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Male Fertility and Diet

Dioxins, endocrine disrupting pollutants, heavy metals, saturated fat, and steroids in the meat supply may be affecting sperm counts, semen quality, and the ability of men to conceive.

June 30, 2013 |
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Supplementary Info

Sources Cited

J. Burger, M. Gochfeld. Heavy metals in commercial fish in New Jersey. Environ. Res. 2005 99(3):403 - 412

M. Rudy. Correlation of lead, cadmium and mercury levels in tissue and liver samples with age in cattle. Food Addit Contam Part A Chem Anal Control Expo Risk Assess 2009 26(6):847 - 853

J. E. Chavarro, J. W. Rich-Edwards, B. A. Rosner, W. C. Willett. Caffeinated and alcoholic beverage intake in relation to ovulatory disorder infertility. Epidemiology 2009 20(3):374 - 381

R. C. Ferreira, G. Halpern, R. de Cássia S. Figueira, D. P. de Almeida F. Braga, A. Iaconelli Jr, E. Borges Jr. Physical activity, obesity and eating habits can influence assisted reproduction outcomes. Womens Health (Lond Engl) 2010 6(4):517 - 524

J. P. Bonde. Male reproductive organs are at risk from environmental hazards. Asian J. Androl. 2010 12(2):152 - 156

J. A. Attaman, T. L. Toth, J. Furtado, H. Campos, R. Hauser, J. E. Chavarro. Dietary fat and semen quality among men attending a fertility clinic. Hum. Reprod. 2012 27(5):1466 - 1474

D. P. de Almeida F. Braga, G. Halpern, R. de Cássia S. Figueira, A. S. Setti, A. Iaconelli Jr, E. Borges Jr. Food intake and social habits in male patients and its relationship to intracytoplasmic sperm injection outcomes. Fertil. Steril. 2012 97(1):53 - 59

J. Mendiola, A. M. Torres-Cantero, J. M. Moreno-Grau, J. Ten, M. Roca, S. Moreno-Grau, R. Bernabeu. Food intake and its relationship with semen quality: A case-control study. Fertil. Steril. 2009 91(3):812 - 818

P. Mocarelli, P. M. Gerthoux, L. L. Needham, D. G. Patterson Jr, G. Limonta, R. Falbo, S. Signorini, M. Bertona, C. Crespi, C. Sarto, P. K. Scott, W. E. Turner, P. Brambilla. Perinatal exposure to low doses of dioxin can permanently impair human semen quality. Environ. Health Perspect. 2011 119(5):713 - 718

S. H. Swan, F. Liu, J. W. Overstreet, C. Brazil, N. E. Skakkebaek. Semen quality of fertile US males in relation to their mothers' beef consumption during pregnancy. Hum. Reprod. 2007 22(6):1497 - 1502

F. S. v. Saal. Could hormone residues be involved? Hum. Reprod. 2007 22(6):1503 - 1505

G. M. B. Louis, R. Sundaram, E. F. Schisterman, A. M. Sweeney, C. D. Lynch, R. E. Gore-Langton, Z. Chen, S. Kim, K. L. Caldwell, D. B. Barr. Heavy metals and couple fecundity, the LIFE Study. Chemosphere 2012 87(11):1201 - 1207

S. A. Umpierre, J. A. Hill, D. J. Anderson. Effect of

C. Y. Hong, C. C. Shieh, P. Wu, B. N. Chiang. The spermicidal potency of Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola. Hum Toxicol 1987 6(5):395 - 396

S. H. Swan, E. P. Elkin, L. Fenster. The question of declining sperm density revisited: An analysis of 101 studies published 1934-1996. Environ. Health Perspect. 2000 108(10):961 - 966

Acknowledgements

Transcript

Infertility affects 10–15% of couples attempting to conceive and in about half the cases a problem is found in the man. A recent Harvard study found that increasing saturated fat intake just 5% was associated with a 38% lower sperm count, but why? I've talked about the role of xenoestrogens, endocrine disrupting industrial pollutants that build up in animal fat, particularly fish, but male fertility is not just about sperm count—the number of sperm, but about how well the sperm work.

