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Consult a doctor, not The Fertility Diet by Harvard researchers

Catherine McDiarmid-Watt | Saturday, January 26, 2008 | 0 comments

Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health have created buzz with their new – and controversial – book, The Fertility Diet.

The book doesn't actually come right out and claim that the new Harvard diet is a cure for infertility. But that's the message desperate couples could be forgiven for getting, given its title, some of the authors' public statements, the intense media hype and, of course, the clout of almost anything with the Harvard imprimatur. That's why some critics are upset.

The book, by epidemiologists Drs. Walter Willett and Jorge Chavarro and writer Patrick J. Skerrett, is based on the authors' research, published in the November issue of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

In that paper, the authors reported on 17,544 women participating in the Nurses' Health Study who recorded their diets and their quests to get pregnant in biennial questionnaires.

The study found that women had a lower risk of infertility because of anovulation – the failure to produce a viable egg every month – if they ate a diet that emphasized monounsaturated fats like olive oil; vegetable proteins such as those found in beans and nuts; whole grains; some whole milk, a little ice cream or other high-fat dairy products daily; multivitamins containing folic acid; and iron from plants and supplements.

The study is groundbreaking because it "is one of the first times that anyone has shown that what you eat and drink can impact the reproductive system," said Alice Domar, a psychologist who heads the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health at Boston IVF, one of the country's largest infertility centers.

Is the leap too large?

But it's a huge leap to go from a statistical correlation to actually giving advice. The authors veer toward prescription when they say, "We have discovered 10 simple changes that offer a powerful boost in fertility for women with ovulation-related infertility." Ditto, in a cover story they wrote for the Dec. 10 issue of Newsweek, when they said their recommendations are aimed at preventing and "reversing" infertility – a conclusion Dr. Willett defended in an interview.

Observational studies like the Nurses' Health Study do not prove that a behavior causes or prevents a health problem, only that it might do so. To prove that diet affects fertility, researchers would have to take a group of women with diagnosed infertility and randomly put half on a special diet and half on a regular diet and compare conception rates.

This would be an interventional study, which would have come closer to the "gold standard" of medical research and would have provided the solid ground to offer advice. Such a study could also show how long a woman would need to eat this way to affect her fertility.

So where's the harm in a little hype? Because the diet is basically a healthy one, except for the controversial suggestion to eat more high-fat dairy, including ice cream, it is unlikely to cause direct harm. But a woman who follows the diet and still doesn't get pregnant may blame herself, even though the diet isn't proven effective.

Worse yet, a woman may follow the diet and postpone seeing a doctor.

"If you're 22 and you follow this diet for six months, that's no big deal. But if you're 42, you can't afford to postpone seeing a doctor and try this diet in the meantime," said Ms. Domar.

Heartache for many

Dr. Gil Wilshire, a reproductive endocrinologist at Boone Hospital Center in Columbia, Mo., put it even more strongly: "This book is blatantly irresponsible. I am going to be cleaning up the damage from this book for years to come. I will be having women who wasted one, two, three years of their lives with imprecise, ineffective treatment. Those are precious years you can't get back."
But the book has obvious market appeal. Infertility is a source of heartache for more than 6 million American couples, although infertility because of problems with ovulation only accounts for about a quarter of these cases. The diet won't help if male biology – such as inadequate production of viable sperm – is the problem, as the authors note.

All this said, the observations make biological sense, particularly the idea that certain foods may influence levels of hormones involved in ovulation and conception.

The ice cream recommendation is surprising, Dr. Willett acknowledged, and a bit tricky to explain. But his research suggested that "higher-fat dairy products were related to better fertility and lower-fat dairy was related to lower fertility. The reason? We're only speculating, but it may well be that the relatively modest amounts of estrogen and progesterone that are present in the fatty part of whole milk can have a positive effect on fertility," he said.

The Harvard team is not recommending a switch to high-fat dairy for a whole lifetime – if consumed long term, high-fat dairy products can increase the buildup of fatty plaques in artery walls, contributing to heart attacks.

The take-home message? If you're having trouble getting pregnant, see your doctor before you hit the bookstore.


Image: The Fertility Diet: Groundbreaking Research Reveals Natural Ways to Boost Ovulation and Improve Your Chances of Getting Pregnant, by Jorge Chavarro, Walter Willett, Patrick Skerrett. Publisher: McGraw-Hill; 1 edition (April 6, 2009)-The Fertility Diet: Groundbreaking Research Reveals Natural Ways to Boost Ovulation and Improve Your Chances of Getting Pregnant
by Jorge Chavarro, Walter Willett, Patrick Skerrett

-- Reveals startling new research from the landmark Nurses' Health Study, which shows that the food you eat can boost your fertility.

The book prescribes ten simple changes in diet and activity that can increase your chances of getting pregnant.

Groundbreaking findings into changes you can put into practice today, setting the stage for a healthy pregnancy and forming the foundation for an eating strategy that will serve you well for the rest of your life.

The Fertility Diet also offers a week's worth of meal plans and delicious recipes that will make following the guidelines easy and tasty.

Image: Buy Now on Amazon.comPaperback: 288 pages
Click to order/for more info: The Fertility Diet

Image: Buy Now on Amazon.comStart reading The Fertility Diet on your Kindle in under a minute!

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About Catherine: I am mom to three grown sons, two grandchildren and two rescue dogs. After years of raising my boys as a single mom, I remarried a wonderful man who had never had a child of his own. Unexpectedly, I found myself pregnant at 49!
Sadly we lost that precious baby at 8 weeks, and decided to try again. Five more losses, turned down for donor egg, foster care and adoption due to my age and losses - we have accepted that there will be no more babies in our house.

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