If you’re a man whose diet is filled with junk food and sweet treats, you could be risking your fitness, your hair, your sexual health – and more besides. Potent nutrition is the answer. Here’s how you can use food to make yourself strong and healthy again – and stay that way.
Triple cheeseburgers, chunky potato fries, large 12-inch pizzas, man-size chocolate bars, bottle of beer after bottle of beer - if this sounds a little like your favoured diet you may (rightly) be concerned that you’re running the risk of health problems.
Everybody knows that a balanced diet, low in saturated fat, and high in complex carbohydrates, fruit and vegetables, can be an invaluable contribution towards overall health, but sometimes we guys need a little bit more by way of nutrition. But what? And is there anything else you can do to give yourself a dietary boost and help prevent you succumbing to male health problems as you grow older?
Eating to build your muscular strength
If you like to exercise a lot or use the gym regularly, with the aim of fine-tuning your physique, you may feel you need to eat a lot of high-protein foods in order to build lean muscle. The problem with this tactic is that protein foods such as meat and dairy often come with a lot of saturated fat - the nutrient most closely associated with elevated blood cholesterol and consequently with heart disease, one of the biggest killers in men.
‘Protein is generally not a nutrient that most men are short of,’ says dietitian Ursula Arens, ‘but if you are doing a lot of working out and exercise, then your protein requirements are a little bit higher - but not usually enough for you to need to buy expensive brands of protein shakes, however.’
Ursula instead recommends going for low-fat dairy and meat options. ‘Chicken is lean, and lean cuts of beef are good too,’ she says. ‘When you buy whole cuts of meat you can see any fat in the flesh, so you can make informed choices, but in processed meats or meat products such as burgers, the fat isn’t visible, so it’s tougher. Make a point of reading and comparing labels for fat content.’
With dairy, choose reduced fat, semi-skimmed or skimmed options, which are still rich in protein. ‘Men are increasingly drinking more semi-skimmed and skimmed milks than whole milk, so we know that this message is beginning to get across to them,’ says Ursula. ‘However, we know that they might also eat tubs of ice cream made from cream and wholemilk - so there is still some way to go! Low-fat yoghurts make a much better alternative’. Vegan sources of protein include all beans, pulses and nuts.
Another vital nutrient in muscular growth is iron, especially important for the blood in helping build new tissue. ‘Adolescent boys in particular need a lot of this mineral,’ says Ursula. ‘Late teens is the time when muscle is being laid down in growing young men, and anaemia is more likely if iron intake is insufficient. Iron is traditionally linked to red meat, which is the best source, but you can get it in fish, green vegetables, dried fruit and pulses too.’
Eating for healthy hair
Male pattern baldness (MPB) is genetically acquired and triggered by the influence of testosterone in the body - sadly, changing your diet can’t stop it and there is no nutritional magic bullet which can reverse the loss. Stress and unrelated illnesses may also be factors in hair loss.
Nutritionally speaking, as hair is about four-fifths protein, some recommend topping up protein levels in the diet, but this is unlikely
to help. ‘The interesting thing about hair cells,’ says trichologist Glenn Lyons, ‘is that they are one of the fastest-growing cells in the body, so this growth’s demand for energy is very high indeed. The best foods for energy are good complex carbohydrates - such
as wholemeal bread, brown rice, pasta and jacket potatoes.’
He adds: ‘If you are looking to hang on to your hair, you can maximise its health by keeping energy levels topped up and not leaving long gaps between meals which allow levels to drop. As far as the body is concerned, hair is a low priority - so when resources are low, those resources will be diverted elsewhere, away from the hair follicles. A wholegrain breakfast is the most important energy kick, and is the best way to fuel up before the day starts’.
Other researchers suspect high-fat diets can contribute to hair loss - especially diets with high hydrogenated fats, found in processed meat convenience products such as pies, pastries and sausage rolls, and some margarines and spreadable fats. A diet high in essential fatty acids - found in fish, nuts and seeds - may have the reverse effect.
Studies from the US have suggested soya may reduce hair loss in men, due to a compound called equol - a digestive by-product of soya - which may limit the damaging action of testosterone by-products on the hair follicles.
With the scaling conditions, Glenn Lyons recommends addressing dairy intake. ‘It’s generalising a little, as there may be other factors involved, but it’s better to minimise dairy foods to reduce dandruff and eczema of the scalp,’ he explains. ‘This is an idea which the medical establishment is gradually becoming sympathetic towards, and cheese appears to be the worst culprit of all, as it is one of the hardest foods to digest’.
Eating for sexual health
The usual sensible advice to maintain a strong male libido is to have a healthy bodyweight, eat a balanced varied diet, and avoid smoking. While it is appealing and marketable to portray certain foods as being aphrodisiacs, the science is lacking.
With regard to fertility, the microminerals zinc and selenium are vital ingredients in sperm production, so it is important to ensure these are adequate in your diet if you are hoping to become a father.
‘Zinc is found in a range of foods - such as meat, which is the best source, as well as fish, shellfish, eggs, wholegrains, pulses and seeds - and a deficiency is quite rare,’ says Claire. ‘Brazil nuts are the best source of selenium. There’s no evidence to suggest that boosting your intake of either mineral with supplements can further enhance your fertility, though. A varied diet should provide adequate amounts of both.’
