This post was contributed by Registered Nurse/Midwife and Gestational Diabetes Educator, Jenny van Gemert MNurs GDipMid GDipEd (Insta).
It may be difficult (and frustrating) to hear but did you know that weight loss may represent one of the best ways to improve your chances of having a baby? While weight gain is considered a good sign during pregnancy, carrying excess weight before you are pregnant can actually make you less fertile. That’s because extra weight can disrupt the balance of insulin and other hormones in your body, leading to ovulatory issues (your ability to release an egg from your ovaries each month).
Interestingly, weight loss doesn’t always have to be drastic in order to improve fertility. Research has shown that even a 5% drop in body weight can greatly increase a woman’s chances of falling pregnant.1 That’s not to mention the many other benefits linked to losing weight, such as a reduced risk of conditions like diabetes and heart disease, and a lower rate of complications once you do become pregnant.2
However, when you are having difficulty conceiving, attempting to lose weight on top of this may seem like an impossible task. You may also be confused about the best way to go about losing weight and be worried about how long it could take you to achieve the weight loss your doctor recommends. The first thing to remember is that you are not alone in this – many women struggle with both their fertility and weight.3 The good news is that a little persistence and determination can go a long way in helping you achieve your goals. Being aware of how important weight loss is for improving your chances of having a baby may well be all the motivation you need to finally shed some of those extra kilos.
Where to start?
The best place to start is to understand that the key to weight loss is to lower your calorie intake (decrease the amount of energy you take in through food and drink) while increasing your physical activity levels (so that you burn off more energy). To achieve weight loss, ‘energy in’ must be less than ‘energy out’. We discuss some strategies for achieving this below.
Change the way you eat
For many years, the low-fat diet was the most widely-accepted and recommended weight loss method. However, recent studies have raised some questions around the long-term effectiveness of this diet, shining light on the low-carb diet as a better option for weight loss.4,5,6
As the name implies, a low-carbohydrate or ‘low-carb’ diet involves eating fewer carbohydrates, such as those found in starchy vegetables, fruits and grains. Lowering your carbohydrate intake decreases the amount of insulin your body releases in response to food. This prompts your body to burn through its fat stores for energy, resulting in weight loss.
Eating low-carb doesn’t mean eating no carbs – it’s all about moderation and making better choices, e.g. choosing to have a slice of grainy bread, rather than a large white roll. In general, a low-carb diet involves eating foods that are protein-rich (chicken, salmon), high in ‘good’ fats (like nuts and avocado) and low in starch (cauliflower versus potato). Unlike many fad diets, a low-carb diet can be much easier to stick to because it allows you to eat a variety of foods. After a while, you may even find that it just becomes the way you eat rather than a diet per se, making it easier to sustain a healthy weight over the long-run (including during and after a pregnancy!).
When you choose a low-carb diet, you’ll naturally avoid foods and drinks that are high in sugar, including fruit juice, soft drinks, lollies, cakes and biscuits. You’ll also tend to eat much smaller portions of starchy vegetables like potatoes, pumpkin and corn. Avoiding sneaky ‘side carbs’ like naan bread, bread rolls, corn chips and garlic bread can also be very helpful for triggering weight loss. If you’re serving rice and pasta dishes, a good tip is to put more of the sauce (filled with meat and vegetables) on your plate rather than the carbohydrate.
The more familiar you become with a low-carb diet, the more you’ll learn about tasty, low-carbohydrate alternatives (e.g. cakes made from almond or hazelnut meal rather than flour). Over the longer term, you may even find that you prefer these options. But when you’re just starting out, avoid temptation by being extra careful with what you put in your shopping trolley and by avoiding supermarket runs on an empty stomach! And remember that home-cooked meals are often better than shop-bought, packaged foods, which tend to be higher in sugar and other chemicals.
What else can you do to trigger weight loss and improve your fertility?
- Increase your level of physical activity – resistance exercise and cardio are great but also try to work coincidental exercise in whenever you can, e.g. taking the stairs, parking further from your destination so you walk more, doing squats every time you visit the toilet. Be mindful that high-intensity exercise can affect your menstrual cycle.
- Get enough sleep – studies show that poor sleep is one of the strongest factors affecting weight gain because sleep deprivation impacts the daily fluctuations in appetite hormones.7
- Fast intermittently – intermittent fasting involves interchangeable periods of fasting and eating. It has been linked to weight loss and numerous other health benefits.8
- Eat more fibre – foods high in fibre may help with weight loss by delaying stomach emptying and increasing feelings of fullness.9
- Practise mindful eating – this involves making conscious food choices while developing a greater awareness of your feelings of fullness and hunger. It has been shown to help with weight loss, particularly if you tend to binge or engage in emotional eating.10
- Choose foods that are good for fertility – these include vegetables, protein and healthy fats.
The bottom line
Research shows that weight loss can have a dramatic impact on a woman’s ability to fall pregnant. A healthy weight will also set you up for a healthy pregnancy and ensure you give your baby’s health the best start in life. If you have concerns about your fertility or the role your weight or other factors may be playing in your ability to conceive, you can make an appointment with me by calling (03) 9418 8299 or by booking online.
- Balen AH et al. Hum Fertil. 2007;10:195–206. ↩︎
- Ma C et al. BMJ. 2017;359: j4849. ↩︎
- Australian Bureau of Statistics. National Health Survey: First Results, 2017–18. ↩︎
- McClemon FJ et al. Obesity. 2007;15:182–187. ↩︎
- Tobias DJ et al. Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol. 2015;12:968–979. ↩︎
- Foster GD et al. N Engl J Med. 2003;348:2082–2090. ↩︎
- Nedeltcheva MD et al. Ann Intern Med; 2010;153:435–441. ↩︎
- Alirezaei M et al. Autophagy. 2010;6:702–710. ↩︎
- Rebello CJ et al. Nutr J. 2014;28:49. ↩︎
- Katterman SN et al. Eat Behav. 2014;15:197–204. ↩︎