Future fathers of the world, eat your spinach salads. That’s the message behind a new study in Nature Communications suggesting that what fathers eat before conceiving a baby might play an important role in whether their children suffer from birth defects. Researchers from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, compared the health of mice from fathers that had a sufficient level of vitamin B9, also known as folate, in their diet to dads that had a deficit. (Here’s a list of folate-rich foods for humans.) “We were very surprised to see that there was an almost 30% increase in birth defects in the offspring sired by fathers whose levels of folates were insufficient,” says Romain Lambrot, a reproductive biologist in McGill’s Animal Sciences Department. “We saw some pretty severe skeletal abnormalities that included both cranio-facial and spinal deformities.”
It’s not clear how the findings from mice apply to humans or how the mechanism works to turn on certain genes, but the research is the latest addition to a growing body of evidence showing that men’s lifestyles affect the quality of their sperm. (Women have long been advised to take folic acid to prevent miscarriage and birth defects.) Among the latest recommendations for men who plan on making babies in the near future: Don’t smoke to protect the size and shape of your sperm. Keep a healthy weight to prevent sperm DNA damage. Exercise to boost your sperm count. Don’t drink too much, and don’t wait too long to try to have children. Not only are men who try to reproduce after the age of 35 more likely to experience infertility, they have more random gene mutations that increase the risk of their children developing autism and schizophrenia. Considering that men account for one-third of infertility cases in the U.S., hopefully these recommendations will help more people have healthier babies.
All this attention on male fertility is a welcome trend in a field that has overwhelmingly focused on women. Until recently, men have only been cautioned to avoid wearing tight bicycle shorts and to stay out of the hot tub. Women have been the ones expected to meditate, eat organic apples and avoid two-for-one margarita specials as part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended prepregnancy regimen. “The public continues to almost exclusively police women’s bodies and behaviors, not men’s, when it comes to reproduction,” explains Miranda Waggoner, a Princeton sociologist who along with Yale’s Rene Almeling wrote a recent piece in the journal Gender and Society about how men’s role in reproduction has been sidelined. To that point, Slate’s Jessica Grose writes that one of the most widely e-mailed articles on the New York Times website recently was about how women’s eating habits affect their babies in the womb.
The authors recommend that doctors routinely ask men whether they plan on having children — in much the same way ob-gyns are encouraged to bring up the subject of pregnancy plans with their female patients. “This is important information for men to have, and they deserve to learn about what they can do to improve the health of their children,” says Almeling. Also, insurance companies should cover preconception visits for men without requiring a co-payment. (The Affordable Care Act mandated this for women, who are urged to think of pregnancy as lasting 12 months.)
What’s unclear is how all this new advice will play out in real life. “Some men will resist the message at first,” says Cambridge University sociologist Liberty Walther Barnes, author of Conceiving Masculinity: Male Infertility, Medicine, and Identity, which is due out in May. “In Western culture, masculinity is often defined by independence and autonomy, so there is a social assumption that men do not want to be told what to do, even when it comes to their health.” In her research for her book, Barnes found that half of men in 24 couples who were diagnosed with infertility did not consider themselves infertile. Yet she points out that masculinity is also defined by feeling in control, and heeding medical advice gives them a sense of power over their bodies and reproductive abilities. Let’s just hope that their ears and minds will be open to that advice.