Healthy eating for men
Practical advice on how you can be healthier and still eat real food.
Is your approach to health something like; “If it ain’t broke; don’t fix it”? Sometimes we can be so busy and focused on achieving our goals that we neglect the very thing we need to get there – our health.
Men who care about health – and healthy eating – have a definite edge over those who don’t. Healthy eating is an investment in yourself that pays off in many ways:
- At work: You’ll have more energy; you’ll think quicker and more clearly; you’ll get ahead faster; and if you’re older, you’ll be able to keep up with the young guys at the office.
- Your social life: Eating well is going to pay off in the way you look: you’ll be slimmer; you’ll look better in clothes (and out of them); your skin and hair will be healthier. All of which won’t go unnoticed by the women around you.
- At home: You’ll have more energy for playgrounds, cricket and cycling, rather than spending ‘quality time’ blobbed out in front of the TV.
- You’ll perform better: Together with looking better comes increased libido and better sexual performance. Men who are overweight or obese have far more problems with sexual enjoyment, desire and performance than normal-weight men.
- You’ll live longer: The long-term benefits of getting healthy are huge: you’ll reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.
If none of this grabs you, think about this: how will your family cope with the burden if you drop dead from a heart attack?
The price of unhealthy eating
- Men die younger: Men die about five years younger than women and are more likely to get sick from serious health problems such as heart disease and cancer. Heart disease is the main cause of death in New Zealand and over twice as many men as women die from it.
- Men gain more weight: If you were to guess how many people are fat by the amount they talk about it, women would win hands down. But it’s men who silently pack on those love handles, especially from their mid-twenties to mid-thirties. Around 60% of New Zealand men are overweight or obese compared with 48% of women.
The male advantage
Men have an advantage over women when it comes to making changes to the diet – and seeing results. You are naturally more muscular. The more muscle, the higher your basal metabolic rate (the amount of energy the body burns). This means you can generally eat more food than women. And even a small reduction in food, combined with half an hour a day of aerobic exercise and muscle building, will show results. On top of that, unlike women, you are usually less hampered with emotional attachments to food. Once you set a goal to eat better and exercise more, weight loss and health improvements will quickly follow.
Get the energy you need
An 80kg athlete or very active 20-year-old needs around 15,000-16,000kJ a day. Jump ahead 15-25 years, replace the exercise with a busy but sedentary job and you now need about 5,000kJ less. That’s about a third less food! Does that mean you should skip breakfast and swap your roast lamb for lentils? Not at all. It just means you can’t so easily get away with the extras. All it takes to add 5,000kJ to the day is to grab a muffin and a can of cola for a quick snack, enjoy a couple of glasses of wine with some cheese and crackers before dinner, and have an extra serve of pasta for dinner. If you keep eating this extra 5,000kJ each day, you will gain a kilo of fat every week!
Active, growing young men need decent serves of carbohydrate foods like bread, pasta, rice and cereals to give them the energy they need, but those serves need to shrink when you are less active. Carbohydrate that is not burned up by exercise or growth gets stored in the muscles as an energy reserve (glycogen), and if there’s still a surplus, it’s stored as fat. So if you are past the teenage growth spurt and in a sedentary job, those ‘man-sized’ meals need to be smaller than when you were a muscular, energetic 20 year old.
- Serve food on a smaller plate.
- Change the proportions: make your plate about half vegetables and a quarter each of meat and rice, pasta or potatoes.
- Eat slowly: it takes about 20 minutes for the message to get up to your brain that you are full.
- Drink water with your meal.
- Take seconds of salad or vegetables before the meat and spuds
Fuel up regularly
I will never forget the overweight executive who came to see me as part of his corporate health check. He ate just one meal a day – at 10pm when he finally arrived home from work. His work-day diet was cigarettes and 20 double-strength coffees. Needless to say we had a bit to talk about.
