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While many diseases and health care issues affect both men and women, certain diseases and conditions exhibited in men may require distinct approaches regarding diagnosis and management. Some of the major issues associated with men’s health are related to cancer, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, impotence, and prostate health.
Cancer is characterized as aberrant and uncontrolled cell growth. Cells divide more rapidly than normal, and these growths may metastasize (spread to other organs). It affects people of all ages and can attack any organ or tissue of the body. Some cancers are more responsive to treatment and lend themselves to a cure, while others seem to appear suddenly and resist treatment.
Much of what we know from nutritional epidemiology supports the role of diet as a means of staving off cancer. Particularly, a mostly plant-based diet—one high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains—is the key. Men should aim for five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables daily and eat breads, cereals, and grains that are high in fiber, such as whole wheat bread, bran flakes, brown rice, and quinoa.
Apart from diet, the most important thing a man can do to reduce his cancer risk is stop smoking and cease using all tobacco products. Smoking is the number one preventable cause of death in the United States, claiming 400,000 lives per year, and it increases the risk for developing cancer. Genetics and environmental sources (e.g., ultraviolet light) are also linked with cancer.
Carbohydrate intolerance—the inability to properly metabolize sugars—is known as diabetes mellitus, often just shortened to diabetes. The pancreas makes insulin, a hormone responsible for a cell’s uptake of glucose (sugar) from blood for energy. People who have diabetes do not make enough insulin, or else the body cannot use what is made. Treatment includes achieving a healthy weight, engaging in exercise, and prescription medication. Sometimes people are able to cure their diabetes with diet and weight loss.
A proper diet for people with diabetes is comparable to what the average healthy person should already be eating. Basic tenets include: eat three meals daily, incorporate healthful snacks, focus on foods high in fiber, combine protein and carbohydrates with moderate amounts of unsaturated fat, and avoid sugar-sweetened beverages to reduce overall caloric intake.
Heart disease, or coronary artery disease, is a result of improper function of the heart and blood vessels. There are many forms of heart disease. Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and hypertension (high blood pressure) are two of the most common. Fat deposits disrupt the flow of blood to the heart muscle, increasing the risk of myocardial infarction (heart attack).
Heart disease is the number one cause of death for men. According to the American Heart Association, 440,175 men died of heart disease in 2000. Apart from just being male, other risk factors are being forty-five years of age and older, low levels of high-density lip-oprotein (HDL—the “good” cholesterol), high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL—the “bad” cholesterol), hypertension, smoking, excess body fat, diabetes, and a family history of heart disease.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 64% of men seventy-five and older have hypertension (high blood pressure), and African Americans are at a greater risk. Termed the “silent killer,” hypertension often has no physical symptoms. Men often feel well enough to function normally in their day-to-day lives, and they do not view the risk as a serious one.
Being obese is associated with hypertension. Losing weight helps to control blood pressure, and sometimes men are able to decrease or discontinue their medication if their physicians determine it is no longer needed. Getting men to move away from large portions of fatty meat and potatoes and more toward three ounces of meat on a plate of overflowing vegetables is one sure method to help prevent overweight and manage hypertension. Additionally, some men are sensitive to dietary salt (sodium chloride). Eating too much salt can cause the body to retain water, resulting in increased blood pressure. Processed foods tend to be high in salt.
Impotence, also known as erectile dysfunction, occurs when a man cannot maintain an erection to achieve orgasm in sexual intercourse. The National Institutes of Health report that 15 to 30 million American men have erectile dysfunction. Many things can prevent normal erection, including psychological interference, neurological problems, abnormal blood flow, and prescription medications. Certain health conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, cause men to experience impotence as well. Treatment may consist of psychotherapy, prescription medication, and surgery.
A small gland surrounding the urethra, the prostate supplies fluid that transports semen. The CDC reports that 31,078 men died of prostate cancer in 2000. Signs of prostate trouble are hesitant urination, weak urine flow and dribbling, and incontinence (inability to control urinary bladder). Nutrition may play a role in prostate health. Besides eating a varied diet focused on overall moderation, researchers have shown benefits from lycopene, a phytochemical (plant chemical) that gives plants a red color. Foods containing lycopene include processed tomato products, watermelon, and pink or red grapefruit.
Nutrition impacts health. Eating a good diet promotes wellness and disease prevention for healthy men, and sound nutrition helps manage chronic diseases as well. Men often fall short of achieving a healthful diet due to busy work schedules, fear of or disinterest in cooking, and the stresses of daily living. Simple steps to improve time management and a willingness for experimentation in the kitchen are both reasonable suggestions to help men eat more healthful meals.
Apart from nutritious meals, men should visit their physicians regularly, both for checkups and to discuss the health implications of nutritional supplements (protein powder, vitamin E, etc.). Routine physical exams, including blood tests for cholesterol, blood pressure measurements, and cancer screenings, help identify problems early, which can dramatically improve outcomes. In addition, sixty minutes of exercise daily helps weight management.
American Heart Association (2002). Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics: 2003 Update. Dallas, TX.: Author.
Perry, Angela, and Schacht, Marck, eds. (2001). American Medical Association Complete Guide to Men’s Health. New York: Wiley.
Reichler, Gayle (1998). Active Wellness. New York: Time-Life Books.
American Dietetic Association. <http://www.eatright.org>
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. “Fast Stats A to Z: Heart Disease.” Available from <http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats>
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. “Fast Stats A to Z: Prostate Disease.” Available from <http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats>
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. “Erectile Dysfunction.” Available from <http://www.niddk.nih.gov/health/>
D. Milton Stokes