Infertility frustrates about 15 percent of couples trying to have children. Male reproductive health is the issue between 40 to 60 percent of the time. Researchers at the Harvard Medical School have found that diets high in saturated fat may negatively affect the quality, as well as the quantity of sperm. They also found that increasing dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids, a polyunsaturated fat, could improve male reproductive health.
Unhealthy lifestyle factors such as smoking, drinking and drug abuse have been associated with male infertility. Earlier studies have examined the impact of obesity on semen quality, but the Harvard study is the first to focus on dietary fat.
Dietary fats and semen quality
To learn more about the role of dietary fats with semen quality, Professor Jill Attaman, a Clinical and Research Fellow in Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at Massachusetts General Hospital and an Instructor in Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Biology at Harvard Medical School, designed a trial examining men attending a fertility clinic in Boston.
Attaman and her colleagues examined 99 men in their mid-30s participating in an ongoing study of environmental factors and fertility. The study, published online in the journal Human Reproduction, found that men who ate diets higher in saturated fat had lower semen quality than men with lower fat intake. What’s more, men who consumed more omega-3 fatty acids — healthy fats found in fish, nuts and olive oil — had healthier sperm.
Saturated fat vs. omega-3
Researchers questioned the participants about their diet and analyzed their semen samples from December 2006 to August 2010. The men were separated into groups based on total fat intake. Men in the top third of fat intake–at least 37 percent of total calories—had sperm counts 43 percent lower and sperm concentration than men in the lowest third of fat intake. The analysis determined that every 5 percent increase in dietary fat intake resulted in an 18 percent decrease in sperm count.
Saturated fat was indentified as the root cause of poor semen quality in the study. Men who consumed the most saturated fat—at least 13 percent of daily calories—had sperm counts 35 percent lower and sperm concentrations 38 percent lower than those who consumed the least. Polyunsaturated fat had a beneficial effect. Men who consumed higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids had more healthy individual sperm.
Optimizing male fertility naturally
When it comes to sperm, men are what they eat. Dr. Richard Sharpe of the Medical Research Council’s Human Reproductive Sciences Unit at the University of Edinburgh, told TIME that for normal functionality, sperm depend on their plasma membrane, which is mainly composed of fats. The type of fats men eat may affect sperm membrane composition that, in turn, may affect sperm function. Plus, reduced sperm count and concentration will decrease the odds of fertilizing an egg.
Attaman’s study may have identified one of the few natural lifestyle modifications that can optimize natural male fertility drug-free. Men trying to start a family should reduce the amount of saturated fat in their diet and increase omega-3 intake, which is proven to benefit heart health according to the American Medical Association. Not only will they build stronger sperm, they’ll improve their overall health as well.