Monday, May 5, 2014

Fertility and Traditional (Middle Eastern) Diets - Part Two

In my last post, I shared my fertility story, and described the impact that changing my diet had on my fertility.

I asked: is it possible that eating a more traditional diet, particularly a diet that has produced generation upon generation of Palestinians, supports fertility?  After looking at some of the recent research on fertility diets, here is what I found.  Here are some common components to fertility diets, with a short explanation of their benefits, and how they fit into a Middle Eastern cuisine.

{Disclaimer: I am not a nutritionist or a medical professional, so please consult a medical professional if you have any concerns about your fertility.  Not all fertility issues can be resolved through diet.  Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health who have studied this topic have concluded that diet can have a positive impact on those who struggle with some infertility (ovulatory dysfunction and possible endometrial problems), but other causes of infertility do not respond to dietary changes. To read more about their findings, find the link at the bottom of the page.}

1.  Eat and Drink Full-Fat Dairy

Do you know that skim milk and other low-fat dairy products actually promote infertility? Modern studies agree: full-fat dairy increases fertility, but low-fat dairy actually decreases fertility!  Women who ate two or more servings of low-fat dairy foods had an 85% increased chance of adulatory infertility problems.  (Listen to an interview with these Harvard researchers here, see another study here.). So even though the American public has been warned repeatedly about the dangers of natural saturated fat, and urged to drink low-fat or skim milk, women who wish to become pregnant are now encouraged to consume one serving of full-fat dairy every single day.

Why is this? Researchers are not sure, but they posit that fat-soluble hormones in the milk play a role in ovulation. We do know that since we need an ample supply of vitamins A, D, E and K to achieve pregnancy, and since these vitamins are fat-soluble, it is extremely important that you have a good source of fat for your body to be able to absorb them.

If you are on a low-fat diet, I think that this is the first change that you should make.  Ditch all of the low-fat dairy products and opt for high quality, full fat diary foods every day. Organic, hormone-free, whole, grassfed milk products will give you the most benefits, and if you can find a source for raw or low-temperature pasteurized dairy, that is even better.  Opt for butter, not artificial spreads, whole milk and whole milk yogurt and cheeses, real cream, and homemade, naturally-sweetened ice cream.  When I was growing up in the Middle East, we drank whole milk, ate full fat plain yogurt at most meals, and ate whole milk yogurt cheese (labaneh), and whole milk farmers cheese (jibneh baida) regularly, and even enjoyed cups of cultured cream (shemenet). 

2.  Eat a "Clean" Diet

Eating a "clean" diet is not a trend, after all, but a return to eating the way that your grandparents, great-grandparents ate, and the foods that grew generation upon generation of people.

Ditch the processed foods.  Processed foods of all kinds are deleterious to your health, and we are just beginning to understand their profound impact on fertility.  Preservatives, food coloring, food conditioners, artificial flavorings, artificial sweeteners, refined foods - the list goes on and on and on.   If it isn't good for growing children, it probably isn't good for growing children!

Instead, opt for one-ingredient foods!  I think that the simplest (though not the easiest!) approach to eating a clean diet is to try to fill your grocery cart with what I call "one-ingredient foods."  Fresh produce, bags of unprocessed beans, legumes, nuts, and grains, and high quality meats and proteins, primarily fill my shopping cart.

When I shop this way, it reminds me of the way my parents shop for food in the Middle East. There is no one-stop shopping, but instead, they stop at the baker for fresh bread, the produce market for produce, the butcher for fresh meat.  The corner store sells eggs (unwashed, still dotted with feathers), milk (that always tastes of green onion in the spring, for the cows have been pastured!), and other pantry items.  But a lot of food is still purchased directly from its local source, and stored in bulk.  Olive oil, for example, is purchased directly from the olive growers, and can only be purchased once a year.  Jibneh baida, the farmer's white cheese, is also purchased in bulk, in milking season, and preserved for the year.

3.  Avoid Industrialized Oils 

Trans-fats are linked to ovulatory disorders (see study here), and really, can anything good come from eating them?  Moreover, avoid all industrially-processed vegetable oils, such as canola (rapeseed) oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, corn oil, and so on.  These highly processed polyunsaturated oils break down and oxidize rapidly when heated and produce massive amounts of free radicals, which damage our organs and cause widespread inflammation and disease.  Free radicals play a large role in male infertility, by the way, so this is also an important consideration for would-be fathers (see study here).  Studies with rats have shown feeding a rat even small amounts of these oils (only 1% of their diet!) resulted in adverse reproductive outcomes, and higher amounts (2%), caused a complete shutdown of reproductive function (see study here).  Incidentally, consuming these oils during pregnancy, is also problematic and studies show that it slowed development, and stunted growth of baby rats (see study here).  For this reason, and many others, I choose to avoid these oils.

