Infertility is a global public health issue, affecting 15% of all couples of reproductive age. Male factors, including decreased semen quality, are responsible for ~25% of these cases. The dietary pattern, the components of the diet and nutrients have been studied as possible determinants of sperm function and/or fertility.
Previous systematic reviews have been made of the few heterogeneous low-quality randomized clinical trials (RCTs) conducted in small samples of participants and investigating the effect of specific nutrients and nutritional supplements on male infertility. However, as yet there has been no systematic review of observational studies.
A comprehensive systematic review was made of the published literature, from the earliest available online indexing year to November 2016, in accordance with the guidelines of the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses. We have included cross-sectional, case-control and prospective and retrospective studies in which fertile/infertile men were well defined (men with sperm disorders, sperm DNA damage, varicocele or idiopathic infertility). The primary outcomes were semen quality or fecundability. With the data extracted, we evaluated and scored the quality of the studies selected. We excluded RCTs, animal studies, review articles and low-quality studies.
A total of 1944 articles were identified, of which 35 were selected for qualitative analysis. Generally, the results indicated that healthy diets rich in some nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, some antioxidants (vitamin E, vitamin C, β-carotene, selenium, zinc, cryptoxanthin and lycopene), other vitamins (vitamin D and folate) and low in saturated fatty acids and trans-fatty acids were inversely associated with low semen quality parameters. Fish, shellfish and seafood, poultry, cereals, vegetables and fruits, low-fat dairy and skimmed milk were positively associated with several sperm quality parameters. However, diets rich in processed meat, soy foods, potatoes, full-fat dairy and total dairy products, cheese, coffee, alcohol, sugar-sweetened beverages and sweets have been detrimentally associated with the quality of semen in some studies. As far as fecundability is concerned, a high intake of alcohol, caffeine and red meat and processed meat by males has a negative influence on the chance of pregnancy or fertilization rates in their partners.
Male adherence to a healthy diet could improve semen quality and fecundability rates. Since observational studies may prove associations but not causation, the associations summarized in the present review need to be confirmed with large prospective cohort studies and especially with well-designed RCTs.