Though he’s unlikely to admit it, when Pope Francis celebrates his first Easter as Catholic-in-chief next week, he’ll be helping to perpetuate one of humanity’s abiding sexual obsessions: the link between food and fertility.
According to Christian doctrine, the official business of all those Easter eggs is to represent Jesus’s tomb and resurrection—an egg appears to be lifeless, but a baby chick dwells inside. (No doubt that’s what Pope Benedict had in mind last year, when he donated a 500-pound Easter egg to a Roman juvenile-detention centre.)
It’s no secret, however, that Easter eggs were probably borrowed from pagan fertility rites. In northern Europe, especially, pagan believers considered eating eggs during religious festivals a safeguard of childbearing ability.
We’re no less obsessed with the link between food and fertility today, and for good reason. According to government stats, around 250,000 Canadian couples face difficulties conceiving. The age at which women are having their first kid is often the root of the difficulties, causing researchers to cast around for anything to keep the reproductive window open a little longer. Increasingly, that means focusing on diet.
For most of our history, humanity has based its selection of fertility-boosting foods on teenage-boy logic: If it looked naughty (avocadoes, bananas), it made the cut. Science has made all this a good deal less sensual. As the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has repeatedly pointed out, there’s no food on earth that’s been proven to make you horny, and a growing body of research suggests that some foods can seriously damage your shot at reproduction—including a lot of staples of a typical Canadian diet.
Amy Sedgewick, a holistic reproductive-health practitioner with Toronto-based sexual-health website redrentsisters.com, believes that time-crunched Torontonians, with their hectic days and dependence on crappy grab-and-go meals, could be screwing up their reproductive chances. “When your body is stressed like that on a daily basis, reproduction is the first thing to go,” she says.
One of the leading Canadian voices linking diet and fertility is Dr. Lorne Brown, a B.C.-based expert in traditional Chinese medicine. Brown believes Western diets loaded with processed meat and simple carbohydrates bring about hormonal chaos and wild changes in blood-sugar levels, causing women to age prematurely. “I see women who may be chronologically 30, but their bodies are 40,” he says. So Brown espouses a “fertility diet,” designed to keep everything in balance.
Unsurprisingly, his list of officially sanctioned foods is closer to what you’ll find in a Forest Hill organics shop than at an Ossington eatery: We’re in the land of whole oats, pumpkin seeds, nettles, and hemp hearts here. You can have meat, but it must be the grass-fed, organic variety, and portions should be small—more like rations.
Brown bases his recommendations on a Harvard University study of 18,000 women, which found those who ate a mostly plant-based diet, rich in complex carbs, had fewer problems conceiving than their burger-and-chocolate munching colleagues. Another study, from the University of Surrey in England, found that a similar diet, together with lifestyle modifications, including cutting down on caffeine and booze, helped 80 per cent of couples with unexplained fertility problems.
Women, who reach peak reproductive capacity earlier than men, tend to be be more affected by poor diet. While sperm quality has been shown to take a hit from vitamin C deficiency and alcohol consumption, sperm count and motility are not hugely reliable indicators of a guy’s chance of becoming a father. (It only takes one to hit the target.)
There may, however, be other reasons men with crappy diets end up with a failing grade when trying to propagate the species. In recent years, a number of studies have confirmed that as a man puts on weight, it gets harder for him to, well, get hard. Arteries clogged with cholesterol from a fat-laden Western diet can stop blood from getting where it needs to be, leading to deterioration in what doctors rather judgmentally term “erection quality.”
There’s also an inverse relationship between the growth of a man’s belly and the penetrative capacity of his penis. Basically, the organ gets buried under an abdominal fat pad. Some doctors have started exploiting this fact to encourage their man-patients to improve their diet and lifestyle—so maybe it’s best to go easy on the Easter eggs this year.