Men are notoriously oblivious to their own health care. They often resort to cliche when trying to defend their ignorance; they can't be seen as weak; they can handle whatever is thrown at them. Despite the facade, men have a lot at stake when it comes to their health. Fortunately there are a few foods and nutrients that can be geared toward a man's unique physiology and will go a long way to reduce the risk of many of the health issues they face.
Soy and prostate health
The role of testosterone in the development of prostate cancer is no longer in doubt. The reality is prostate cells get a little out of control as men age and some degree of "dysplasia" or uncontrolled growth is inevitable. In fact, 30 percent of 50-year old men have latent prostate cancer.
The isoflavones in soy (whole food soy) take up residence on the testosterone receptors in prostate cells and by doing so, prevent androgens (male sex hormones) from docking to the cell, thereby reducing the trigger of uncontrolled cell growth that the androgens can stimulate.
Cancer cells, regardless of location, need nutrients to grow. In their early development, the cells release a chemical, which stimulates blood vessels to grow new vessels in their direction—a sort of tumor pipeline (a process called angiogenesis). If cancer cells are starved of nutrients, they don't grow beyond about 1 cubic mm, and at that size they pose no risk. We all have several of these micro- tumors throughout our bodies. The isoflavones (phytochemicals) in soy help to significantly prevent angiogenesis, keeping these tumors microscopic and harmless.
Soy is a great source of other nutrients, which act in concert with each other, or with the isoflavones, resulting in its anti-cancer properties. It only takes about 11-15g of soy protein, or about 20mg of isoflavones, to benefit from the protective effects. With several servings of soy products per week (soy nuts, whole food soy protein powder, tofu, miso, edamame or soy beverage) the anti-cancer properties in soy can be harnessed.
On the contrary, soy isoflavone supplements have actually yielded negative results. If choosing a soy beverage, go for one that uses the entire soybean (avoid those using isolated soy protein) and is organic using non-genetically modified beans.
Tomatoes, a man's best friend
Tomatoes are the best source of lycopene, a very powerful anti-oxidant. In studies, lycopene has reduced LDL cholesterol oxidation (when cholesterol is oxidized, it becomes damaged and more likely to lead to plaque formation). Most tomato products are a convenient way to reap any potential benefits relating to this effect.
Tomatoes are also an ally in helping to reduce cardiovascular disease as part of a lower-sodium, higher potassium diet. One cup of tomato juice has more potassium than a large banana.
But unique to men is the consistent research that links higher intakes of tomatoes to lower rates of prostate cancer. It was once believed that lycopene was responsible for this anti-cancer observation, but studies using lycopene supplements didn't find the same results. When studies using whole food tomato supplements (essentially dehydrated tomato juice in capsule form) were reviewed, anti-cancer effects where again seen. It seems as though lycopene and other constituents in tomatoes need to work together, though it is not yet certain. The presence of lycopene in prostate tissue may simply be a marker of high tomato consumption rather than being the nutrient of interest.
Lignans, vitamin and omega-3s
Lignans are a type of phyto-estrogens (estrogen-like compounds found naturally in foods) and are powerful allies in prostate cancer prevention. Lingans can be found in flaxseed, sesame seed, rye, wheat and oat bran, with flaxseed being the best source. Flax seed needs to be ground and eaten to obtain the nutrients inside (not just lignans, but the alpha-linolenic acid as well). Flax oil is devoid of lignans and in my opinion, should not be consumed.
Vitamin D. The vitamin D that you get in a supplement or that the body produces via the sun, is converted into a hormone called calcitriol. Many tissues in the body, including the prostate, have receptors for vitamin D. These tissues can convert vitamin D into calcitriol, which has been shown reduce precancerous cells in the prostate. Calcitriol has a direct effect on these micro-tumors and also may exert its anti-cancer effect by boosting the immune system, whose job it is to seek out and destroy cancer cells.
Omega-3 fats are found in two forms: EPA/DHA (from fish) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA, found in plant foods). Both have been associated with preventing heart disease and prostate cancer and may help to reduce the occurrence of colon cancer. The Omega-3 fats are beneficial to men's health on two fronts: by lowering inflammation and because they are incorporated into the cell membranes (structural in function), may help to keep cell operations in line.
Only small amounts of ALA is needed for health (1.1-1.6g per day to prevent deficiency) and flax oil provides too much (1 tbsp or 15 ml of flax oil has 8 g), some research has shown flax oil to be detrimental to prostate health, but whole food sources have not—the presence of lignans in those food sources of ALA, are most likely protective. Good sources, without getting too much, are canola oil, walnuts, ground flaxseed, chia seeds, and organic soybeans.
East tips to improve your health
- Include a small handful of mixed nuts/seeds everyday (try soy nuts, walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds).
- Aim to have two servings of fatty fish every week, alternatively you can choose a good quality fish oil supplement, aim to get 1,000-1,500 mg of EPA/DHA combined per day.
- Get Vitamin D daily, either by supplements or by getting some responsible sun exposure during the summer months. Regardless, come October, you'll need supplements to reap the benefits of this superstar nutrient year-round.
- Try alternating your protein powder with a whole soy food powder. Avoid soy protein isolates.
- Have a couple of servings of organic edamame (boiled or steamed soybeans) each week.
- Boost your lignan intake by having several tablespoons of ground flax each week. Add to smoothies, oatmeal, applesauce, fruit salad with yogurt, or even in a glass of juice.
- Have 3 to 4 servings of low sodium tomato products like juice, spaghetti sauce, or vegetable cocktail each week.
- Try having green tea (daily if you can, replace some of your coffee or water with it), promising evidence shows it benefits the prostate.
- Crucifers like cabbage, broccoli, radishes, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, kale and collard greens are very anti-cancer. Eat at least half your servings raw. Eat several servings per week.
- Achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. While excess body fat can increase your risk for diabetes, heart disease, stroke and osteoarthritis, obesity is a leading risk factor for cancer, something most don't associate it with.
- Get an annual check-up with your family doctor. If you're getting up there in age (45ish), be a man and accept the fact that this will include a digital rectal exam and a colonoscopy.
- Just remember that knowledge and prevention are the strongest medicines. Your pride is not worth the risks you are taking by ignoring your health and well-being.
(Doug Cook, R.D., MHSc, CDE, is Naturally Savvy's Preventive Health Expert. He is a Registered Dietician/Nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Educator. NaturallySavvy.com, is a website that educates people on the benefits of living a natural, organic and green lifestyle. For more information and to sign up for their newsletter, visit www.NaturallySavvy.com).