Your body is like an engine. It needs fuel when it’s working. Breakfast is vital. It kick-starts your basal metabolic rate, ie gets you burning more kilojoules and fat, and boosts your brain power with a shot of glucose. Coffee may give you a temporary buzz but it doesn’t last or provide any nutrients. For stress-busting B vitamins and gut-busting fibre, try to eat some whole grain cereal with low-fat milk, or grain toast with avocado, cooked tomatoes or eggs. If you want to improve your concentration, energy and productivity at work, and make losing weight a lot easier, feed your body and brain some quality fuel at regular intervals during the day. And don’t forget the two litres of fluid. Engines don’t last long without water.
Boost the vegetables
The latest NZ Nutrition Survey found that over 1/3 of men didn’t eat the recommended three serves of vegetables and over 1/2 didn’t eat the recommended two pieces of fruit a day. So if you were to make just one change to your diet, perhaps the most effective would be to eat more fruit and vegetables; especially vegetables.
We may think of meat as the ultimate ‘man food’ but it is fruit and vegetables that are the truly potent powerhouses of health. Men who eat five serves (2 1/2 cups) of ‘stalky’ vegetables (think broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, bok choy and Brussels sprouts) a week dramatically cut their risk of developing prostate cancer. And the fibre in fruit and vegetables fills you up and keeps you regular, and their vitamins, minerals and many other health substances help fight cell damage and protect the body from disease.
Tip: If you like exact amounts to follow, aim for two pieces of fruit and two cups of vegetables a day (as many different types as you can).
Eat your colours
If you are less into numbers and more into aesthetics, simply eat more colours – natural colours, that is. When you look at your dinner tonight, check whether it is brown or colourful. A meal with four or five different colours looks a lot more appealing than a plate of brown food and the more colourful your meal, the more antioxidants and health benefits it has. We used to joke that this didn’t mean slathering your meal with tomato sauce. But a large study in the United States has actually found that men who ate one cup of tomato sauce a week had a much lower risk of developing prostate cancer. So brightening up your fish and chips with a dollop of tomato sauce provides at least some benefit to counteract all that fat. (Although this is not an excuse to eat fish and chips…) And remember, tomato sauce is still high in sodium.
Tip: For all the benefits of lycopene, the powerful antioxidant in tomatoes that’s good for prostate health, serve your vegetables with canned or cooked tomatoes. Cooking tomatoes makes the lycopene more available to the body.
Meat: size does matter
Men – at least the ones I know – love meat. I like to buy thick fillet or rump steak. Once I cut the fat off it’s lean and economical because I only buy a small amount. But my husband groans when he sits down to what he calls a ‘cup-cake’. He much prefers his mate’s ‘meat-parties’ where rump steak, T-bones and sausages cover the BBQ and even the token salad has bacon! It’s understandable: men are the hunters, women the gatherers. If you’ve just spent a few days in the wilderness chasing and hunting down a wild beast, you deserve to tear into a slab of steak. But these days the prey has already been caught, killed and packaged. If the most energy you expend in hunting your steak is walking from the car to the supermarket or restaurant, then it’s a cup-cake, not a carcass, your body needs.
By all means enjoy some lean red meat: it’s rich in zinc, iron and B vitamins. But keep the serve to about the size of your palm. This leaves over half the dinner plate free for vegetables and some pasta or rice. If your idea of a ‘real man’s meal’ is a few frozen peas teetering around the edge of a massive T-bone, think again. Men need more than just meat on the plate to maintain their bodies in top condition.
- Choose meat with little or no white marbling through it. Sure it keeps the meat tender, but it also clogs your arteries.
- Cut off fat before cooking.
- Marinate meat for extra flavour.
- When it comes to mince, choose ‘premium’ or ‘first grade’; it’s leaner.
- Buy skinless chicken.
- For a healthy heart, eat at least a couple of meals of fish each week too. The omega-3 fats in fatty fish such as salmon and tuna reduce blood pressure, triglycerides and fatty build-up in the arteries and the risk of irregular heart beat, clots and sudden death.
