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Can Dad's Diet Make a Healthier Baby?

Is Dad Eating for Two?
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD

April 2, 2001 -- Advice abounds for women who are trying to get or are already pregnant. Alcohol and tobacco are taboo, for example, while fitness and healthy diets are big plusses.

All that attention might leave fathers-to-be feeling left out. But now, doctors say there may be something new that prospective dads can do to improve the reproductive process: Get more folic acid in their diet.

In a study published in the February issue of the journal Fertility and Sterility, researchers from the University of California at Berkeley and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Western Human Nutrition Research Center link low levels of folic acid with low sperm counts and density.

It has been well established that women who take folic acid before and during pregnancy significantly reduce their risk of having a baby with neural tube defects such as spina bifida. Women are advised to get 400 micrograms of folic acid per day, either from dietary sources such as leafy greens, orange juice, legumes, and fortified cereals, or through vitamin supplements.

The study in men measured concentrations of folic acid, a type of vitamin B, in the blood and semen of 48 subjects who were 20 to 50 years old.

Folic acid is metabolized into different forms in the body. It was the low level of a certain type -- the non-methyl form -- that correlated with low sperm quality, the researchers found.

"One of folic acid's major roles is to participate in DNA synthesis," says lead author Lynn Wallock, PhD, a nutritionist and an assistant research scientist at the Children's Hospital of Oakland Research Institute. Wallock was working at the Western Human Nutrition Research Center at the time of the study.

The authors say the non-methyl form of folic acid is important in the production of thymine, one of the four nucleic acids used to make DNA. They also refer to a 1997 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (a journal that publishes papers written by academy members) that linked deficiencies in folic acid to subsequent chromosome breaks.

"This confirms previous studies in rats, showing that folate deficiency, if it's severe, causes impairment in sperm counts," says Marc Goldstein, MD, an expert in male infertility who is not associated with the study. Goldstein, a professor of reproductive medicine and urology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, and co-executive director of the Cornell Institute for Reproductive Medicine, says there is growing evidence that "folate does seem to be important in sperm production."

While Wallock and her colleagues also noted that smokers -- who made up approximately half the subject group -- had significantly lower levels of the non-methyl form in their semen than non-smokers, they drew no specific conclusions from this, calling instead for further research into this finding.

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