A recent study found that "successful pregnancy and fertilized egg implantation outcomes are decreased in patients reporting a more frequent intake of meat. This finding is consistent with poor semen quality associated with a higher intake of products that may incorporate these chemicals and steroids. The use of these compounds in the food industry results in an increased total level of xenoestrogens and sex steroids in processed foods, such as meat or milk, whose intake contributes significantly to daily exposures. Xenoestrogens are highly lipophilic substances that can accumulate in fat-rich foods, such as meat, and may be suspected as partially responsible for the decline in semen quality. Conclusion: Couples having trouble conceiving must be advised about the drastic effect of both the male and female lifestyle on treatment success.”

This is consistent with previous findings that “frequent intake of fat-laden foods like meat products or milk may negatively affect semen quality in humans, whereas some fruits or vegetables may maintain or improve semen quality.” Vegetable consumption was also found protective in the new study, which may be because of the antioxidant and nutrient content.

The adverse effects of meat could be from other pollutants as well. Exposure even as an infant to low levels of dioxin can permanently reduce sperm quality. The general consensus is that human sperm quality has declined over time in different areas. We're still not sure why, but dioxins may be playing a causal role.

The reason why maternal beef consumption may alter a man’s testicular development and adversely affect his future reproductive capacity is thought to be due to the anabolic steroids implanted into the animals, but as the accompanying editorial pointed out, "the steroids could also be interacting with other xenobiotic, meaning industrial chemicals present in meat, such as pesticides and dioxin-like pollutants, and even chemicals that may be present in the plastic wrap.

Heavy metals may also play a role. Lead and cadmium exposure as measured by levels in the bloodstream was associated with a significantly longer time to conceive. Where might exposure be coming from? Common types of seafood right out of fish markets and supermarkets were sampled. The highest cadmium levels were found in tuna; highest lead levels in scallops and shrimp. The greatest risk from different metals resided in different fish; some of which got really high. Thus, the risk information given to the public (mainly about mercury) does not present a complete picture. There are other toxic metals in fish as well.

The largest and oldest fish had some of highest levels, and we see that with other animals as well. For example, contamination of beef by cadmium and lead is clearly dependent on the age of the animal.

The only beverage associated with infertility in women was soft drinks, though this may be from an indirect route, with soda linked to obesity and obesity then linked to reduced fertilization rates, though there has been a study on one really direct route, the effectiveness of Coca Cola as a spermicidal agent in vaginal douching. Diet coke apparently had the strongest effect, Harvard researchers published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

What about Coke versus Pepsi? Tax-payer money hard at work for this head to head test. And neither of them really worked—Coke nor Pepsi, though they explain their methods for preparing the sperm-cola mixtures differed from the Harvard group. Bottomline: soda probably isn't good for you going into any orifice.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Ariel Levitsky.

To help out on the site please email volunteer@nutritionfacts.org.

Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

The video I reference about the endocrine disrupting industrial pollutants in fish is Xenoestrogens & Sperm Counts. More on the hormones used in meat production in Anabolic Steroids in Meat. Then there's Dioxins in the Food Supply for those that want to avoid dietary dioxin exposure.

I also cover male fertility in Soy Hormones & Male Infertility and female fertility in Meat Hormones & Female Infertility.

My videos on heavy metal exposure (dietary as opposed to auditory) include:

For more context, check out my associated blog post: Male Fertility and Dietary Pollutants.

 If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

  • BPCveg

    Good message, Dr. Greger. If you are right, then after a few generations the results will speak for themselves. The lower reproductive rate of meat eaters will provide a natural selective pressure that should lead to a decrease in the frequency of this behaviour. Vegans rule!

  • Plantstrongdoc M.D.