Move your body
Your body is designed to move. That’s why the largest muscles are in the legs, not the buttocks! For optimal functioning you need to get your heart and muscles pumping for at least 30 minutes a day. Thirty minutes out of 24 hours isn’t much, but it’s enough to keep blood pressure down and energy levels up. It burns fat and builds muscle. It helps increase HDL cholesterol – the ‘good’ cholesterol which carries fat away from the arteries. It’s great for stress relief as the endorphins produced by exercise give your body a drug-free ‘high’.
Exercise needs to be built into your daily schedule – a free slot of time won’t magically appear. Gyms work for some people but there are plenty of other ways to move.
Move more in your daily routine:
- Park the car at the far end of the car-park instead of searching for the closest spot.
- Get off the bus or train one stop early and walk.
- Cycle to work.
- Walk to the shops instead of driving.
- Walk the kids to school.
- Take the stairs, not the lift.
- Wash the car.
- Mow the lawns.
- Cycle with the family.
- Kick a ball at the park.
- Take the dog for a walk or run.
Alcohol: why you need to treat it like food
This doesn’t mean drink alcohol instead of eating. What it means is alcohol is energy-dense. It’s packed full of kilojoules. In fact, alcohol has more kilojoules per gram than protein or carbohydrate. It’s almost as fattening as fat! Two bottles of beer or three small glasses of wine gives you about 1000kJ plus. If you share a bottle of wine evenly between two, you each gulp down as many kilojoules as eating a meat pie. On top of that, alcohol makes you want to eat, and it’s not salad or fruit you’ll be craving, it’s fat and salt – cheese and crackers, nuts and chips. Mix fat with alcohol too often and that beer gut will soon appear.
Too much alcohol damages your brain and liver as well as increasing the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and some cancers.
A healthy alcohol intake is no more than three drinks a day (it’s only two for women). And you can’t save up your weekly quota for a weekend binge!
- 1 drink = 100ml wine or 330ml full-strength beer or a nip (30ml) spirits
- 1 bottle of wine contains 7.5 standard drinks
For more information on wine and your health, see Wine: Drink to your health?.
How to get into healthy habits (without your mates noticing)
- You can live a more healthy life without putting a crimp in your social life.
- If you’re out for drinks with the boys (or girls), start with 2 glasses of water so you drink for enjoyment, not to quench thirst.
- Choose nuts or olives over crisps. Just as much fat but better for your heart and more filling.
- If meeting after work, have an afternoon snack so you are less tempted by the enticing smell of hot fatty foods.
- Eat slowly. Chew food well. Put your knife and fork down between mouthfuls. It takes 20 minutes for the message to get from your stomach to your brain that you are full. If you eat fast, you can stuff in a lot of food in that time.
- Have water on the table and drink it with your meal. It slows you down and fills you up.
- Order a side serve of vegetables.
- A Caesar salad can have 7-8 teaspoons of fat. Choose vinaigrette over creamy dressings.
- Choose tomato-based sauces for pasta – less fat and great for your prostate.
- Love fries? Choose chunky chips (or oven fries) instead of shoestrings to cut the fat.
- Vary the drinks. Great options are: water, sparkling water, soda water, tomato juice, green tea.
- Coffee contains caffeine, which is a stimulant that revs up the body and can help concentration – in small doses. Limit coffee to maximum 3-4 a day. That means only 2 of those double-strength lattes at the café. Order ‘trim’ to keep the saturated fat level down. A cup of standard milk has about 2 teaspoons of fat whereas reduced-fat has only 1 teaspoon. Tea, chocolate and cola drinks also contain caffeine. A strong cup of tea has about the same caffeine as a cup of instant coffee. A can of cola has about the same caffeine as half a cup of coffee. But remember it also has about 8 teaspoons of sugar!
The bottom line
Unlike a car, we can’t trade our body in for a new model every five years. You are stuck with the same body your whole life and – like a car – if you want it to last the distance it’s a good idea to fill it up with the right grade fuel, drive it regularly and take it in for a service every so often.