Women who are pregnant have long been told in no uncertain terms that everything they eat, drink, do, and even think about will probably screw up their baby — for life. Science has slowly helped balance out the scales of justice by proving what logically had to be true: That everything would-be fathers eat, drink, do and think can screw up their sperm, and therefore their baby for life, too. Hallelujah! Wait, uh oh.
So what are men who want to father healthy children supposed to eat? Or perhaps more importantly, what aren’t they?
But first, how do we even know that a man’s diet affects his future unborn child? For a long time, we didn’t think it did. Back in 1991, Sandra Blakeslee at The New York Times wrote about increasing research that found men who were exposed to certain substances were more likely to have children with birth defects. But because we’ve long believed that women shape the health of their unborn children alone, the research was largely ignored. Blakeslee writes:
Scientists also held to what some refer to as a “macho sperm theory of conception,” the idea that only the fittest sperm were hardy enough to go the distance necessary to fertilize an egg. In fact research now shows that tiny hairs in the female reproductive tract move sperm along whether they are healthy or defective.
In other words, sperm doesn’t have a bulletproof system from separating the solid swimmers from the defects — bad sperm can get through, and do. And a slew of research in the intervening years has helped us understand everything a dude does that can turn sperm bad. “A critical mass of research now demonstrates that environmental exposures — from paints to pesticides — can cause men to father children with all sorts of abnormalities,” Emily Anthes wrote in 2010 in a comprehensive look at the existing research at Pacific Standard.
But that’s not all. “Drinking booze, smoking cigarettes, taking prescription medications and even just not eating a balanced diet can influence the health of men’s future kids,” Anthes writes. Such diet and lifestyle hazards can produce children with obesity, autism, birth defects, mental illness, and more.
While it’s unclear exactly how impactful some of these behaviors are, we’ve reached a new era in procreation: Just as women are told to not take even a sip of booze while pregnant, men, are now faced with paranoid body-stalking over their choices and their impact on future children.
So, here’s what to do, and what not to do.
While Trying to Conceive
Don’t drink, don’t smoke. Research shows that men who drink and smoke prior to conception can have misshapen, abnormal, no-good, very bad sperm, and sometimes they wreak havoc. “It’s true that misshapen sperm are less likely to succeed in fertilizing an egg,” urologist Marc Goldstein told Gurney Williams at Parenting. “But if they do, the fetus is more likely to have problems and the odds of miscarriage go up.”
Such problems impact sperm production and quality, resulting in, bare minimum, an increase in miscarriages. Goldstein told Williams about a couple whose wife had two miscarriages while trying to conceive. Her fertility tests didn’t turn up any issues; when her husband, who drank heavily each night and smoked, submitted to a sperm test, it revealed misshapen, abnormal sperm. When the man reduced his drinking and began using a nicotine patch, his good sperm multiplied, and the couple eventually had a healthy pregnancy.
Quitting smoking at any time is an improvement, but ideally it’s long before a man tries to conceive. While some reports give men a few months to correct the damage of previous lifestyle and start pumping out the good stuff, Williams also cites a study that found that fathers who smoked at any time prior to conceiving were 30 percent more likely to father children with cancer.
Men who drink heavily while conceiving can contribute to lower birth weight, impaired cognitive abilities and smaller brain size in their offspring, even when the mother doesn’t drink at all. They can also up the chances of autism and schizophrenia. But experts say dads-in-waiting don’t have to give it up completely, just try to limit themselves to one or two drinks a day.
Don’t smoke weed or do narcotics. Both can lower sperm count. One study found that male rats on morphine yielded abnormal rat children.
Eat right. “If expectant mothers eat for two, their husbands ought to eat for three before conception: themselves, their partners, and their children-to-be,” Williams writes. Here are a few tried and trues you should apply to boost fertility.
- Oysters: For zinc, which ups sperm and testosterone
- Fruits, vegetables: Vitamin-rich antioxidants, pal. Get three to five daily doses of vegetables, and two-to-four daily doses of fruit.
- Pomegranate juice: See above.
- Pumpkin seeds: Zinc, omega-3s.
- High protein, low-carb diet: A new study on fruit flies, who share 60 percent of human disease and genes, found that male fruit flies who ate a high-carb, low-protein diet had offspring with a poorer chance for survival. So go high-protein, low-carb.