    Real men eat plants

  • anonymous

    i am a 24 years old male, been a vegan for around 9 months, recently i felt as though my libido has gone down. i was wondering if you have any suggestions. from what i read on the internet, there seem to be many males with this problem.

    thanks

    • b00mer

      Before going into specifics, a lower sex drive could be symptomatic of any number of nutritional deficiencies affecting overall health. On a whole foods plant based diet with plenty of variety and supplemental B12, you should get all of the nutrients you need, provided you are consuming enough calories. So a couple questions to start off: are you aware of how many calories you are consuming and are you sure you’re getting enough? Are you taking a B12 supplement? B12 is not optional on a vegan diet.

      I remember a study Dr. Greger mentioned that indicated that vegan men actually had higher levels of testosterone, but perhaps this is not the case for you. Perhaps lower testosterone could be leading to your lower sex drive. So, next question: do you know your cholesterol levels? Generally I would recommend a low fat diet (still containing fat from whole food sources, but low fat compared to SAD and even to mainstream “low fat” diets). However for some individuals whose liver has been damaged by past unhealthy habits, cholesterol production can be impaired. I also remember reading about a congenital issue leading to extremely low cholesterol levels, though I don’t remember the name. If either of these possibilities applied to you, perhaps you require higher levels of saturated fat to increase your cholesterol levels to produce the necessary sex hormones. I would never suggest this possibility as the most likely one to any normal healthy person, but for the rare individual this could be a possibility. That said, disregard if your cholesterol levels are ok.

      Knowing nothing about your diet, it’s pretty hard to make any recommendations. A vegan diet could mean tater tots and mountain dew, or it could be a greger/esselstyn/novick/fuhrman style nutrient dense diet based on a variety of whole foods. If you haven’t yet, I would check out any books or resources by the above listed individuals. I think the “eat to live” style diet by fuhrman or the “plant perfect” style diet by esselstyn are the most potently health promoting and would be best for someone struggling with health issues. In the meantime, check on a few nutrients: overall calories, b12, zinc, EHA and DHA from flax/chia or from supplements, and go from there.

  • Ayla

    What about the heavy metals from ‘chemtrails’ geo-engineering, the aerosol spraying in our skies. Look up, we are being poisoned, daily all over the planet. Watch the movie,”What in the World are they Spraying”.and the THRIVE movie.

    • Merio

      The geo-engineering problem is a great problem… it’s a “science” born in the military environment and in fact there is a document call “Owning the weather in 2025″ that explain how weather could be use as a weapon…

  • Thea

    The last part made me chuckle.

    Since the poor earth is so grossly overrun with humans, I’m all for the meat eaters having lower reproductive rates. My main concern is the quality of kid that comes out when they do reproduce.

    That said, this video is important in showing yet one more angle in which we have evidence showing that the best, healthiest diet is based on whole plant foods, with b12 vitamin. Nutrition science is never about just one study. It is all the studies, the body of evidence, that is meaningful. I like how this video fill out that knowledge.

  • Thinkabouddit

    A long time vegan, my zinc is low. Are their some surefire vegan ways to ensure adequate zinc levels? Is a handful of nuts and pumpkin seeds really enough? I do eat walnuts and flax in my oatmeal and plenty of greens during the day.

    • Coacervate

      Clic on zinc in the alphabetized list, upper left of this page.

      • Thinkabouddit

        I did. But there really is a dearth of information on how to safely and adequately be certain of raising zinc levels.

        • Coacervate

          What is your current level and target level?

          • Thinkabouddit

            My zinc, plasma, was at 49 in February. The clinic says the range is between 60 to 130. So my zinc level appeared low in that test.

          • Coacervate

            Thinkabouddit, Please don’t misunderstand – I am not a doctor. She is the one most qualified to help you assess your needs. Well, hopefully.

            My OPINION however is that you are not low in zinc. On the day in February your number came back under the minimum. This sort of thing happens all the time. For example, what is the standard deviation of the measurement? Is that range right for you? Are you having problems/symptoms of low zinc?

            You know the list of good sources so you’ve been eating beans, legumes (peas are great)… If you have been eating whole foods/Plant-based since February then it would be really unusual for you to be low in zinc now. Are you a lactating woman? If so you may need to top up.

