A Thumbs Down Book Review
The Fertility Diet By Jorge E. Chavarro, MD, ScD, and Walter C. Willett, MD, DrPH McGraw Hill, 2007 Reviewed by Julia Indichova
When I first read about the “breakthrough” book based on the “startling” new research from the Nurses Health Study, I thought, finally, after 13 years of teaching workshops on the link between fertility and food as one aspect of reclaiming our hormonal health, here is a Harvard team validating my work. Then, when my copy arrived and I began reading, I realized how lucky I was that The Fertility Diet had not been published at the time of my own diagnosis 16 years ago. Otherwise I, too, might have been tempted to follow it. And that would’ve been a mistake.
In 1992, I was in desperate search of a miracle cure for my furiously rising hormone levels which—according to a well-documented study—reduced my remaining childbearing years to zero. At the time I was eating close to the recommendations of The Fertility Diet: lots of tofu, brown rice, an afternoon cappuccino pick-me-up, followed by a scoop of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and an occasional glass of wine. Yet there I was, at 42, entering premature menopause with several endocrinologists proclaiming my “ovulatory infertility” to be beyond repair.
One day, in a last-ditch effort to prop up my wilting ovaries, I began a physical and emotional overhaul with radical changes in my diet and rigorous self-examination.
Sailing past the siren songs of sugar and caffeine was not easy, but just eight months later I received the sweetest of rewards: a positive pregnancy test that was the early announcement of the arrival of a healthy baby girl. My most important discovery was that I could actually change my life through daily practice and loving discipline.
Though some of the discussion in The Fertility Diet, namely the idea of replacing low fat foods with their whole fat counterparts, is undeniably a step in the right direction, for the reader who has not done extensive prior research many of the suggestions can be highly misleading.
Consider this statement: “It has been hard to keep up with the fortunes of soy over the last decade. . . ” followed by “don’t turn up your nose at tofu. . . or ignore soy milk. . . ” If you’re going to write a book entitled The Fertility Diet, you might care to do what it takes to keep up with the fortunes of soy. Women with irregular ovulation might, in fact, do best to turn up their noses at tofu and soy milk. Soy products have been linked with impaired thyroid function—not a desirable condition for an aspiring mom.
Here is another equally troubling invitation: “Drink coffee. . . and alcohol in moderation. . .we didn’t see any effects on fertility at moderate levels of caffeine intake, which is the equivalent of three to four cups of coffee a day.” The interested reader will indeed find a number of sources documenting the adverse effects of caffeine, including higher miscarriage rates (Bolumar et al.,1997, 145(4):324-34), increased blood pressure, excessive urinary excretion of magnesium, potassium and calcium (essential nutrients for maintaining a healthy pregnancy), to name a few. And if none of these findings were convincing, when attempting to create a most welcoming environment for new life, wouldn’t it make more sense to abstain from ingesting a substance that leads to physical dependency serious enough to result in withdrawal symptoms?
In the last 14 years of counseling women with ovulatory issues, I have found that eight out of 10 women have digestive difficulties. I wonder about the effect of a four-cheese soufflé, a few cups of coffee, a glass of wine, fruit desserts, and nuts and berries for an evening snack—to name but a few dietary suggestions in the back of the book—on an already compromised digestive system.
Oh, yes, many readers might miss the irony of the lovely image of two peas in a pod on the jacket of the book. At first I thought it was an odd but interesting conscious choice, until I found them listed in one of the charts without any mention of their damaging effect. Peas, you see, are not quite the libido-lifting edibles you want to mix into your husband’s dinner salad, at least not if you’re trying to have a baby. They are one of the few vegetables known to have contraceptive properties (Cent African Journal of Medicine 1993; 39(3):52-6).
By no means am I implying that scientific research is to be dismissed. But in case you’re tempted to wait for the next study (Dr. Chavarro has assured us that “Plans are underway to conduct a. . . study to test the diet in a more scientifically rigorous manner. . . ”) to determine your dinner menu, here is something I learned observing hundreds of people who conceived robust babies, often in direct contradiction of current food science dogma. When it comes to something as dynamic as a human organism, as complex as food, and as miraculous as creating life, nothing can equal the value of doing your own thinking and the solid science of direct observation.
This article appeared Wise Traditions in Food, Farming, and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2008.
See more about the reviewer Julia Indichova at www.fertileheart.com