Many women will stop at nothing to support their fertility if they are ready to have a baby. From quitting their boozy girls' nights to committing to taking a prenatal vitamin regimen every day, mamas-in-waiting typically happily make appropriate changes to hopefully increase their chances of a successful cycle.
Some will take their fertility diet as far as completely giving up their beloved bread, pasta, and any other gluten-containing food, hoping that avoiding gluten will help them on their quest to make a baby.
But is going gluten-free really necessary to support your fertility, or is this tip just another internet rumor that needs to be put to rest?
What is gluten, anyway?
Gluten is a protein primarily found in grains like wheat, barley, and rye. It plays a crucial role in baking, providing elasticity, shape, and a chewy texture to bread and pastries. Most of the bread we enjoy when making a sandwich, the pizza crust we smother with sauce and cheese before we bake and eat it, and the fresh muffins we whip up when guests come over all contain gluten.
Lately, gluten has gotten a lot of attention thanks to many "fad" diets (like Whole 30) requiring participants to avoid it. But while gluten gets a bad rep in certain circles, it's actually quite harmless for most people.
Who should avoid eating gluten?
People with an autoimmune condition called Celiac disease should avoid gluten entirely, regardless of whether they are trying to conceive or not, as their immune system responds to gluten as if it were a threat, leading to inflammation and damage to the lining of the small intestine. Over time, this can lead to malabsorption of nutrients, potentially resulting in a wide range of symptoms from weight loss to neurological disorders. Only 1% of the population, or 1 out of every 100 people, has Celiac disease, although only about 30% are properly diagnosed.
Others may have a gluten intolerance, meaning that when gluten is consumed they experience uncomfortable symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea, headaches, fatigue, or joint and muscle pain, but without any intestinal damage. In this case, it's a good idea for those with a gluten intolerance to limit or avoid gluten, too, regardless of their desire to become a parent.
Cure Hydration Lemonade Hydrating Electrolyte Mix
Cure Hydration Ginger Tumeric Hydrating Electrolyte Mix
So, does eating gluten affect fertility?
Gluten may affect some people’s fertility journey, but for others, it may not impact their family-building success at all.
“Those with Celiac disease should absolutely avoid gluten, especially while trying to conceive, as gluten exposure can cause an inflammatory response and poor nutrient absorption which in turn can negatively impact fertility,” explains McKenzie Caldwell, MPH, RDN, a Charlotte-based fertility and prenatal dietitian.
“Some people with autoimmune conditions that are linked to an increased risk of Celiac disease, such as Hashimoto's thyroiditis, can also benefit from a lower gluten eating pattern, but may not need to be as cautious as someone with Celiac disease about gluten exposure,” she added.
Data shows that women diagnosed with Celiac disease and treated with a gluten-free diet, have positive pregnancy outcomes, including better effects of assisted reproductive technology (like IVF).
However, for people without Celiac disease or a gluten-sensitive autoimmune condition, there is no evidence that recommends jumping straight to a gluten-free diet when trying to support fertility. In fact, completely eliminating gluten-containing foods could result in nutritional gaps, making conception even more difficult.
Some data show that a standard gluten-free diet may not provide enough vitamin D, vitamin B12, folate, and iron – all nutrients that impact fertility in different ways. Plus, Caldwell added that unnecessarily restricting entire food groups can negatively impact a person’s relationship with food. With up to 16.7% of women pursuing fertility treatment having a previously diagnosed eating disorder, prioritizing a healthy relationship with food during the journey is incredibly important.
The bottom line? For people without a diagnosis of Celiac disease or another gluten-intolerant condition, eliminating gluten may do more harm than good when it comes to supporting the body for fertility.
Get personalized women’s health content, tailored to your own unique experience.
Our best videos for you
Science-backed product recs
Nutrition for fertility: What to do instead
It may come as a relief that unless you have a true medical diagnosis that requires you to avoid gluten, keeping fluffy breads and gooey cookies out of your diet during your fertility journey may not be necessary or get you any closer to a positive pregnancy test.
But there are some things you can do to support your fertility via your dietary choices, such as:
Including omega-3 fatty acids in your diet, like oily coldwater fish
Eating more fruits and vegetables
Adding soy to your diet
Limiting or avoiding alcohol and caffeine
Trying to become pregnant can be stressful and challenging for many people. If you're attempting to do all the right things to support your fertility and your doctor hasn’t suggested avoiding gluten for a medical reason, hopefully learning that you don’t have to cut out some of your favorite foods will make the road to parenthood a bit more enjoyable.
If you do suspect that you have Celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, it's best to address your concerns with a healthcare provider instead of cutting out gluten-containing foods without a true diagnosis. Because who wants to go through their fertility journey without the occasional pizza or cookie?
Lauren Manaker MS, RDN, LD, CLEC, is an award-winning fertility registered dietitian with over 20 years of experience. She is a three-time author, freelance writer, and consultant. Her book, Fueling Male Fertility, has helped countless men who are trying to conceive make evidence-based nutrition decisions that support their fertility. She also manages the Instagram account @LaurenLovesNutrition, where she shares evidence-based fertility and pregnancy-focused nutrition information. Lauren and her husband, Matt, conceived their daughter after a 5-year fertility journey, which included three rounds of IVF. She lives in Charleston, South Carolina, and is enjoying life in the Lowcountry with her little family.