Few people know that the average man’s sperm count has dropped steadily over the past 40 years (1). This fact should scare everyone, especially men. However, sperm health is the last thing on the minds of most men. How nutrition impacts sperm is even further away from our collective consciousness. Step into any barbershop in America—you won’t see anyone talking about disappearing sperm. You’ll hear about Lebron James, Steph Curry, everyone’s opinion on trap music, Instagram models, politics, et cetera. Falling sperm counts? Absolutely nothing. Granted, the barbershop might not be the best place for that type of conversation, but someone needs to talk about a brewing epidemic of male infertility.
Back in 1979, in the iconic song “Rappers Delight,” the rapper Big Bank Hank (RIP) famously quipped, “I can bust you out with my super sperm.” Our sperm counts have fallen dramatically since then. If that song were remade by an emcee today, “barely functional sperm” would be a more appropriate lyric.
So why is the quality of sperm decreasing? Is this really a problem? Can we blame it on foods we’re eating? This post tackles these questions and shares some sperm friendly nutrition tips.
Is declining sperm quality really a problem?
Yes, it’s a problem. The chart above highlights that average sperm counts have dropped by 59% over the past 38 years. Look at the chart and let it marinate for a second. With this drop in mind, it’s not surprising that “in about 35% of couples with infertility, a male factor is identified along with a female factor”(2). Falling sperm counts combined with the trend of having children at later ages means that some couples will face difficulties with fertility (check out my wife’s article on pregnancy and age).
The future societal impact of falling sperm quality is even more concerning. Have you seen the movie Children of Men? It’s a film about a dystopian future in which people can no longer have children. I’m not saying that’s where we’re headed. Nonetheless, the movie is a cautionary tale about infertility on an epidemic scale.
Alright, I know that many dudes could care less about their fertility. If anything, many of us spend (or should spend #ijs) significant portions of our lives avoiding having kids. For this crowd, it’s worth noting that sperm health is a marker of one’s health overall (3). In a sense, sperm is like the proverbial “coal miner’s canary.” So not caring about your sperm health has broader ramifications than reproduction alone.
Why are sperm counts dropping? Is our diet killing sperm?
No one knows why sperm counts are falling precipitously. Some say sperm are vanishing due to men resting laptops on their laps. Others blame the heat generated from cell phones sitting in pants pockets. Obesity is also a likely factor. What do I think? My inner old man blames the increasingly popular testicular death chambers known as skinny jeans—just kidding (maybe). The doctor in me knows that the drop is likely due to a variety of factors. What we eat is always a culprit for any health problem. Accordingly, several studies suggest that consuming certain foods may harm sperm (4). The good news is that there are also foods that may improve sperm quality.
Foods that decrease sperm health
Before I discuss foods that can affect sperm health, it’s worth noting that most studies dealing with nutrition aren’t set up to show that eating particular foods cause disease; most studies are only set up to show associations, not causes.
This is not surprising—recent studies link processed meats to all sorts of illnesses. Processed meats include hot dogs, salami, beef jerky, bacon, etc. I get it; they’re delicious. Yes, bacon can make anything taste better. Regarding hot dogs…I’m from Chicago. In the case of sperm, several studies connect eating processed red meat with decreased sperm counts and altered sperm motility (4). It’s not clear how these foods affect sperm, but it appears the effect isn’t a positive one. Of note, these same studies did not find an association between eating chicken and reduced sperm health.
Trans fats suck. I know that doesn’t sound academic, but I’m not writing this post for the New England Journal of Medicine. Google trans fats; I dare you. Researchers are primarily concerned about trans fats increasing the risk of heart disease. Unfortunately, the concerns don’t stop there. A 2011 Spanish study linked the increased intake of trans fats with decreased sperm counts—one more reason for politicians to support banning trans fats (5). It’s funny to think that civilization started in the ‘fertile crescent,’ now it might die due to ‘infertile croissants.’ Check out this post from the American Heart Association for more info on trans fats.
Soy products contain phytoestrogens—estrogen-like compounds that come from plants. ‘Toxic masculinity’ is a societal problem, but men consuming phytoestrogens isn’t a solution. A study of 99 men from fertility clinics in Boston concluded that excessive soy intake might decrease sperm concentration (6). If you’re on a tofurkey detox diet, be careful (that’s not a thing by the way).
Pesticides and Bisphenol A (BPA)
Honestly, these are probably the scariest on the list because they are not foods, but they still end up in what we eat. Plus, they’re everywhere. Obviously, pesticides end up on vegetables and fruits. They also end up in meat and fish due to tainted water supplies. BPA is no better—it’s in most food packaging and cans. It slowly leeches into the foods we eat. Both BPA and chemicals within pesticides act as xenoestrogens—chemicals that mimic estrogen. Just like the phytoestrogens in soy, xenoestrogens can wreak havoc on sperm concentration (7). On a side note, some of the same chemicals in pesticides can come from non-stick cookware (check out our previous post).
High Fat Dairy Products
Milk may ‘do a body good,’ if you don’t include sperm as part of the body. The Rochester Young Men’s Study, an analysis of sperm and diet from 189 men between the ages of 18-22, showed that high-fat dairy products (whole milk, cream, and cheese) were associated with decreased sperm motility and abnormal sperm shape (8). Some of this could be due to sex steroids given to cows.
Foods that may improve sperm health
One small study associated higher amounts of fish consumption with better sperm motility. Other studies were inconclusive. Fish’s benefits for sperm health are likely due to the high concentration of omega-3 fatty acids in fish, but the role of fish in sperm health is unclear overall. Eating fish probably helps if it is an alternative to red and/or processed meats (4).
Fruits and veggies
A study of 250 men who had sperm analyzed at a fertility clinic showed that men who ate higher amounts of fruits and veggies, particularly green leafy vegetables and beans (legumes), had higher sperm concentrations and better sperm motility compared to men who ate less of these foods. This is not surprising since plant-based whole foods are high in anti-oxidants such as co-enzyme Q10, vitamin C, and lycopene. These micronutrients have been linked to higher sperm concentrations. Several studies have shown that co-enzyme q supplements may have a positive impact on sperm health, but ultimately we need more studies to make definitive recommendations (4).
Who would have thought that nuts help nuts (I already know this is probably one of the top 5 corniest sentences I’ve ever written in my life #yolo)? In 2012, in a small study, researchers assigned 117 men, ages 21-35 years, to eating or not eating approximately 18 walnuts daily for 12 weeks. The researchers analyzed sperm parameters before and after the study period. They found significant improvements in sperm vitality only in the nut group (the pun was intended) (9).
What’s the bottom line for improving sperm health?
- Eat your veggies. Try organic veggies or at least make sure you wash your veggies thoroughly. If you don’t want to spend all of your money on organic vegetables, check out the environmental working group’s dirty dozen for the worst offenders.
- Cut back on processed meat, try fish instead.
- Be careful with trans fats (eat less fried junk food).
- Minimize soy.
- Watch out for BPA in canned goods. Look for BPA free cans. Try to avoid plastics where possible.
- Don’t overindulge in high-fat dairy items (ice cream, whole milk, etc.)
- Don’t smoke cigarettes.
- Eat walnuts (if you don’t have a nut allergy of course).
- Lose weight if you are overweight.
I am a physician and trained chef. I specialize in gastroenterology and nutrition. Currently I work as the Associate Director of Adult Nutrition at the University of Chicago.