A registered dietitian nutritionist and the owner of Lizzy Swick Nutrition, Lizzy Swick, explains how changing her diet helped with her own fertility and how it may help others like her.
Registered Dietician & Nutritionist, Owner, Lizzy Swick Nutrition
How has using food as medicine changed your life?
I grew up in a family where homemade food was abundant thanks to my mother’s passion for cooking, however despite the food being delicious, there was a lot of vegetable oils, conventional dairy, processed gluten, white sugar and refined grains. I suffered from mysterious hormonal conditions and while never given the diagnosis of PCOS, the writing was on the wall that I had a variation of it.
As the saying goes, sometimes you don’t know how bad you are feeling until you finally feel good. Well, when I went to grad school and started eating real, whole, unprocessed foods and learned that food is medicine and our relationship with food is also medicine, I was able to let go of so much additive stress to my system, release inflammation, normalize blood sugar, achieve a healthy weight naturally without dieting, and ultimately balance my hormones and finally conceive my precious two daughters! While it didn’t happen overnight, transforming my mental approach to food as my partner in female health has been the most inspiring life changing switch that I am in awe of every day.
How did you know that changing your diet would help your fertility?
In graduate school for nutrition I learned that food was information, not merely calories or fuel. Food is information that can either create the healthy milieu for hormonal balance or destroy it. I learned that key minerals like calcium, sodium, copper, zinc, potassium, and magnesium, as an example, are like spark plugs that make our cellular reactions occur — the same reactions necessary for fertility to be successful.
Doctor after doctor told me as a child and young woman that due to my symptoms (in hindsight basically misdiagnosed PCOS) I would have difficulty conceiving naturally and would likely need round after round of IVF. When it came time to try and conceive, I warned my hubby that it could be a long road and we would need to gear up for the bumps and detours. Fortunately, at the same time, I was working my first job as a registered dietitian for a well-known doctor in functional medicine and one of the benefits in the employment package was care with a physician on the team. That experience with this physician is so special to me, because she helped me apply the food as medicine approach to my personal needs at the time.
What do you recommend for people trying to take a holistic approach to getting pregnant?
First, I always tell women that it’s not what we eat, but what we absorb. If we are stressed out about normal life things — work, relationships, or our fertility of course — that is going to negate the hard work of eating well. But stress is more than the normal things, it’s also our relationship to food, our body image, our health image. Our attitude about fertility will play a large role in actualizing it. Meaning, if we spend our time eating all the veggies, fibers, protein, and healthy fats but we have a deeper relationship with fear than trusting our body, we won’t likely get the results we’re wanting.
Another example of stress getting in the way of fertility is if we are eating well, taking supplements, and working on our attitude but we aren’t getting enough sleep or we are over-exercising, those also play a monumental role in fertility and hormonal balance. So when I work with women, my priority looks different theirs. They want a list of rules around what to eat and what to avoid but I want a list of where stress is entering their system and how we can mitigate its effect on their hormones and metabolism. Fertility is a true testament to integrative health which makes it such meaningful work.
Since everyone’s body is different, what is the best way to learn what works for your body?
You have to leave the dogma aside, relieve yourself of pressure to fit into a certain dietary camp (aka Paleo, Keto, Vegan etc.), and listen to your heart. Your heart is the way your body communicates to you. Too often we are told to avoid emotions or shove them way, way down. However, we have emotions for a reason, and scientifically speaking, our survival is dependent upon listening and honoring those emotions. That’s the purpose of intuition. If we can tune into how we feel when we’re eating certain foods, and not judge ourselves for what or how much we want to eat, we can learn so much about works for us as individuals.
An exercise I like to do is have women go on Pinterest or Instagram and, without thinking about it or intellectualizing it, find 4-5 pictures of food that inspire them and light them up inside. This is a great way to help women get out of their minds and into their bodies.
I have found that the more connected a woman is to how she feels, both emotionally and physically, the stronger her fertility is. It’s astounding to see this! For example, with the recent low-carb craze, so many women come to me eating under 30 percent carbohydrates. (Carbohydrates are uniquely important for fertility so it’s important to screen women for their carb intake). Ironically, the foods most women fantasize eating or like to see pictures of online, are, you guessed it, carbs! And not candy or junky carbs, but real foods like fresh succulent fruits, brightly hued starches, earthy grains, and nourishing legumes.
When I can connect a person’s innate craving for food with the rationale behind why eating X, Y, Z is important for fertility, it’s like a lightbulb goes off and with that, a person has “permission” to eat foods they want to eat, regardless what the popular diet craze is currently. That experimentation is key to finding your own unique fertility diet. I see myself as a guide on the journey rather than trying to be an authority over their body.
As women, we all know in our hearts what we need, we just need to have confidence and trust in ourselves which is also the first step in motherhood too! But we all need help and sometimes we need an expert who is also objective to help us and that is where my team and I come in.