Of all the bad things that come from eating fatty foods — heart attacks, strokes, high cholesterol, obesity — researchers have found yet another: it can decrease a man’s ability to have children.
In a study of almost 100 men, Dr. Jill Attaman of Darmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and her team discovered lower sperm counts and lower potency among men with the largest amount of saturated fat intake. Saturated fats include products such as butter, lard or shortening.
However, the men whose diets were rich in omega-3 fatty acids — found in seafood, soy and certain nuts — had up to 38 percent higher sperm counts.
Fertility experts have long discussed the link between obesity and infertility among women, but these new findings shed light on the importance of healthy eating on men’s fertility as well.
Typically, when a couple has difficulty conceiving, the perception is that the woman alone bears the burden. However, in 40 to 60 percent of cases, both the man and woman are found to have factors that contribute to the couple’s infertility. Twenty percent of the time, the man alone is infertile, while the woman actually has no problems conceiving.
Several risk factors for male infertility have been examined over the years, but without solid evidence. Cigarette smoking, heavy marijuana use, alcohol and exposure of testicles to heat are among those implicated.
And, researchers are still unclear about how fatty foods and omega-3 can actually change sperm quality.
Along with increasing rates of obesity in the African-American community, blacks are also said to consume more dietary fat than their white counterparts. Attaman’s findings suggest yet another reason for black men to follow a low-fat, heart-healthy diet.
“These nutritional modifications may not only be beneficial for reproductive health, but for general health, and outcomes such as cardiovascular disease,” says Attaman, who is also an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Dartmouth Medical School.
But, she cautions that this study has its limits and this is just the first step.
“While intriguing, our findings are not the final word on this issue,” she explains. “It is important that these associations are replicated in other studies.”
For example, her sample size was very small, involved a population of mostly white men — 89 percent — and included men who were patients in one fertility clinic, so her results may not be applicable to the public at-large.
“Further work is needed to study these associations in other populations as well,” Attaman adds.
Follow Dr. Ty on Twitter at @doctorty