- Vitamins in general are a biggie: Men in one study Parenting cites who didn’t get enough vitamin C (under 10 milligrams a day, when six times that is needed), which is vital to male reproductive health, were two and a half times more likely to produce abnormal or damaged sperm. Yes, men can take prenatal vitamins, too — again, they mainly need C, E and folic acid.
- Junk food: Duh, sugar and fat are bad.
- High-mercury fish: Mercury jacks up your sperm.
- Caffeine: Cutting down on coffee can reduce your miscarriage risk. One study found that women AND men who drank three cups of a caffeinated beverage a day or more were twice as likely to have a miscarriage. Researchers aren’t exactly sure why, but think it messes with sperm production or implantation.
A good easy rule to follow here is that you should just eat whatever she’s eating, and avoid whatever she’s avoiding (either because it’s bad, like booze, or because it’s grossing her out, out of solidarity) to ensure optimal baby health.
Lose weight. A 2013 study found that mice fed a high-fat diet for 10 weeks that induced obesity and diabetes transmitted insulin resistance to their offspring.
Don’t procreate right after chemo. Men who’ve recently undergone chemotherapy treatments should wait two years before trying to conceive, as sperm counts are lower and the radiation damages sperm temporarily. Similarly, prescription meds like Tagamet or steroids may affect sperm production, so you should discuss it with a doctor and figure out healthier alternatives.
Avoid toxic chemicals. Pregnant women who are partnered with men who work near lead, who are anesthesiologists, or who work in dental offices or operating rooms expose them to anesthetic gases that increase the risk of miscarriage. Add to this men whose work exposes them to toxic fumes, like firefighters, welders, or the radiation at power plants, or the solvents at an auto body shop, are also at risk.
Keep your balls cool. Hot balls — from a jacuzzi, electric blanket or tight jeans — or jostled balls, from, say, cycling — will juke that sperm up. Best to avoid.
Don’t be too old. This one’s controversial, as women have long had to fight for actual modern research helping them understand their age’s impact on healthy pregnancy, but fathers who wait too long to breed put their children at some real risks. Fathers over 40 are more likely to have a child with autism, Down syndrome or schizophrenia.
After She’s Knocked Up
While the lion’s share of the work in conceiving a healthy child falls during the period when you’re doing all that boning to get knocked up, men—just like women—are not out of the woods just because the pregnancy stuck.
Chill out. Depressed men (during pregnancy) can increase the chances of depression in their offspring by 11 percent. In another study, behavioral problems in 3-year-olds were linked to fathers who admitted high distress during pregnancy, according to Time. Researchers suspect that depression in men can create hormonal changes in expectant mothers.
Don’t smoke, don’t drink. Men should continue to not smoke throughout the pregnancy (and ideally forever after) because of the impact of secondhand smoke on the pregnant woman and the baby. As for drinking, sure, maybe she can have a glass of wine here or there. And maybe it’s technically okay if you have a lot more. But hey—she can’t. Are you in this together, soldier? Don’t be a jerk.
Congratulations! Your baby is safely out of the oven. Bad news: You can still muck it up. Keep in mind at least a few areas where your influence goes deeper than you may have realized now that your newborn is living among us.
Eating. How you eat still affects your kid, for better or worse. One study found that a father’s reliance on fast food affected a child’s eating habits, even more so than the mother, and dads who eat in the car produce kids who eat in the car. Remember that your habits become their habits.
Stress. Other research found that dad’s stress levels can affect a child’s development and bonding with both other parents and their peers. A stressed-out dad, for instance, can impede language skills in 2- and 3-year-olds, and dads tend to impact this in sons more than daughters.
Depression. As we’ve reported before, new dads get fat and depressed, too. Your weight gain from her pregnancy might still be slowing you down. But more importantly, postpartum depression affects some 5 to 10 percent of men, too. Depressed fathers are less engaged, more likely to spank their kids and less likely to get help, setting off a domino effect of problems at home.
All this is to say that men, critically, should take just as much care of themselves as their partners should. While it’s still nothing compared to the relentless onslaught of advice and criticism women face when they dare to breed, look on the bright side: We’re all finally stuck in this excruciating minefield of scrutiny together.