If you ask us, discussions about nutrition for men don’t happen as often as they should. Whoever said men don’t want to optimize their meal plans for better health outcomes? Since we’re big believers in food as medicine, we’re breaking down everything you need to know about nutrition for men. Here are six critical nutrients for men’s health — plus how to put more of them onto your (or your man’s) plate.
Fiber is a nondigestible carbohydrate that performs countless functions in the body, from stabilizing blood sugar to promoting gut health.
There are two types of fiber: soluble fiber and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber is found in oats, barley, apples, beans, and chia seeds. It soaks up water in the body and expands, helping to slow down digestion and fill you up. Insoluble fiber is found in cauliflower, nuts, Brussels sprouts, and blackberries. It’s the “roughage” that adds bulk in the GI tract and keeps things moving through our system.
Why is fiber important component of nutrition for men? According to the CDC, prediabetes is slightly more common in American men than women and heart disease was the leading cause of death for men last year. Fortunately, soluble fiber is the MVP when it comes to both blood sugar and cholesterol control. Here’s why.
Soluble fiber and blood sugar: Soluble fiber becomes a gel-like substance in the GI tract. This gel slows down digestion and thus the absorption of sugar into the blood. When we eat sweets along with fiber (think: dark chocolate + fresh berries + almonds), blood sugar levels are less likely to spike.
Soluble fiber and cholesterol: A higher soluble fiber intake is associated with a decreased risk of heart disease since soluble fiber attaches to cholesterol in the gut. As a result, cholesterol gets excreted instead of absorbed into the blood. Cholesterol in the blood contributes to conditions like atherosclerosis, or fatty plaque in the arteries, that increase heart disease risk.
Finally, fiber is also important for the prevention of colon cancer, the third most common cancer diagnosis among men in 2019.
Pro tip: If you don’t typically eat tons of fiber, start slow! Begin by adding a cup of berries to your breakfast, instead of eating a massive kale salad daily. Be sure to hydrate, too. Eating lots of fiber without drinking enough water can cause constipation.
You’ve probably heard of antioxidants. Antioxidants work against compounds called reactive oxygen species (or ROS) that produce free radicals and cause oxidative stress in the body. Oxidative stress has been linked to an increased risk of cancer and heart disease, two of the top killers of American men.
Lycopene is an antioxidant that’s part of a class of plant pigments called carotenoids. Carotenoids give fruits and veggies like carrots, watermelon, tomatoes, and grapefruit their vibrant colors. A potent antioxidant, lycopene is one of the most effective free radical scavengers of all the carotenoids, per a 2013 review published in the Annual Review of Food Science and Technology.
What’s more, lycopene may be particularly protective against prostate cancer, which was the most common cancer diagnosis in men last year. Lycopene may decrease cancer risk and slow cancer growth by interrupting cancer cell growth and promoting apoptosis, aka programmed cell death.
According to a comprehensive review of nutrition and prostate cancer from the UCSF Medical Center, some studies have demonstrated an association between higher lycopene intake and decreased prostate-specific antigen (or PSA) levels. Elevated PSA levels are a primary biomarker for prostate cancer risk.
The bottom line: there’s not enough evidence to conclude that eating lycopene-rich foods prevents prostate cancer in men. That said, multiple studies have shown an association between higher lycopene intake and decreased incidence of prostate cancer in men.
Pro tip: Opt for organic tomatoes if you’re able and always try to pair lycopene foods with a source of fat, like olive oil, cheese, or avocado. The body absorbs lycopene better when it’s consumed along with fat (you’re welcome).
We all know vitamin C is important for immune health, but did you know the vitamin may also improve male fertility? A very small 2006 study published in The Journal of Medicinal Food found that infertile men who took 1,000 mg of vitamin C twice daily for up to two months experienced increases in sperm count and motility.
According to The Cleveland Clinic, appropriate supplementation of vitamin C, which is an antioxidant, may help improve some men’s fertility, especially those who suffer from a condition called MOSI (or male oxidative stress infertility).
Just remember: supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA, so it’s hard to know exactly what you’re getting. Supplements are also far more concentrated than whole food sources of vitamins and minerals. As a result, we recommend talking with your dietitian before starting any supplements. An RD can help you choose a safe brand and dosage.
Pro tip: Infuse your water with vitamin C-rich fruits for a healthy and hydrating bev. We love adding lemon and pineapple chunks to our water pitcher for a spa day-inspired sip.
Vitamin D is kind of a big deal. Why? Vitamin D deficiencies have been associated with everything from a greater risk of respiratory infections (hi, COVID-19) to type 2 diabetes.
For men, sufficient vitamin D levels may be particularly important for hormonal health. That is, a 2011 randomized control trial that included men with established vitamin D deficiencies and low testosterone levels found that daily vitamin D supplementation of about 3,300 IUs for one year resulted in significant increases in mean testosterone levels. Other studies suggest adequate vitamin D may also help optimize muscle strength in men.
Pro tip: Sun exposure is the best way to boost your vitamin D levels. Experts recommend spending about 15 minutes in the sun daily (sans sunscreen) to kickstart vitamin D activation in the body. Of course, this guideline is subject to change depending on your medical history, your age, and where you live. Also, research has suggested that there may be a link between vitamin D consumption and COVID-19 – more on that here.
Men aren’t the only ones who need to prioritize healthy fats. However, much like fiber and lycopene, omega-3s may protect against some of the most common diseases that occur in men. By now you know those include cancer and heart disease. Stroke, respiratory diseases, and diabetes are also up there.
You’ve probably heard about the health benefits of omega-3s, so we’ll just give you a quick refresher. Omega-3s are a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid that helps fight inflammation, maintain cell shape and function, and support brain and heart health. Research suggests that adequate omega-3 intake may also help decrease symptoms of depression.
Omega-3s support men’s heart health by driving down the inflammation in the body that contributes to blood vessel damage and impaired blood flow to the heart. Finally, they also help drive down triglyceride levels in the blood, keep the heartbeat regular, and lower the risk of blood clots. All of these benefits can help prevent common cardiac events that occur in men, like heart attacks and strokes.
Pro tip: Aim to eat at least two 4-oz. servings of omega-3-rich fish per week. Four ounces is about the size of your palm + first knuckle.
Similar to lycopene, zinc is one of the most important nutrients for prostate health. Some studies report that the micronutrient may help prevent prostate cancer growth and metastasis by deactivating a specific protein that prevents apoptosis.
One note: more zinc isn’t always better. Both too little and too much of the micronutrient may actually increase prostate cancer risk and progression, per Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. It’s recommended that men 19 and older consume about 11 milligrams (mg) of zinc per day. For reference, one 3-ounce beef patty serves up about 5.3 mg of zinc, or almost 50% of a man’s daily recommended intake.
Pro tip: Add a handful of pumpkin seeds into our favorite recipe for Baked Blueberry Pie Oatmeal to up your zinc intake at breakfast. Better yet, double up and top your baked oats with a spoonful of cashew butter. [ADD LINK TO BLUEBERRY OATMEAL RECIPE]
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