There has been speculation in recent years that phyto-oestrogens in soya may adversely affect sperm production, but again the evidence here is lacking. Equally, average caffeine consumption does not appear to be a problem.
Eating for prostate health
Tucked away inside the pelvis, the prostate is a walnut-sized gland whose main function is to produce seminal fluid. It sits at the base of the bladder, wrapped around the urethra (the tube through which urine is eliminated). Not all men experience prostate difficulties as they age, but there are three main problems which you should be aware of:
BPH (Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia) - a common, non-life threatening condition caused by natural enlargement of the prostate in middle age, putting pressure on the urethra, and causing various difficulties with urination (difficulty establishing a flow, incomplete emptying of bladder, increased frequency).
‘There’s no specific action you can take to prevent BPH,’ says specialist prostate nurse Georgia Diebel. ‘A healthy diet is the best advice to help the prostate in all aspects. But reducing your tea and coffee intake may help, because caffeine irritates the bladder’s lining’. The supplement saw palmetto is understood to help BPH too.
Prostate cancer - the symptoms of which are identical to those in BPH, perhaps with added pelvic pain and impotence. Genetics and a Westernised lifestyle - lack of exercise, a diet rich in saturated fats - are contributing factors.
‘To lower the risk take regular exercise, reduce your saturated fats, and eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day,’ says Diebel. ‘Vitamin E (found in olive oil, nuts, avocado) and selenium (Brazil nuts, eggs, wholegrains) are believed to help, and there are studies which suggest the antioxidant lycopene - the red pigment found in tomatoes - is beneficial.’
Cooking or otherwise processing tomatoes breaks down the cell walls in the fruit, thereby making the valuable lycopene more available for absorption into the body. Tomato soup and a pasta dish served with a cooked tomato sauce are both excellent sources of lycopene. More moderate sources are guava, watermelon and red grapefruit.
Again, soya in the diet may help, according to research from Colorado State’s College of Veterinary Medicine, published in the journal Biology of Reproduction, while more recent research at the Hollings Cancer Institute in South Carolina has shown that the antioxidant ellagic acid, found in red berries (raspberry, strawberry, cranberry), walnuts, pecans, pomegranates and, in more modest amounts, in many other fruits and nuts, may reduce the growth of abnormal prostate cells.
Prostatitis - inflammation of or infection in the prostate. Symptoms include fever, pain in the groin or along the perineum, painful or frequent urination, and penile discharge.
Research suggests the antioxidant quercetin can ease the discomfort of prostatitis; it is found in apples, onions, garlic, red grapes, cranberries and tea. It is possible it has preventative benefits too.
Men and fresh produce
You probably don’t eat enough fruit and vegetables - it’s a fact.
‘Men aged 19-24 are particularly bad and consume the least, probably because at that age many tend to be very busy men about town who often eat on the hoof and grab the first thing they can find,’ says dietitian Ursula Arens. ‘Older men tend to go for sit-down traditional meals with meat and vegetables, and so fare considerably better. Quite a bit of work needs to be done to get the message across to men that they need to eat more.’
Take portable fruit and vegetable snacks with you when you go out - such as bananas, apples, carrot sticks in a bag. If you are taking sandwiches for lunch, bulk out any protein fillings such as egg, cheese and fish with plenty of salad leaves and sliced tomatoes. Experiment with avocado slices, grilled peppers and grated carrot too - perhaps with some hummus. Buy a high-veg pasta salad, if you need to grab a meal on the go.
But what about cooked meals at home? ‘Try to get into the habit of incorporating vegetables into your meals,’ advises Liz Tucker, health advisor and wellbeing consultant. ‘Soups are a great way of getting a variety of veg into a meal, you can grate carrots into mince before cooking it into burgers - you won’t even taste them in there - and meat stews are terrific with lots of root vegetables and pulped tomatoes thrown in.’
Embarrassing male problems
Is your wife or mother always complaining about your embarrassing problems? Here are some dietary tactics you may like to try. Remember, though, that all these may have more serious causes, so in chronic or more serious cases, see a doctor first.
Limit: garlic, raw onions, spices (curry, chilli), cured meats, smoked fish, cabbage, broccoli, low-carbohydrate diets, crash diets, alcohol, tobacco.
Try: plenty of fresh water, fresh fruit and vegetables, sugar-free gum, parsley, mint.
Limit: garlic, spices, alcohol, tobacco.
Try: fresh water, fresh fruit and vegetables, pure juices.
Limit: fizzy drinks, pulses and legumes, cabbage, Artichokes, parsnips, hot drinks, fruit juices, eating on the go, overeating and not chewing properly, chewing gum, sugar, diabetic sugar replacements (e.g. sorbitol), smoking, wearing tight clothing.
Try: Carbohydrate-based foods, fibre/bran, raw salads.
Limit: refined carbohydrates (sugar, white bread, white rice), alcohol.
Try: plenty of water, fruit and vegetables, wholegrain cereals/breads... and take plenty of exercise!
With thanks to Alex Gazzola.