What You Need to Know About Diet and Prostate Cancer

10 anti-cancer nutrition tips for men (and the women who love them)

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

In many ways, prostate cancer is to men what breast cancer is to women. It's the second leading cause of cancer deaths in men (after lung cancer). And the older men get, the higher the frequency of the disease.

Health experts estimate that nearly three out of every 10 men in their 50s have prostate cancer, compared with about seven out of 10 men 80 or older. This may seem like good news for younger men -- prostate cancer develops slowly, and is uncommon before age 50. But the fact that it does develop slowly behooves younger men to do whatever they can to help prevent it. And the fact that prostate cancer often doesn't have noticeable symptoms behooves men 50 and up to get annual checkups and testing.

September is Prostate Cancer Month, so this is a great time to take a few minutes to learn more about this cancer and the dietary steps we can take to reduce our risk.

Prostate Cancer Basics

Where is the Prostate?

The walnut-sized gland below a man's bladder is the prostate. Its function is to produce semen.

How do they screen for Prostate Cancer?

Health care providers test for a substance called prostate-specific antigen (PSA) in blood samples because PSA levels rise as prostate cancer progresses (although higher levels can also be due to infection or enlargement of the gland). Men should have annual PSA tests beginning at age 50, or 45 if they are considered at higher risk. Rectal examinations are also used to detect prostate changes. Annual digital rectal exams are also encouraged beginning at age 50 (45 for those at higher risk). If any problems are discovered (and rest assured that most prostate problems are not cancer), an ultrasound test and biopsy may be done to look for cancer cells.

Who has the highest prostate cancer rates?

Black Americans have the highest prostate cancer rates in the world, while the disease is rare in Asia, Africa, and South America. Prostate cancer is most common in North America and Northwestern Europe.

What are the symptoms?

  • Need to urinate frequently, especially at night.
  • Sense of urgency to urinate, but difficulty starting.
  • Painful urination.
  • Inability to urinate or weak or interrupted flow.
  • Blood in urine.
  • Continuing pain in the lower back, pelvis, or upper thigh.

These symptoms do not necessarily mean you have prostate cancer, but it's wise to see a doctor if you notice any of them.

What's the survival rate?

When the cancer hasn't spread outside the prostate (and most don't), the five-year survival rate is nearly 100%. For all stages of the disease combined, the survival rate is 93%.

10 Food Tips to Help Lower Your Risk

We have a lot more to learn about diet and prostate cancer. Although we have some encouraging studies to point to, none of the foods mentioned below have been absolutely proven to prevent the disease. Still, these tips will most likely not only help reduce your risk of prostate cancer, but improve your health in general.

1. Eat at least three servings of cruciferous vegetables a week.

Men who ate three servings a week of cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower) reduced their risk of prostate cancer by 41%, according to a new study from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. It's suggested that the possible protection from these vegetables occurs in the early stages of prostate cancer.

What do they have that's so special? Cruciferous veggies boast two phytochemicals: glucosinolates and isothiocyanates, which are thought to help deactivate cancer-causing substances. Some studies have suggested that people who eat the most of these vegetables have lower rates of prostate cancer as well as other cancers such as lung, stomach, colon, bladder and breast.

2. Enjoy tomato products almost every day.

Men who ate tomato sauce two or more times a week lowered their risk of prostate cancer by almost 25%, according to research. And men who ate pasta with tomato sauce every day for three weeks (while awaiting prostate surgery) lowered their PSA levels and had less DNA damage to their prostate tissues than those who didn't include tomato sauce in their meals. A recent analysis of research showed that tomato products may play a role in the prevention of prostate cancer, but appear to have a modest effect.

3. Switch to soy sometimes.

People who migrate from Asia to Western countries but maintain their traditional diet remain at lower risk of prostate cancer. That may be because of the high amount of phytoestrogens (plant-based compounds that have estrogen-like activity) in Asian diets. Lab and animal studies have found that the main phytoestrogen in soy, genistein, slows the progression of prostate cancer. Although long-term studies have yet to be done, the evidence so far is promising.

4. Have a tablespoon a day of flaxseed.