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."

In addition, the Harvard Men's Health Watch reports that cereals and other whole-grain products can decrease the risk of prostate cancer. So can loading up on nuts, oily seeds (such as flaxseed) and fish.

In studies published in The Journal of the American College of Nutrition in 2001, and The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2003, researchers reported that adding whole-grain cereals and breads to the daily diet could help men reduce their risk of diabetes and heart disease. It also can improve intestinal health and possibly cut the risk of colon cancer.

And in studies done at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in 2000, researchers found that eating soy could help men lower their levels of "bad" cholesterol and increase "good cholesterol."

All these foods can help boost heart health as well, researchers say.

But can you improve your health just by adding a certain food or food group, if the rest of your diet is as bad as ever?

According to Harvey Simon, MD, editor of Harvard Men's Health Watch, healthy eating is more about a pattern of behavior than individual foods. "No single intervention is going to turn a man's health around if his overall diet is unhealthy," says Simon.

The key, he says, is establishing a healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise, regular medical check-ups, and a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.

"Men should be eating a variety of foods and including plant-based, rather than animal-based, foods into their meal plans -- like whole grains, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, oil -- plus fish, while eating very little red meat, butter, and cheese," says Simon.

Jackie Berning, PhD, RD, an associate professor of nutrition at the University of Colorado, shares this view.

"It's not just the fact that you put a tomato on your hamburger that's going to do it for you. It's the fact that you're eating more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff throughout your life that's going to make the significant difference in health risks," Berning says.

While that may be the ideal, other experts say you don't need a whole-diet makeover to reap some of the rewards of healthy food.

"A man does not have to dramatically change his lifestyle, pay a lot of money, or eat things he doesn't like just to be healthy. Small changes do matter," says Bonci, who recently counseled the Navy SEALs on healthy eating.

Indeed, a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association in 2002 showed that men who added just one fish meal a month to their diet reduced their risk of stroke.

Heller believes there are immediate gains to be had from adding just a few healthy foods to your menu every day.

"The less energy your body has to expend dealing with unhealthy foods, the more energy is going to be left over for everything else in your life, from a great day at the office, to a better afternoon shooting hoops, to a terrific night in the bedroom. Food directly affects performance and healthy foods mean better performance," says Heller.

16 Ways to Improve Your Diet Right Now!

Change is hard, it's true. And no one change will turn a bad diet into a good one. But to help you get started on the road to healthier eating, our experts offer these 16 small but healthy dietary switches every man can make:

  • Replace white bread with whole grain.
  • Give up candy in favor of dried fruits: apricots, figs, dates, and raisins.
  • Replace regular bagels with whole-grain bagels; choose lox instead of cream cheese.
  • Request extra tomato sauce, oregano, and basil for your pizza, and hold (or halve) the cheese
  • Eat brown or wild rice instead of white, and triple your fiber intake.
  • Trade in onion dip for bean dip or salsa.
  • Replace potato chips with baked tortilla chips.
  • Buy fruits you can eat on the run, such as grapes and bananas, and grab them instead of a cookie or doughnut.
  • Munch a handful of peanuts, walnuts, or cashew nuts instead of pretzels or chips at the bar.
  • Trade in high-fat packaged salad dressings for an olive oil-and-vinegar recipe.
  • At breakfast, skip the frosted flakes in favor of frosted shredded Mini-Wheats.
  • Choose a glass of tomato juice or unsalted vegetable juice instead of a soda or sports drink.
  • Every chance you get, replace cheese, hot dogs, bacon, and red meat with skinless poultry, fish, beans, and tofu.
  • Trade in ice cream for nonfat frozen yogurt.
  • Trade in all-meat burritos for burritos made with half the amount of meat plus beans, and get half the fat and twice the fiber.
  • If you just can't leave the ballpark without a hot dog, skip the meaty chili and add sauerkraut. At least you'll have a vegetable -- and a little extra fiber!

Originally published November 5, 2003.
Medically updated Jan. 20, 2005.

SOURCES: Harvard Men's Health Watch, March, 2001. Journal of the National Cancer Institute, March 6, 2002. Epidemiological Reviews, 2001; vol 23: pp 82-866. Urologic Clinics of North America, February 2002. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, April 2003. Journal of The American College of Nutrition, December 2001. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, October 2000. Samantha Heller, MS, RD, nutritionist, NYU Medical Center, New York. Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, director of sports nutrition, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Pittsburgh; spokesperson, American Dietetic Association. Jeff Hampl, PhD, associate professor of nutrition, Arizona State University, Tucson. Harvey Simon, MD, associate professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch. Jackie Berning, PhD, RD, assistant professor, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.

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