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It’s estimated that 15% of couples in the United States are not able to conceive within a year, despite regularly engaging in unprotected sex. And male fertility plays a role in about 50% of all these cases (Leslie, 2022).
Fertility can sometimes be influenced—positively or negatively—by lifestyle choices. And that includes what you choose to eat. While diet alone won’t cure or replace the need for treatment for specific medical conditions that can lead to infertility, eating a healthy, balanced diet is a natural way to support your chances of conceiving.
Here’s a look at how diet affects the health of your sperm, as well as 11 foods shown to increase male fertility.
How does diet play a role in male fertility?
Male infertility means that there’s a problem with the man’s reproductive system that impacts his ability to get a female partner pregnant. Low semen quality—including low sperm count, impaired sperm motility, and sperm abnormalities—is a leading contributor to male infertility (Leslie, 2022).
Some studies show that the quality of male semen has declined by 50–60% over the last 40 years (Levine, 2017). Many factors may play a role, including diet, which can impact your semen quality and fertility.
In general, the recommended foods for overall health can also support male fertility.
Health and nutritional professionals commonly recommend the Mediterranean diet to protect against heart disease and type II diabetes (Skoracka, 2020).
So, eating well for you and your swimmers can not only support conception but can also protect your health and wellbeing for years to come.
The best foods to eat to support male fertility
Here are 11 specific foods linked to—or are good sources of nutrients linked to—improved sperm health and male fertility. Please keep in mind that your sperm quality won’t change overnight after eating a healthy meal. It’s important to stay consistent and make a healthy diet part of your daily routine.
Salmon is a great source of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat. One 3-ounce (oz) serving of salmon contains about 1.8 g of omega-3 fats and the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K (USDA, n.d.).
A 2019 review of 16 studies evaluating omega-3 supplements and omega-3 intake from foods was linked to improved measures of semen quality in infertile men (Falsig, 2019).
Sperm morphology: what is it, and how does it affect fertility?
2. Olive oil
Olive oil contains high amounts of monounsaturated fats, polyphenols (beneficial plant compounds), and vitamin E that have antioxidant effects in the body (Skoracka, 2020). One tablespoon contributes about 13% of the daily value of vitamin E (USDA, n.d.).
Olive oil is a central ingredient in the Mediterranean diet, and close adherence to a Mediterranean diet (including eating olive oil daily) was associated with improved sperm concentration, sperm count, and motility (Karayiannis, 2017).
3. Lean dairy products
Lean dairy products like low-fat milk, cheese, and yogurt are a natural source of calcium (one cup contains around 25% of the daily value) and high-quality protein while containing less saturated fat than their full-fat counterparts (USDA, n.d.).
Calcium is a key component of sperm production and motility (Skoracka, 2020). One study showed that a higher intake of low-fat dairy products, especially milk, is linked to higher sperm counts and motility (Afeiche, 2014).
4. Brazil nuts
Brazil nuts have a smooth, oily texture; however, they are quite large compared to other nuts and can be a bit tougher to bite. One Brazil nut offers around 90 micrograms (mcg) of selenium, or 163% of the daily recommended amount (USDA, n.d.).
Selenium is an essential mineral and is found in seminal fluids. Studies show that infertile men have lower selenium levels in their semen compared to fertile men (Skoracka, 2020).
One study found that a combined selenium and vitamin E supplement was beneficial in improving sperm motility among infertile men after 14 weeks (Moslemi, 2011). However, it’s important to note that too much selenium can also have negative effects on semen quality
Supplementing or eating a whole bag of brazil nuts daily may give you more selenium than you need. Even eating just one Brazil nut per day will ensure you’re meeting the dietary requirements for this mineral.
Adequate folate intake is important for red blood cell health, cell growth, and DNA synthesis. It also plays a role in sperm production processes (Skoracka, 2020).
How long does sperm live in and outside the body?
6. Whole grains
Whole grains are fortified with folic acid—the synthetic form of folate—and are also a good source of fiber. A typical slice of whole-grain bread contains around four grams of fiber (USDA, n.d.). Barley, brown rice, buckwheat, and oatmeal are all whole grains.
Whole grains are a primary component of the Mediterranean diet, which is associated with improved semen quality in men (Gaskins, 2018).
Oysters have a reputation for being an aphrodisiac. And while data on the impact of oysters on libido is scarce and anecdotal, three ounces of raw oysters do contribute 127% of the daily recommended amount of zinc. (USDA, n.d.)