            On the flip side, too much zinc is very bad for you too. Be careful not to go overboard.

  • painterguy

    That’s just Mother Nature’s way of keeping the population down. I think BPCveg has it right also—after awhile vegans will rule.

  • Timothy Solomon

    Seems that the main problem isn’t with meat, it’s what us humans are putting into the meat with antibiotics and pollution, and we are all to blame for that. So please dont give your “vegans are more worthy to reproduce” – it is very close to something Hitler would say. #justathought

    • b00mer

      Hi Timothy, there are plenty of health issues with meat that have nothing to do with environmental toxins, including but not limited to Neu5Gc, PhIP, saturated fat, cholesterol, endogenous hormones, pathogens, animal protein itself and its effects on our liver, kidneys, and igf-1 levels, etc. While these are typically mentioned specifically with regards to CVD, cancer, or liver or kidney disease, any one of these conditions are obviously detrimental to overall health.

      As an aside, pesticide residues and antibiotics in the environment are overwhelmingly due to animal agriculture. Yes, we are all to blame for environmental pollution, but meat-eaters contribute on a much higher level.

      • Timothy Solomon

        I agree. I just have friends who are non-vegans who are struggling to have kids and flippant remarks insinuating that they deserve to fail as it is “just Mother Nature’s way of keeping the population down” or “I’m all for the meat eaters having lower reproductive rates” is insensitive and elitist, irrespective of the cause.

        This site is supposed to be inclusive and educational, and persuade people to better diets based on “nutrition-oriented, science-based” discussion (as Coacervate says).

        ;)

        • b00mer

          Agreed. It’s probably not the best way to welcome those that may be coming here and are new to the topic! It’s also good to remember that a lot of us like to send these videos to family and friends!

          Although someone who eats plant based can get a lot of crap from people, and I can get people wanting to let off steam once in a while. I’m sure I’ve made some snarky remarks myself. But perhaps that would be better suited to a closed forum setting. Cheers.

  • Coacervate

    If we agree to keep this a nutrition-oriented, science-based place for discussion then it becomes a resource for the many, not a sounding board for the few. or the one. Live long and perspire.

  • westernworldidiots

    Wow, you’re all just as gullible as the Paleotards who insist eating piles of meat and fat is the only way to go. Here’s a free tip to all the hardcore fanboys/fangirls.. If your messiah(in this case Greger)is selling something – like books, seminars and other “professional lectures”, and has over a thousand MONETIZED videos on youtube – there just may be ulterior motivation to the “facts” and “science” and “proven studies” that spew forth.

    There’s also the irrefutable fact that this whole no meat go green garbage that Greger is promoting is his response to seeing animals in a stockade, not some vegan revelation from the magic produce fairy.

    Here’s an insane notion that absolutely will not sit well with first world tools who need fads and books and “special diets”.. let’s all just cut out processed food and eat balanced and varied organic diets, including meat. Kinda like humans have been doing since oh, I dunno, forever?

    Just sayin..

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/ Michael Greger M.D.

      I just wanted to clarify that not a single one of my videos is “monitized.” That’s why you’ll never see ads running on any of my videos. And all the proceeds from the sales of my books, DVDs, seminars, and lectures all goes to charity.

      • b00mer

        This is a point I ALWAYS make when telling people about this site. I always mention the dvds (since I do think they’d be a great kick in the butt for someone new to a wfpb diet to get all that info thrown at them at once) but I always specifically mention that anything you sell (books, dvds, even lectures when possible) are available online for free. I don’t hold it against the plant based docs that do sell stuff for profit, but I think the non-profit angle does say a lot about credibility to a newbie who may be a bit cynical.

        So hey by the way, thanks for all the free stuff!

    • b00mer

      Most people around the world (the healthiest ones at least) eat a diet that is very close to a whole foods plant based diet, with a small amount of animal products added. This is actually very close to the totally whole foods plant based diet that Dr. Greger advocates. Now if we have a pile of evidence that animal products are harmful, and plants are healthful, then obviously a rational person may decide to go from eating mostly plants to all plants. Where exactly is your conflict in opinion with this?

