Processed foods like takeaways and ready meals may make our lives easier – but what impact are they having on our health and fertility? And how can we improve our diet to make sure we’re getting less of them? Here we’ll explain the effect processed foods have on our bodies and why whole foods are much better for your fertility journey.
What are processed foods?
When you think about processed foods you probably think of ready meals or takeaways – but the list is much longer than that. Put simply, processed foods are any foods that have been through a ‘process’ before you purchase them. This includes freezing, canning, baking or drying.
Now, before you panic that that describes most things on your weekly shopping list – not all processed foods are unhealthy. Some foods need to be processed for them to be made safe for consumption – like milk which needs to be pasteurised. Other foods are processed to help preserve them – like tinned vegetables. Frozen prawns are technically processed, even though they have had nothing added to them. These are not the foods to be concerned about.
The processed foods that can impact our health are generally the ones that are produced in certain ways and which have added ingredients in them.
Some of the key foods that fall into this category are:
- Cakes and biscuits
- Chocolate and sweets
- Ready meals
- Processed meats – like burgers, sausages and salami
- Pies and pastries
- Sodas and milkshakes
The majority of these foods will have a lot of sugar, salt and fat added to them to improve the flavour or shelf life. Eating too much of them can mean you eat way more than your recommended daily amount without even realising it.
Processed foods and our fertility
Foods rich in sugar and fat are not great for our fertility. They contribute to inflammation, which triggers oxidative stress and cellular damage and mess around with our delicate hormonal balance which impacts sperm and egg production. Some studies have even indicated that a high sugar intake could directly impact sperm motility. You can read more about the connection between sugar and fertility here.
Savoury processed foods aren’t off the hook either. In one 2015 study, researchers analysed the dietary habits of men going through IVF and ICSI. The results indicated that men who ate the least amount of processed meat (more than 2 servings a week) had a 28% better chance of conceiving through the treatment compared to men that ate less than 1 serving a week. Interestingly the same study found that men who ate more lean poultry (like chicken breasts) had the best chance of conceiving.
It’s also important to recognise the link between processed foods, obesity and fertility. Medical research shows pretty consistent findings that a diet full of ultra-processed foods is connected to obesity and associated health risks including high cholesterol. There’s also lots of research to show that an unhealthy BMI can correlate to trouble conceiving. Of course, diet isn’t the only thing that contributes to obesity, things like exercise and stress can also play a role. But if you’re struggling with your weight it’s worth assessing how much of your diet consists of processed foods rather than whole foods.
The benefits of whole foods
The opposite of ‘processed foods’ are ‘whole foods’. The best way to think about whole foods is this: does this look like it did when it left the farm? And would my grandparents have eaten it?
A bag of rice, a chicken breast, a tomato – all of these things would largely be unchanged (aside from being washed and packaged) since leaving a farm and they are the kinds of things you would have been able to pick up at a market in years gone by.
Whole foods are usually ingredients in meals you plan to make yourself, rather than something that comes ready to eat – aside from snacking on fruit and vegetables! These foods will have way more nutritional value than their processed counterparts and you will be able to track exactly what you are eating.
Some key examples of whole foods include:
- Fresh fruit – not dried or canned
- Fresh vegetables
- Lean meat – like chicken and turkey
- Fish (not battered, unfortunately!)
- Beans and pulses
- Rice and grains
Time and time again the ‘Mediterranean diet’ is hailed as the best diet for our fertility – and unsurprisingly this diet is full of the whole foods mentioned above. In comparison, a traditional ‘Western diet’ – generally characterised by having lots of pre-packed meals, processed meats, fried foods, sweets and refined grains – is not great for fertility.
How to avoid processed foods
The truth is, it’s really hard to avoid processed foods altogether. Our busy, modern lives involve a lot of rushing around and eating on the go and this is where most of our processed food consumption sneaks in.
It’s also important to remember that the occasional processed food item or meal is not going to make a huge difference to your fertility. What we are aiming for is a balanced diet that has more whole foods than processed foods – here are some ideas on how to achieve that.
Make simple swaps – You don’t need to do a complete diet overhaul to eat less processed foods. Swap white bread for granary, Coke for water, and sugary snack bars for an apple. If you know you’re eating a lot of processed foods right now, think of 3 things you can swap and build it up from there.
Get cooking – Homemade meals that have been created with nutrition in mind are always going to be better for you than a ready meal or a takeaway – and you’ll know exactly what is going in them! You can even learn how to make your favourite takeaway dupes like healthy burgers or chicken chow mein.
Batch Cooking and Meal Prep – It’s not just for gym bros. Home cooking is great but who has the time to create a Masterchef-level dish every night after work? Block out one afternoon a week to batch-cook a bunch of healthy meals that you can simply heat up when you’re ready for them.
For more advice on giving your fertility a boost through diet and lifestyle – check out our 90 Day Bootcamp!