Recently, these oils have crept into use in the West Bank, because they are so affordable.  But they are not traditional foods.  Traditional Middle Eastern cuisine actually uses butter and clarified butter (samnah or ghee) as the primary cooking fats, with olive oil as the main finishing oil, for salads and dips.  

4.  Balance Your Blood Sugar

A traditional Middle Eastern diet includes plenty of complex carbohydrates, always eaten in combination with fats, vegetables, and sometimes meat, which help to keep blood sugars in check.  We love roasted green wheat (freekeh) served with lamb, rice with chicken, eggplant and cauliflower, bulgar with parsley, olive oil and lemon.  Sweets, of course, were rare in a traditional diet, reserved for holidays.  Even today, most meals are concluded with a whole piece of fresh fruit, and a bowl of salted nuts.

It turns out that this is good news for fertility.

Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health have discovered that carbohydrates and sweeteners with a high glycemic index spike blood glucose levels and effect insulin production, which can in interfere with ovulation.  (See study here).  So, choose complex whole grain carbohydrates over processed, simple carbohydrates, and combine these with fats and proteins to stabilize blood sugars.

So, do eat properly treated grains, legumes, and beans, (learn more about treating your grains) and enjoy them with other sources of protein and fat.  Anybody want a piece of whole wheat bread, topped with labaneh, tomatoes and drizzled with olive oil?

5.  Build a Healthy Gut 

Our guts are made up of trillions and trillions of bacteria, which we call gut flora.  Many scientists now describe our guts as an "ecosystem" and are working to understand the connection between healthy gut flora and a person's overall health.  We know that we need to have a properly functioning gut in order to be able to absorb the nutrients from our foods, and prepare our bodies for pregnancy. But now, researchers are starting to understand that our digestive system and immune system are one integrated system (read more about this here).

What does this mean for your fertility?  It means that if you have any inflammatory disease, such as endometriosis, PCOS, uterine fybroids, or yeast infections, an improvement in gut health may improve your overall fertility.

There are many gut-healing protocols out there, but a few suggestions are to:
-trace and eliminate any food allergens, which lead to increased inflammation in the gut.
-slowly ramp up probiotic-rich foods:  cultured food or lacto-fermented foods, such as yogurt, sauerkraut, pickles and other vegetables, kefir and kombucha.

The Middle Eastern diet is rich in these probiotic foods!  Our traditional diet includes daily consumption of tangy, long-fermented yogurt, as well as fermented vegetables, such as pickles, eggplants, and peppers, and fermented drinks, such as water kefir and dairy kefir.  These foods (and other factors!) have most certainly supported the strong digestive health of Palestinians, which in turn lowers our levels of food intolerances and other immuno-response diseases.  Who knows, perhaps this has also influenced our high fertility rates?

What we do know is this:  food is powerful.  It has the power to reshape your health. Whether or not pregnancy is the goal, I think these foods have the potential to move you to better health, one delicious bite at time.

May these foods double your health.  

To read more on some of the above suggestions, check out: The Fertility Diet, by Jorge Chavarro and Walter C. Willett.

Related posts:  

Related Posts on Cultured Foods:


  1. You do such a wonderful job at explaining/teaching through your writing .... I can see why Josh still considers you his favorite teacher (aside from his dad :))

  2. How i got a cure for ENDOMETRIOSIS.

    I actually promised myself that i will do this because i never in life thought i would be cured of ENDOMETRIOSIS because my gynecologist told me there was no cure and because of this i could not take in and get pregnant. I had ENDOMETRIOSIS for 7 years and this was a big pain to me and my husband due to the downcast we felt for not having a child. I experienced irregular periods or no periods at all sometimes, heavy periods, painful intercourse. I seeked a cure from one doctor to the other used androgen, clomiphene, metformin and even traveled to different states to see other doctors to no avail. My husband got to know about Dr. ALeta via a testimony he read on the internet on how a woman got a cure and he contacted her with the contact she left. I got the herbal medication and used it for the speculated 3 months that was all i have a son who is just 8 months old. Do not give up just contact her on ( on how to get the herbal medication. Thanks and i wish you get cured soon too.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Wonderful illustrated information. I thank you about that. No doubt it will be very useful for my future projects. Would like to see some other posts on the same subject!


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