The Manly Art of Healthy Eating

Just for men: Foods that can make a difference in the way you feel

By Colette Bouchez
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD

Whether it's summertime snacking at the softball field or chowing down at a tailgate party during football season, most men score dangerously low in the game of healthy eating, experts say. The foods that traditionally make men quiver -- such as chili dogs, big bags of chips, and vats of onion dip -- may be great for team spirit, but they're not so great for the heart, blood pressure, and prostate (not to mention those washboard abs).

The good news is that there's been plenty of research over the past several years on what makes up a diet that's healthy for guys in particular. The result: A list of foods that could do for a man's health what the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue can do for his ... well, you get the idea. And yes, there are foods for that as well!

So what are the macho munchies a health-minded guy should seek out? And, more important, what should he avoid?

According to nutritionist Samantha Heller, MS, RD, the surprising truth is that one of the most important food groups for men is fats -- as long as they're the right kind.

"Contrary to the common low-fat, no-fat message that seems to be everywhere, it's important for men to recognize that not all fats are bad, and some are essential to male health," says Heller, a nutritionist at NYU Medical Center in New York.

The "right fats," she says, include omega-3 fatty acids, the polyunsaturated fats found in foods such as cold-water fish, flaxseed, soybeans, canola oil, and walnuts. Eat them daily in moderate amounts, she says, and you may see a difference in overall body performance.

"Both poly- and monounsaturated oils confer benefits for your heart and arteries, immune system, and overall health, especially when they are substituted for the artery sludge-producing saturated fats found in foods like steak, sausage, pork, cheese, butter, and ice cream," says Heller.

But that's not all "good fats" can do. They're also the stuff of great testosterone levels.

"Omega-3 essential fatty acids are an important component for testosterone production, which in turn affects many areas of reproductive health as well as sexual functioning," says Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

But eat too much of the wrong kind of fat (such as the saturated fats found in red meat, ice cream, and doughnuts) and you might see your sex life -- not to mention your cardiovascular health -- plummet.

The reason, says Bonci, is that while good fats reduce cholesterol and help keep arteries clear, bad fats do the opposite, clogging vessels and affecting circulation to your heart and below your waist, too.

"Sometimes the earliest sign of cardiovascular disease is impotence," Bonci says, because the tiny vessels are too clogged to pull in enough blood for an erection.

Also important: High-fat foods can interfere with prostate health. In a Harvard study of some 51,000 men, those who chowed down regularly on high-fat foods were nearly twice as likely to develop prostate cancer. According to the Harvard Men's Health Watch, a diet high in saturated fat can increase the risk of prostate cancer by as much as 90%.

If they want to keep their bodies humming like a well-oiled SUV, men also need to remove the "protein goggles" and recognize that, macho or not, "diets high in animal protein are going leave a man weak in the knees," Bonci says.

Jeff Hampl, PhD, a professor of nutrition at Arizona State University, agrees.

"For men, meat is a cultural icon. It's a symbol of masculinity, of cowboys and robustness, and while it is a good source of protein, minerals, and vitamins, eating too much, too often, can present some serious health risks," Hampl says.

While he says it's OK for a man to eat 4 to 6 ounces of lean meat at a meal, he counsels against the "24-ounce steaks that many men order and eat in a restaurant -- that is just way too much meat to do anybody any good."

When it comes to the particular foods that can affect men's health, nothing has caught researchers' eyes like tomatoes. A pair of Harvard studies has found they can help prevent prostate cancer. The key is the nutrient lycopene, which is released when the tomatoes are cooked -- as in spaghetti sauce and yes, even ketchup.

"There are immediate gains to be had from adding just a few healthy foods to your menu every day."