Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Fertility and Traditional (Middle Eastern) Diets - Part One

Did you know that Palestinians have one of the highest fertility rates in the world? 

In the last twenty years, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have averaged from 6.5 births per woman to the most recent statistics of 4.92 births per woman (World Bank) .

That's a lot of babies. 

And while there are a number of driving forces behind this number, including political, cultural and socio-economic forces, I can't help but conclude that Palestinians, as a whole, are gifted in the area of fertility.  The fact that we are able to achieve these record high fertility rates, when so many other people in other countries struggle with fertility is something that has always caused me to wonder if there is something in the water, so to speak.

In fact, when my husband and I were trying to conceive for the first time, and were unsuccessful for a year, I clung to this comforting thought:  Palestinians have one of the highest fertility rates in the world!  Surely, my body knows how to do this!  And yet, even though we were young and healthy, we struggled to conceive. 

In the end, it wasn't until I changed my diet, (and though I didn't know it at the time) moved towards a more traditional diet by adding in more full-fat products, and gained a little weight that I was able to very rapidly become pregnant. 

That was probably my first real-food lesson:  what I eat dramatically impacts my biology.  Conventional nutritional wisdom had failed me.  I was trying to achieve an "ideal" weight before conceiving, and I was eating what most people would consider a very healthful diet, with little fat, but lots of vegetables and fruit and lean protein.  When I followed conventional nutritional wisdom (low fat, low calorie, low carb, etc.), I became thin, and when I was thin, I thought I was healthy.  But I wasn't healthy.  And while I received a lot of compliments on how "healthy" I looked when I was in America, a trip back to the West Bank at the time was a completely different story.  Woman after woman asked me if I was sick, told me that I needed to gain weight, told me to eat, handed me plates of bread and lamb and salads and yogurt, and told me to eat my fill. Inwardly rolling my eyes, I still took the plates and ate.  A few months later, I became pregnant. 

Fast forward to today.  Now I eat a diet much closer to the way my ancestors ate.  I eat a wide range of traditional foods, including plenty of full-fat milk, cream, butter, ghee, yogurt and olive oil.  I drink fermented milk kefir or kombucha, and eat plenty of grassfed organic meats, vegetables, fruits, and also grains and legumes, but prepared like my mother and grandmother did, by soaking or fermenting them.  Like my grandmother, I supplement with cod liver oil.

And I am happy to say that now, fertility is no longer a struggle for me.   My fertility, instead of waning as I age, is more robust than ever!

In fact, I am thrilled to announce that we are expecting our third child this fall!

Could the switch to a traditional diet have had an impact on my fertility?  Absolutely. 

You see, traditional cultures who valued fertility, and who did not have a medical or scientific route to fertility, used the only tool that they had at their disposal:  food.  And since most traditional cultures have spent more time raising animals, they know that a healthy, robust mother produces healthy, robust young, who, if fed properly, will grow into healthy robust adults.

Now, I know that the struggle with infertility is a painful and solitary one and that those who suffer infertility often struggle with the feeling that it is their "fault" somehow, and that they "caused" their infertility, and this grieves me.  I know that they are assaulted by copious amounts of contradicting information, some of which feels accusatory, and others which over simplifies the complexities of their individual bodies.

That's why I approach this topic with humility.  Yes, I do believe in the wisdom of generation upon generation of traditional cultures.  I do see compelling modern information that corroborates this wisdom.  I have found benefit in my own life.  But ultimately, as I have said before, I know that I believe that there is something mysterious about the way food sustains and feeds us. As much information as you can find about food (and there is a lot!), I think that we still eat by faith, much like the Israelites did in the desert, when they ate the bread of heaven and called it "manna," or "what is it?"

In my next post, I will talk about a few foods that I believe are particularly beneficial for fertility.  Stay tuned!


  1. Congratulations on new life! So happy for you and your family. Looking forward to your future posts... =)

  2. Hello,
    Congrats on the good news of your third child. I wanted to tell you that I tried your recipe for baklava. I made it to take to our annual Sedar Meal that we in our church group have been celebrating for almost 20 years. It was a major hit. I thank you for sharing it. I made mine with pistachios but followed your recipe as close as possible. I used orange blossom honey as well. I look forward to trying other recipes that you have posted. Thank you and God Bless you.
    Troy Byrom

    1. Thank you!

      I am so glad to hear that your baklawa turned out beautifully and your version, with pistachios and orange blossom honey, sounds absolutely divine. Sahtain and God bless! Thank you for telling me how it turned out!

  3. MABROUK MABROUK MABROUK, how exciting! I will make virtual moghli for you when the time comes :)

    That is beautiful news and I must say this is my favorite post of the week. We Palestinians are fertile people - we are from fertile land and our traditional diet (all that glorious olive oil, olives, yogurt, lamb, etc) is, as you said, prime nutrition for the body.

    We are going to start 'trying' next year (kind of scary, what!) and are spending this year really getting back to basics of nutrition as you've described.

    Again, so happy for you. Congratulations!

  4. Congratulations!! What an exciting post. I smiled the whole time reading it! I am so happy for you and your whole family!

  5. This post is so beautiful. Congratulations on your wee one!! <3

  6. Hi Jessica! Finally I've found the article that I've been looking for. Thank you! I've always mesmerized by the beautiful and intelligent children of Palestine. Always wondering, what kind of food their mother fed them. Yet I still feel that Palestine is a blessed land. Will try the recipe one day. By the way, love lamb!


Trying this recipe? A question or a comment? I'd love to hear from you!