It’s no secret that men's nutrition needs start changing during middle-age. Studies clearly show certain foods and nutrients give men a distinct advantage in warding off chronic diseases, like prostate cancer, high blood pressure, stroke and cardiovascular disease. In this article, the second in our two-part series, we take a look at the latest research on food choices as they relate to men’s health and detail the foods men might want to stash in their disease-fighting pantry.
(More: Fiftysomething Diet: The 5 Foods Women Need to Eat)
Tomatoes Lycopene, the powerful antioxidant compound that colors tomatoes a beautiful shade of red, has been in the news lately. In the most recent study, reported in the journal Neurology, researchers from Finland said there was a connection between high levels of lycopene in the blood of middle-aged men and a lower risk for stroke.
Multiple studies also suggest there's a link between tomatoes — or possibly the lycopene they contain — and the prevention of prostate cancer, the second leading cause of cancer death in men. Indeed, the American Cancer Society estimates that about 241,740 new cases of prostate cancer will be diagnosed this year, and that 1 in every 6 men will develop the disease. So any measures, including diet strategies, that could play a role in prevention are critical. These findings would make the "love apple" an integral food for men's health.
To boost the cancer-fighting impact of tomatoes, try these three strategies:
- Cook your tomatoes — it makes the lycopene easier to absorb.
- Add a little bit of fat to tomato dishes (cheese on pizza, olive oil on salads or in marinara) as that helps the body absorb more lycopene.
- Pair tomatoes with broccoli. A 2007 study from the journal Cancer Research said the combo helped shrink prostate tumors in animals better than either vegetable alone. “To get this effect, men should consume daily 1.4 cups of raw broccoli and 2.5 cups of fresh tomato, or 1 cup of tomato sauce, or 1/2 cup of tomato paste,” said Kirstie Canene-Adams, one of the University of Illinois study researchers. “I think it’s very doable for a man to eat a cup and a half of broccoli per day or put broccoli on a pizza with 1/2 cup of tomato paste.”
Flaxseed Cholesterol starting to inch up? Try sprinkling a generous dose of nutty-flavored ground flaxseed into your morning bowl of cereal. In a 2010 Iowa State University study 90 volunteers with high cholesterol levels were fed 150 milligrams, about three tablespoons, of flaxseed lignans every day for three months. (Lignans are an antioxidant found in many plants, particularly nuts and seeds.) Cholesterol levels dropped 10 percent in men volunteers; women in the study did not see a decline in cholesterol.
Some medications can result in a much steeper decline, but flaxseed offers men a natural way to lower their cholesterol level. "There are people who can't take something like Lipitor, so this could at least give them some of that cholesterol-lowering benefit," said Suzanne Hendrich, a professor in food science and nutrition at the University of Iowa and lead researcher on the study. "The other thing is, there are certainly people who would prefer to not use a drug, but rather use foods to try to maintain their health. So this would be something to consider."
Flaxseed might also help protect against prostate cancer. A 2008 study by the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center found that men given 30 grams of flaxseed daily (about three rounded tablespoons) while waiting for prostate surgery had lower rates of cancer proliferation compared with men who ate no flaxseed. Click here for the Mayo Clinic’s flaxseed cooking, shopping and storing tips.
Whole grain cereals Who would have thought that eating cereal for breakfast might keep the heart running smoothly? But after 20 years of following the diets of a group of more than 20,000 men as part of the Physician’s Health Study, that’s exactly what Harvard researchers noticed — a link between whole grain cereal intake and lower risk of heart failure. Men who ate higher amounts of whole grain cereal (seven or more servings per week) had lower heart failure risk than men eating zero or even two to six servings. And this protective link held strong after the scientists adjusted for other factors that might influence heart risk, like smoking, alcohol consumption, exercise and more.
Speculation is that whole grain cereal’s positive impact on the heart may be due to the already documented effect whole grains and fiber have on cardiovascular risk factors, like high blood pressure, heart attack, diabetes and obesity. “If confirmed in other studies, a higher intake of whole grains along with other preventive measures could help lower the risk of heart failure,” the authors write in their report. One caveat: Harvard researchers are talking about steel-cut oats, whole wheat berries, hulled barley and other cereals rich in whole grains. Refined, highly-processed cereals didn’t show any connection and don’t help the heart.
Bananas and oranges Slicing a banana into your morning cereal or snacking on other potassium-rich citrus fruits, like oranges, is a good strategy for preventing or controlling high blood pressure. Not sure why you need to worry about blood pressure numbers creeping up slowly? High blood pressure is more common in men — and it worsens with age (although women also get high blood pressure with age, men get it sooner). Controlling high blood pressure is, of course, one of the most critical strategies for preventing cardiovascular disease, still the No. 1 killer of men.
Health experts blame rising blood pressure in some men on diet, particularly the high levels of salt (mostly from processed foods) that most Americans eat. Indeed, the latest guidelines from the government encourage people who are 51 or older to cut salt, or more specifically the sodium it contains, down to 1,500 milligrams per day. “Too much sodium in your diet can cause your body to retain fluid, which increases blood pressure,” experts at the Mayo Clinic say. “Potassium helps balance the amount of sodium in your cells. If you don’t get enough potassium in your diet or retain enough potassium, you may accumulate too much sodium in your blood.”
In a 2012 study from Japan, middle-aged men with high blood pressure were divided into two groups to illustrate the impact of lowering sodium in the diet and increasing potassium-rich foods. The group receiving cooking instructions and diet advice for both minerals saw drops in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure numbers while the control group (no diet instruction) did not. Not a fan of bananas or oranges? Check out the National Institutes of Health list for other food sources of potassium. And check here for advice from the Mayo Clinic on more lifestyle and home remedies to treat high blood pressure.
Chocolate If you’re a chocoholic, good news — really good news. Men who eat moderate amounts of chocolate may lower their risk for all types of stroke, Swedish researchers report in Neurology. The scientists drew this conclusion after following the eating habits of more than 37,000 Swedish men for more than 10 years. Men eating higher amounts of chocolate (62.9 grams, a little over two ounces) per week had a lower risk for stroke than men eating zero chocolate.
The scientists then went a step further doing a meta-analysis, a compilation of results of five other chocolate studies, which again showed the same positive link between higher chocolate consumption and lower stroke risk. Experts, according the American Heart Association, have long suspected that flavanol compounds found in chocolate, or more specifically the cocoa powder chocolate contains, might be the health-beneficial ingredient.
A 2012 study published in the journal Hypertension identifies another big role for cocoa flavanols. It seems that men who drink flavanol-rich cocoa were able to improve mild cognitive impairment across a broad spectrum of tests.
"Our study provides encouraging evidence that consuming cocoa flavanols, as a part of a calorie-controlled and nutritionally balanced diet, could improve cognitive function,” says Dr. Giovambattista Desideri, the study's lead author and director of geriatric division in the department of life, health and environmental sciences at the University of L’Aquila in Italy. “Larger studies are needed to validate the findings, figure out how long the positive effects will last and determine the levels of cocoa flavanols required for benefit.”
In the meantime, chocolate (in moderation, of course) is just one of a growing number of good-for-you foods rich in flavanols, including red wine, tea, grapes and apples.