Women are under an incredible amount of pressure from society to look a certain way. We’re constantly bombarded with messages that our worth is directly linked to our physical appearance even though what the “ideal” body looks like is also constantly changing. It’s a recipe for failure and a surefire way to preoccupy us with shrinking our bodies instead of living our lives. But did you know that there’s a connection between a strict diet and fertility, particularly Unexplained Infertility?
A fertility diet by any other name
The diet industry has become more and more insidious in its presentation in recent years: the whole “it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle” facade. While there’s no harm in educating yourself on healthy eating, it’s easy to take these guidelines too far.
The simple fact of the matter is that every person is unique and so no one way of eating is going to work for everyone. Be wary of any diet/lifestyle/cleanse that has extremely strict rules around what you can and cannot eat. Yes, it’s good to eat a diet that’s predominantly plants and whole foods. Yes, it’s a good idea not to eat bucketloads of sugar at every meal. But no, having a piece of cake (or two or three) won’t kill you. It’s far more important to cultivate a sense of ease and pleasure around food than it is to eat perfectly (because what does that even mean anyway?), especially if you’re trying to get pregnant.
The connection between dieting, stress and infertility
Dieting can lead to infertility just by raising your stress levels but can also cause it more directly. Many women are undereating or over-restricting the types of food they consume. This can send your body into starvation mode. Unsurprisingly, if your body thinks it’s starving, it’s not going to prioritize reproductive functions. First and foremost, it’s going to try to keep you alive by conserving as much energy as possible. Some women experience functional hypothalamic amenorrhea (the absence of a period) as a result of undereating. Over-exercising and high stress levels can also play a role in why you don’t have a period.
Not getting a period is a sign of energy deficiency. Most often, this is from not enough energy in (not eating enough) but can also be a result of expending too much energy (over-exercising). It doesn’t actually matter whether you’ve lost weight or not. If you’re restricting your calories it could be enough to convince your body it’s going through a famine and now is not the right time to have a child.
Ditch the diet and heal your relationship with food to regain your fertility
The obvious solution to this issue is to just…eat more. Which sounds incredibly simple but can also be terrifying if you’ve got a history of restrictive eating. But if you’re serious about wanting to get pregnant, you need to convince your body that you’ll provide it with sufficient nourishment. This could be a great opportunity to reconnect with your body and get to a place where you’re working with it instead of against it. Dieting will sabotage your other efforts to combat infertility challenges as well as other health goals.
While you’re at it, you might want to evaluate your exercise schedule. Especially if you’re trying to get your period back or conceive a child, it’s time to dial back the intensity of your workouts. Regular, moderate intensity exercise is excellent for overall health as well as fertility. However, over-exercising can actually act as a stressor on the body, further contributing to energy imbalance. So take a break from marathon training, HIIT workouts and the like. Opt for more gentle forms of exercise like walking or yoga.
Get help in the process
It might be helpful to work with a coach, therapist or nutritionist throughout this process. Just make sure you find someone whose approach is size inclusive. There is substantial research proving that size is not actually a good predictor of health. Most studies claiming that it’s unhealthy to be in a larger body do not control for social stigma and mental health.
It’s far more stressful on the body to be unhappy with how you look and trying to control your body than it is to just let it be where it wants to be, even if where it settles is larger than the current unattainable standard. There’s no need to start a highly restrictive fertility diet if the cost is your mental health.
It’s never too late to start rebuilding your relationship with your body and getting it back to functioning at its best (whatever that means for you). The more solid you are in your relationship with yourself pre-pregnancy, the smoother the whole process will go. And once you’re a parent you’ll be able to model a healthy relationship to food and exercise for your children. Because, as will become clear once you are preparing to bring a child into this world, there are so many more important things in life than what you look like.