  • Michelle LeSueur

    Although I do think that vegetables and fruits are very important to our diet, to say that ALL meat is bad and everyone should be vegan is quite a statement. As a nutritionist and someone that has written and spoken on toxin awareness, toxins are more the issue!! They are everywhere!! You can not compare organic grass fed meat to the crap found in stores. Also everyone goes to the extreme. Either they eat ton’s of meat or none. There is a balance. Also you look at the digestive track of an herbivore and it is long and loaded with enzymes and especially rich in the enzyme cellulase, which we do not make, and is required to break down plant cellulose. They have long digestive tracks and many times 2 stomachs. Our digestive track is closer to an carnivore and our stomachs have 2 things, pepsin and hydrochloric acid, which is designed to break down animal protein. The problem arises when people eat too much meat and not enough fruits and vegetables. Also not enough fermented foods. Gut health is what it is about and it is essential for a healthy body!! The grains we have today have been modified and create inflammation in our bodies. Science needs to leave our food alone. Only a healthy gut can tolerate grains. All the vegans and vegetarians (with the exception of 2 people) I have known and worked with have ton’s of nutritional deficiencies and have high body fat. To make a blanket statement that meat eaters are more unhealthy just isn’t true. The real issue is reducing your toxic load regularly and eating a more balanced diet, with lots of vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds is key.

    • b00mer

      Okay, you definitely lost all credibility at “Our digestive track is closer to an carnivore”… but let’s address each of the things you’re saying anyway.

      Toxins are indeed everywhere. They are more concentrated as you go up the food chain. Even your precious grass fed cows are part of the food chain. They are not exempt from dioxins, heavy metals, flame retardants, or any other environmental toxins. I’ll give you certain pesticides and antibiotics that they’re spared in their food, sure, but other environmental toxins are concentrated in their flesh just like any other animal. For being a self-proclaimed expert in toxins, you are certainly unaware of one of the most basic ideas in toxicology: bioaccumulation.

      Pepsin and HCl are for breaking down protein, which is found in both plants and animals. Herbivores consume protein and as a result have both pepsin and HCl. As do humans.

      Herbivores don’t produce cellulase. Herbivores have bacteria that produce cellulase. As do humans.

      A hypothesis that grains cause inflammation is just that, a hypothesis, maybe it’s even a good one, but it has not been shown to occur to any significant effect at a clinical or epidemiological level.

      Are all the vegans and vegetarians that you have met coming to you as a nutritionist because in fact they are in poor health? If so, you may want to look up a term called selection bias. Not to mention, if someone were to receive nutritional advice from you, given your stellar knowledge in regards to the human body, I am not at all surprised that they were in poor health.

      Dr. Greger doesn’t make blanket statements. He describes and posts links to thousands of peer-reviewed articles. If you have a problem with what he’s presenting, you don’t need to discredit him, you need to discredit the thousands of scholars he’s citing. I’m sure with your clearly extensive educational credentials you’ll have no problem with that.

  • Mark

    Dr. Gregor, what are we to make of cadmium levels in vegans and vegetarians testing at several times that of omnivores? http://jacknorrisrd.com/cadmium-levels-in-vegans-zinc-supplements-and-alzheimers-disease/

  • Levon

    I am 36 year old male who has never ate a typical “american” diet. I grew up in central europe and now live in south east asia. I would say that my only vice was sweets. I loved pastries, tortes, cakes, chocolate, creamy stuff etc. I became vegan about a month ago and never felt better.

    It is hard for me to except that I am infertile. Especially when you see friends and people in your close environment, who are fat (some are clearly obese) and eat a diet high in meat, dairy and fat, popping out babies like there’s no tomorrow. I am currently under the care of a naturopath who prescribed herbs and lots of supplements. I don’t care much for the supplements but I still have the hope that they work and that my sperm motility and morphology improves.