Know Your Macros – Protein and fertility

Sue bedford (MSc Nutritional Therapy)

Why Do We Need Protein?

Proteins are the structural building elements for practically all body cells and tissues, including egg and sperm cells. Protein is important in the body for many reasons such as the growth and repair of body cells, maintaining our skin, hair, eyes, the production of enzymes, in red blood cells,  hormones, for healthy muscles and bones, and helping balance blood sugar levels (essential for pretty much every bodily function). Proteins, it goes without saying, are extremely vital. Proteins also provide fuel for our bodies’ energy requirements. In relation to fertility,  both the amount and quality of protein consumed are important.

How Much Protein Do I Need to Eat on a Daily Basis?

We don’t require large portions of protein. Roughly about 0.75g of protein per kilo of body weight per day is ideal. For the average woman, this means around 45g and for men, it’s around 55g. It is safe to have a little more than this if you are very active, pregnant, breastfeeding, or over 65 years old. That roughly translates to two palm-sized portions of fish, nuts, meat, or tofu. However, on average many people in the western world consume almost double that on a daily basis.

What are some good sources of protein?

Good sources of protein include meat, fish, dairy products, beans, seeds, and nuts.

What are proteins made up of and are there different types of protein?

Proteins are made up of amino acids. Our bodies can make some amino acids (non-essential amino acids) but not others – we need to eat these for the body to acquire them (essential amino acids). High biological value proteins (HBV) have all the essential amino acids that we require- these are mainly found in animal sources eg meat, fish and dairy. Quinoa and soya beans are also examples of HBV proteins. Low biological value proteins (LBV) are missing one or more of the essential amino acids we need. They are only found in plant sources such as beans, lentils, nuts, peas, and seeds and in smaller amounts in veggies. You can combine different LBV proteins (protein complementation) to get all of your essential amino acids eg hummus and pitta, and when combined they provide all of the essential amino acids.

Can excessive protein intake affect health and fertility?

As many people obtain their daily protein from meat, one of the main issues of concern is that this may mean higher consumption of saturated fat, and some processed meats contain nitrates and sodium which are linked to heart disease and other potential health issues. Try to spread your protein intake throughout the day and include some protein at each meal and when eating food containing carbohydrates as this will help to regulate blood sugar and prevent it from spiking.

In terms of fertility, there is some evidence to suggest that women who consume a lot of protein on a daily basis are more likely to struggle with ovulatory infertility than women who consume less protein. Ovulatory problems have been recognised as the cause of infertility in roughly 20% of women who are unable to conceive. The majority of such occurrences, according to researchers, may be avoided by changing one’s diet and lifestyle. Infertility is also 39 percent more common in women who consume a lot of animal protein, according to a Harvard School of Public Health study. Women who ate mostly plant-based protein, on the other hand, were much less likely to be diagnosed with ovulatory infertility. Processed meat avoidance is thought to be highly protective against ovulatory dysfunction. When plant-derived protein made up 5% of a woman’s total calorie intake, the likelihood of ovulatory problems was decreased in half, according to the findings of this study. As a result, increasing your intake of plant-based protein sources (beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and tofu) may amplify fertility. If you choose to eat animal protein, ensure that all meats and poultry are grass-fed and free-range, and have not been treated with any antibiotics or hormones. Grain-fed beef is higher in saturated fat than grass-fed, which leads to more inflammation in the body. Synthetic antibiotics and hormones may also disrupt fertility.

It’s also worth noting that some health specialists believe eggs are an exception to the current views regarding animal protein in a pre -conception diet. The source of this misunderstanding is the cholesterol content in eggs. Dietary cholesterol is used to make all of the body’s steroid hormones (cortisol, DHEA, testosterone, oestrogen, and progesterone). The body can’t make or keep appropriate levels of reproductive hormones if it doesn’t have enough “building blocks.” Choline, a vitamin that aids in the prevention of birth abnormalities, is abundant in eggs. It also aids in the development of a baby’s brain function.

Want to read more?

Chavarro JE, Rich-Edwards JW, Rosner BA, Willett WC. Protein intake and ovulatory infertility. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2008 Feb;198(2):210.e1-7. doi: 10.1016/j.ajog.2007.06.057. PMID: 18226626; PMCID: PMC3066040.

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