Adequate zinc levels are important for maintaining desirable testosterone levels and improving sperm count, sperm motility (how well your sperm move), and the number of live sperm in ejaculate. While zinc deficiency is rare in the United States, zinc deficiency is linked to male infertility (Fallah, 2018; Skoracka, 2020).
Walnuts are an excellent source of a plant-based form of omega-3 fats called alpha-linolenic acids (ALAs) and contain magnesium and vitamin E (USDA, n.d.)
A 2012 study of 117 men between the ages of 21 and 35 found that those who consumed 75 grams of walnuts per day (about 3 oz) had better sperm motility and improved size and shape of sperm (Robbins, 2012).
A 2018 study of a 60 g nut mixture—composed primarily of walnuts but also almonds and hazelnuts—improved sperm count after 14 weeks compared to a placebo (Salas-Huetos, 2018).
How to increase sperm count: 7 things to try
9. Maca root
Maca is native to the Andean region in South America and has traditionally been used to boost libido and treat infertility. Now, the root is mainly dried, ground to a powder, and sold as a supplement.
Researchers of a 2015 study investigated the impact of 1.75 g of maca root powder daily compared to a placebo in 20 healthy 20-to-40-year-old men (Melnikovova, 2015). After 12 weeks, the men taking the maca root supplements showed improved trends in sperm concentration and motility compared to the placebo.
However, more research, including longer trials, is needed to understand the full effect of maca root and fertility. It’s too early to say that this supplement boosts testosterone, so be wary of touting claims.
10. Bell peppers
Bell peppers are an excellent source of vitamin C. A half-cup of bell pepper contains around 106% of the daily recommended amount of vitamin C.
Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant in the body and is a component of seminal fluid. Research indicates that vitamin C may protect the sperm from oxidative damage (Nassan, 2018). A 2016 study also found that supplementing with vitamin C improved sperm concentration and motility in men with excess body weight (Rafiee, 2016).
11. Dark chocolate
Dark chocolate is a rich source of L-arginine, an amino acid. Amino acids are molecules that combine to form proteins (Wu, 2021).
Among many other things, L-arginine also plays a role in sperm formation, and a deficiency may damper the development of sperm cells and decrease motility. (Srivastava, 2006).
Protein-rich foods like chicken, turkey, red meat, and soybeans are also good sources of L-arginine.
7 tips on how to make sperm stronger for pregnancy
Foods to avoid for male fertility
While including the foods above may improve sperm quality, some dietary choices are associated with poorer semen measures, hindering fertility.
Foods, drinks, or additives that may hurt male productive health include (Skoracka, 2020):
- Red and processed meat
- Saturated fat (the primary fat in meat, poultry, and butter)
- Added sugars
But don’t fret. This doesn’t mean you have to forego your daily cup of coffee. It’s important to note that poorer semen quality and fertility were primarily observed when these foods were eaten in excess and when diets lacked fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (Skoracka, 2020; Gaskins, 2019).
Other ways to increase fertility in males
Diet isn’t the only habit you target to increase sperm count and improve your chances of conceiving. Here are some other ways to support your fertility:
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Quit smoking
- Get regular exercise
- Reduce stress
- Get quality sleep but not too much (between 7–9 hours is ideal)
- Avoid prolonged periods in hot tubs and saunas
Semen analysis: test process and results
Diet and male fertility: the bottom line
In general, a diet that supports male fertility is high in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, poultry, and seafood and low in red and processed meats and added sugars. Your sperm quality won’t change overnight after eating a healthy meal, so stay consistent and practice patience.
If you’ve been struggling to conceive with your partner for a while, reach out to a fertility specialist or a healthcare practitioner for support and treatment options.
- Afeiche, M. C., Bridges, N. D., Williams, P. L., et al. (2014). Dairy intake and semen quality among men attending a fertility clinic. Fertility and Sterility, 101(5), 1280–1287. doi:10.1016/j.fertnstert.2014.02.003. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24636397/
- Fallah, A., Mohammad-Hasani, A., & Colagar, A. H. (2018). Zinc is an Essential Element for Male Fertility: A Review of Zn Roles in Men’s Health, Germination, Sperm Quality, and Fertilization. Journal of Reproduction & Infertility, 19(2), 69–81. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6010824/
- Falsig, A. L., Gleerup, C. S., & Knudsen, U. B. (2019). The influence of omega-3 fatty acids on semen quality markers: a systematic PRISMA review. Andrology, 7(6), 794–803. doi:10.1111/andr.12649. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31116515/
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- Leslie, S. W, Siref, L. E, Soon-Sutton, T. L., et al. (2022). Male Infertility. StatPearls. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK562258/#
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Felix Gussone is a physician, health journalist and a Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.