By Anne Chiavacci, M.S., M.A., R.D.
Men, do you know which diseases pose the biggest threats to your health? Heart disease and cancer — specifically lung, colon and prostate — are the top killers of men in the United States. Reducing your risk for these diseases is within your control. Don't wait for severe chest pain, high cholesterol, high blood sugar or an elevated PSA (prostate-specific antigen) level to get your attention. Here's a plan to tune up your diet in three easy steps and take that target off your back.
Step 1: Eat more plant-based and fewer animal-based foods.
A diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables contains natural sources of vitamins, minerals and fiber that help lower your risk for heart disease and certain cancers. They can also slow down the disease process. For example, men diagnosed with prostate cancer who added one serving of fish or tomato sauce daily had a 50% lower risk of their cancer progressing. Adding just two servings a week lowered the risk of progression by about 20%.
Two large Harvard-based studies of over 124,000 people showed that those who ate foods rich in carotenoids, such as carrots and tomato products reduced their risk of lung cancer by 32%. The link between red meat and heart disease is familiar to many. Now there's also a cancer connection:
What can you do? Eat 5 to 10 (1/2 cup) servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Choose varieties of different colors — green romaine, orange sweet potatoes, black beans, yellow corn, purple grapes, red watermelon, or white onions — to get the full range of health benefits.
Step 2: Choose whole grains in place of refined carbohydrates and sugars.
Highly processed carbohydrates and sugars are stripped of fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. An excessive intake of these foods leads to high insulin levels in the blood. This condition appears to be a growth factor for cancer cells, particularly when combined with obesity and a sedentary lifestyle.
Step 3: Be savvy with your supplements.
Don't exceed 1,500 mg/day of calcium from foods and supplements. Men with calcium intakes above 1,500 mg/day have a 2- to 2.5 -fold increase in advanced and fatal prostate cancer, compared with men who consume only 500 to 750 mg/day.
Take a vitamin D supplement. A form called cholecalciferol is best: 600 to 800 IU daily. Low blood levels of vitamin D are associated with higher rates of several cancers including cancers of the:
Avoid high-dose zinc supplements. Compared with nonusers, men who take more than 100 mg/day of supplemental zinc have more than double the risk of advanced prostate cancer. Zinc from food sources, however, is not associated with prostate cancer risk.
Get your antioxidants — vitamins C and E, selenium, beta carotene and other nutrients you won't find in a pill — from fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains. Overall, the collective results from 38 studies fail to show a benefit of vitamin C and E supplements in cancer prevention and treatment. Studies on vitamin E and prevention of heart disease have also shown scant evidence of a protective role. Beta-carotene supplements actually increase the risk of lung cancer and death in smokers.
Don't Forget These Keys to Your Disease-Prevention Plan
Anne Chiavacci, M..S, M.,A., R.D. is a senior clinical nutritionist at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. She received her Bachelor of Science in nutrition from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and her Master of Science in nutrition from Tufts University. She provides medical nutrition therapy and counseling services for oncology patients and their families.