The Problem with Processed Foods and Male Fertility

The problem with processed foods and male fertility

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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
  • Crisps
  • 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
  • Nuts

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!




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Wearing tight pants and underwear

Studies show that men who wear looser underwear have higher sperm concentration and total sperm count compared to men who wear tighter underwear. So, lose the tight clothes and wear something loose to give your testicles some air.

CONCLUSION: learn more about how heat can affect sperm quality here.


Besides higher mortality rate and various diseases, stress is associated with low sperm quality. Stress is known to be associated with lower testosterone levels and oxidative stress with both playing an essential role in producing and maintaining healthy sperm cells.

CONCLUSION: If you feel stressed, we recommend you get some help so you can have a balanced mental health. For a stress management guide, download the ExSeed app for free and start your personalized action plan today.

Physical activity

Scientific studies show that men who are physically active have better semen parameters than men who are inactive. Fertility specialists also state that regular physical activity has beneficial impact on sperm fertility parameters and such a lifestyle can enhance the fertility status of men.

Prioritizing exercise can help improve your overall health and result in healthy, fast swimming sperm cells that have good chances of fertilizing an egg.

CONCLUSION: Try incorporating exercise in your weekly schedule to you ensure exercising at least twice weekly. We recommend a combination of cardio training and strength exercise. Read more about exercise and male fertility on our blog.


Fast Food
Processed foods damage the health of sperm-producing cells and cause oxidative stress, which lead to poorer sperm quality. Heavy consumption of junk food (every week) can increase the likelihood of infertility since men who consume vast amounts of unhealthy food are at risk of having poor sperm quality. Besides harming your fertility, junk food enlarges your waistline, harms your cardiovascular system, kidneys, and more.

Eating more fruit and vegetables can increase your sperm concentration and motility. It’s important that you consume a healthy diet filled with antioxidants and that you eat vegetables every day. Foods such as apricots and red bell peppers are high in vitamin A, which improves male fertility by nurturing healthier sperm. Men who are deficient in this vitamin tend to have slow and sluggish sperm.

Sugary snacks/beverages: several times a week Excessive consumption of high sugar items can lead to oxidative stress, which negatively impacts testosterone levels and sperm motility. Sugary snacks and beverages are also highly associated with obesity and low fertility.
CONCLUSION: To boost sperm quality, stay away from fast food, processed food, and sugary snacks or beverages. You need to implement a healthy prudent diet filled with necessary superfoods needed for good sperm production. Check out our guide to Male Fertility Superfoods. For personalized guidance and support on how you can start improving your sperm health, check out the Bootcamp.


Direct heat can inhibit optimal sperm production and cause Sperm DNA damage. Sperm cells like environments that are a couple of degrees lower than body temperature. Avoid overheating from warm blankets, seat warmers, heat from your laptop, hot showers, and saunas.

Cigarette smoking

The exposure to tobacco smoke has significant negative effects on semen quality. The damage of cigarettes and nicotine of course depends on how many cigarettes you smoke per day and for how long, but even low usage (up to 10 cigarettes / day) can inhibit healthy sperm production.  

CONCLUSION: Stay as far away from cigarette smoking as possible if you care about your general health and your fertility. Read more here.

Cell phone

When you have your cell phone in your front pocket, your testicles are exposed to electromagnetic radiation, which studies have shown to damage the sperm cells. Put your phone in the back pocket of your pants or in your jacket pocket.


There is a clear association between obesity and reduced sperm quality. At least part of the reason for this is that obese men may have abnormal reproductive hormonal profiles, which can impair sperm production and lead to infertility. 

A BMI higher than 30 can lead to several processes in the body (overheating, increase in oxidative stress in the testes, sperm DNA damage, erectile dysfunction) that can have a negative impact on male fertility. This can result in problems when trying to conceive.  

CONCLUSION: BMI is one of the risk factors that influence semen quality and, for example, sperm motility.  


A beer or glass of wine now and then do not really harm sperm quality. But excess alcohol drinking (more than 20 units per week) can reduce the production of normally formed sperm needed for a successful pregnancy.

CONCLUSION: If you want to stay safe, stay under 14 units of alcohol per week. For more information on how alcohol can affect male fertility, take a look at our blog: “Alcohol and Sperm Quality”.


Studies show that women younger than 35 and men younger than 40 have a better chance of getting pregnant. Men can produce sperm cells almost through their entire life, but the sperm cell DNA is more fragile and prone to damage after the age of 40.

As men age, their testes tend to get smaller and softer resulting in a decline in sperm quality and production. These changes are partly because of an age-related decrease in testosterone level, which plays a very important role in sperm

production. Higher male age (>40 years) is not only associated with a decline in sperm production but also with increased sperm DNA fragmentation and worsened morphology (shape) and motility (movement). These negative effects make the sperm cells less qualified for egg fertilization.

CONCLUSION: with an age under 40, you shouldn’t have to worry much about age as a factor in itself. However, studies have shown a slow decline after the age of 30-35 years

and if you are above 40 years of age, your sperm quality can be affected due to increased sperm DNA damage resulting in a decrease of sperm motility and concentration. Remember that you cannot evaluate the quality of a sperm sample by just looking at it – this requires a sperm analysis.