during cell repair and creation.
The problem is that polyunsaturated fats are highly unstable and oxidize easily in the body (if they haven’t already oxidized during processing or by light exposure while sitting on the grocery store shelf). These oxidized fats cause inflammation and mutation in cells.
When these oils are incorporated into cells in reproductive tissue, some evidence suggests that this can spur problems like endometriosis and PCOS. In short, the body is made up of saturated and monounsaturated fats, and it needs these for optimal health (source).
Not only do vegetable oils cause inflammation in the body but they do not provide the body with the necessary building blocks to create hormones thus contributing to an imbalance of hormones. Hormonal imbalances can lead to a number of fertility related issues including painful periods (dysmenorrhea), heavy bleeding during menstruation, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), estrogen dominance, and endometriosis. Optimal fertility depends on a balance of estrogen and progesterone in the body, and excessive consumption of vegetable oils does not support the body in maintaining a healthy hormone balance.
4. Saturated Fat
Cholesterol is required for the body to make hormones. Cholesterol is the precursor to all steroid hormones including estrogen and progesterone (source). Every cell in the body contains cholesterol, and cholesterol is what gives cells their stiffness and stability (source). In terms of fertility, cholesterol is required for the body to manufacture hormones and maintain proper hormone balance. Cholesterol is especially important for growing babies during pregnancy and breastfeeding to ensure proper development of the brain and nervous system (source).
There are vegan sources of saturated fat, specifically coconut oil and avocados, however beyond those two examples plant-based sources of saturated fat are limited. Given the importance of cholesterol for fertility and also for growing a healthy baby, it is important to consider the implications that not having sufficient dietary sources of saturated fat can have when trying to conceive as well as throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding. Sources of healthy saturated fats include grass-fed or organic butter, ghee, coconut oil, palm oil, meat, duck fat, lard, etc.
Without the addition of animal fats and full-fat dairy products in the diet it is possible when following a vegan diet not to get enough of these important healthy fats. Although much of the information available about diet and health would suggest that everyone should be avoiding saturated fat at all costs, it turns out that saturated fats play an integral role in fertility. A US study published in the journal Human Reproduction suggests that eating low fat dairy products can actually lower fertility while eating full fat dairy is associated with increased fertility (source). In fact, women who ate full-fat dairy foods once per day had a 25 % reduction in their risk of ovulatory disorders when compared to women who only ate full-dairy foods once per week (source).
In addition to the important role saturated fat plays in fertility, it is important to mention that saturated fats from animal sources contain invaluable fat soluble vitamins some of which are non-existent in plant-based fat sources. These fat soluble vitamins include vitamins A, D, and K2. As discussed above, pre-formed vitamin A in the form of retinol is found exclusively in animal products. Similarly, vitamin D comes from animal sources like cod liver oil, liver, organ meats, eggs and dairy products (and getting adequate sun exposure), and foods high in vitamin K2 include cheese, egg yolks, liver, poultry, butter, natto, fish eggs and other organ meats (source) (source).
It’s hard to be vegan without eating soy products. Whether it’s tofu, tempeh, dairy or meat alternatives, processed food with soy ingredients or soybean oil it is hard to be vegan without consuming soy products of some kind. When it comes to soy there is always conflicting information out there as to whether it is a health food or if it can be harmful. Here are a few reasons why relying on soy as a significant protein source in the diet can be problematic:
- Phytoestrogens – phytoestrogens are plant-derived xenoestrogens that have a similar effect to estrogen in the body (source). These phytoestrogens have been linked with infertility, cancer, and thyroid disease (source). According to a Swiss report, 100 mg isoflavones taken by adult women provide the estrogenic equivalent of a contraceptive pill (source). Phytoestrogens can contribute to estrogen dominance which is associated with a host of fertility problems (source).
- Phytic Acid – Soy contains high levels of phytic acid that impair the body’s ability to absorb minerals including zinc, iron, copper, calcium and magnesium and other nutrients (source).
- Traditional soy products differ greatly from modern day processed soy products – Traditional soy products underwent lengthy traditional preparation and/or fermentation processes that greatly reduced the levels of phytic acid and other anti-nutrients. Soy products were also traditionally consumed in small amounts and not as a primary source of protein in the diet (source).
- Genetic modification – most of the world’s soy products come from genetically modified crops. These crops are excessively sprayed with toxic pesticides that not only have a negative impact on our health, but also have a negative impact on the environment.
6. DHA/Omega 3 fats
Plant-based sources of Omega 3 fats are different to animal sources. ALA (about alpha-linolenic acid) is found in plant oils and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) are found in fish oils (source). They are referred to as essential fatty acids because they are essential but are not synthesized in the body and therefore must be obtained from food (source). Although Omega 3 fats (ALA) can be obtained from food sources, the body has to convert them into EPA and DHA, and human beings have a limited ability to convert short chain fatty acids (ALA omega 3 fats) into longer chain fatty acids (EPA and DHA omega 3 fats) (source) (source).
What does this all mean? What it boils down to is that it without consuming animal sources of essential omega 3 fatty acids such as fish, fish oils or animal based DHA supplementation, it is not possible to obtain sufficient amounts of these essential fatty acids from a vegan diet.
Why are omega 3 fats so important?
- Omega 3 fats play an essential role in reducing inflammation in the body by balancing the effect of omega 6 oils ( sources of omega 6 fats include vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, avocados, etc). The ideal consumption rate of omega 3 fats and omega 6 fats is in a ration of 1:1. Excessive omega 6 consumption without adequate omega 3 consumption to create this balance in the body is associated with an increase in inflammatory conditions as well as reduced fertility (source).
- DHA plays an important role in the neurological function and brain development of developing babies. A number of studies in both human infants and animals show a strong correlation between the intake of omega-3 oils, especially DHA, and cognitive function, visual acuity, and overall brain development (source).
- Studies have shown that omega-3 oils improve brain function, decrease inflammation, reduce the incidence of fatal heart attacks and ischemic strokes, improve the outcome of autoimmune diseases, and improve vision (source).
- Insufficient dietary omega 3 fatty acids are associated with an increase in conditions such as Alzheimer’s, psychiatric disorders, depression, memory, vision, and age-related memory decline (source).
In conclusion, it is important to consider the integral role diet plays in fertility and the development of healthy babies and children. In this day and age when so many people are struggling with fertility-related issues it is important to consider all of the factors that may be affecting fertility. It is possible that a vegan, vegetarian or even a typical North American diet could have a negative impact on fertility for so many different reasons. By no means am I suggesting that everyone should run out and eat unethically treated animals that are subjected to terrible living conditions. What I am suggesting is that it may be beneficial to include the cleanest, healthiest animal products available in a healthy diet. This would include local, organic, free-range eggs, organic dairy products, local meats from animals who are raised ethically and given access to pasture, organic or grass-fed meats, and local meats that are raised without the use of antibiotics and hormones. It is also beneficial purchase produce from local farmers who use traditional farming practices to minimize or eliminate the use of pesticides, and produce that is grown organically when possible.