By Nikki Jong, Caring.com contributing editor
Men and women are built differently, that much is clear — but that’s not where the differences end. Unique health concerns and nutritional needs also separate the sexes. The five foods featured on this list are chock-full of nutrients men need most, including omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, lycopene, magnesium, B vitamins, folate, antioxidants, vitamin E, and boron. These picks support sexual function, protect against prostate cancer, and reduce cardiovascular disease risk — to name just a few benefits.
1. Fatty fish
The American Heart Association recommends eating fish — particularly fatty fish — at least twice a week. Fatty fish are incredibly nutritious; some of the best picks include salmon, mackerel, lake and rainbow trout, tuna, anchovies, sardines, and herring. All are high in protein, low in saturated fat, and are rich in calcium and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
First, let’s talk fats. Ounce for ounce, wild coho salmon has about half the saturated fat content of a 95 percent lean beef patty, and slightly more protein. And unlike the saturated fat in that burger, which greatly increases the body’s production of blood cholesterol, the omega-3s found in fish have a cleansing effect on the circulatory system. They reduce blood viscosity and clotting and lower lipid levels and blood pressure. Omega-3s not only minimize your risk of stroke and heart attack by preventing the damage that causes them, they also help heal tissues damaged from poor circulation by promoting better blood flow.
For general health, they’re not so bad, either. Omega-3s reduce the bodily inflammation that contributes to many types of disease, and research suggests they may play a role in preventing Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Salmon, mackerel, and sardines have the highest levels of healthy omega-3 fats, although all seven fish listed above are good sources.
Omega-3s aren’t the only nutritional benefits you’ll find in these fish, though. Tuna is a rich source of such minerals as selenium, magnesium, and potassium, as well as B vitamins, including niacin, B1, and B6. It’s also an excellent source of the amino acid tryptophan, which helps regulate appetite and improves sleep and mood. Salmon has high scores in all the same nutrients, in addition to being a good source of B12 and a concentrated source of vitamin D. Fatty fish are the richest food source on earth of naturally occurring vitamin D — salmon, tuna, and mackerel score particularly high. Sardines offer vitamin D, B12, and calcium (thanks to their edible bones). Herring, a close relative of the sardine, is often sold, packaged, and marketed as sardines. Herring is an excellent source of B12 and selenium, and a good source of B6 and phosphorus.
Oceans Alive, a division of the Environmental Defense Fund, lists many of these fatty fish on its Eco-Best list, meaning they’re not only good for you but they’re being caught or raised in ways that are also sustainable and healthy for the environment. If you’re worried about contaminants like mercury and industrial pollutants like PCBs, visit the Oceans Alive website for information on the levels of contamination in all types of fish, along with recommendations about how often you can safely incorporate them into your diet. A good rule of thumb: Smaller fatty fish, such as anchovies, herring, and sardines, tend to be lower in contaminants than larger fish.
Quick and healthy tip: Whenever possible, choose wild salmon over farmed. Independent studies have shown that farmed salmon have significantly higher levels of carcinogenic PCBs. It should be easy: All U.S. supermarkets are required to label salmon as farmed or wild. Canned salmon is a good choice; it’s easy to find, affordable, and is shelf-stable. Check the label to make sure it’s wild, and keep some on hand to scramble into eggs, toss with whole-grain pasta, or top a salad.
2 . Whole oats
Oats are an excellent source of manganese and a good source of selenium, tryptophan, phosphorus, vitamin B1 (thiamin), dietary fiber, magnesium, and protein. One cup of cooked oats provides more than 6 grams of protein, more than almost all breakfast grains, particularly those that are corn- or wheat-based.
Harvard researchers who followed 21,376 participants over a period of nearly 20 years in the Physicians’ Health Study found that men who had a daily serving of whole-grain cereal had a 29 percent lower risk of heart failure. Oats contain a soluble fiber known as beta-glucan that provides numerous health benefits, from helping reduce fat in the blood to preventing hardening of the arteries that can lead to heart attacks, stroke, or dangerous blood clots. Not only does beta-glucan protect against cardiovascular disease, it also supports the body’s immune response by stimulating white blood cell activity. And it stabilizes blood sugar, lowering your risk of type 2 diabetes.
One of the best things about oatmeal is that it’s a perfect canvas for pairing with other tasty, healthy ingredients. Walnuts and flaxseed, for example, are even more concentrated in omega-3s than fatty fish; two tablespoons of flaxseed provides 146 percent of the amount recommended for a man’s daily diet, while a quarter cup of walnuts provides 95 percent of the daily recommended amount. Almonds and raisins are rich in boron, which enhances testosterone levels in men, helping build muscle and contributing to bone health. Boron has also shown protective effects against prostate cancer. Other good oatmeal toppers include hazelnuts, pecans, and pumpkin seeds; all three contain a plant sterol that’s been shown to ease the symptoms of benign prostatic hyperplasia, a common prostate condition in men over 40. If you like your oatmeal sweetened, try raw honey — it helps lower total cholesterol and is loaded with protective antioxidants.
Quick and healthy tip: Oatmeal isn’t the only way to enjoy these healthy whole grains. Add a handful of oats to soups, stews, and chilis — the fiber will thicken them for a heartier (and healthier) result.
For optimal nutrition, avoid instant and/or flavored oatmeal, which, in addition to being stripped of important nutrients during processing, often contains less-than-healthy additives. Instead, opt for minimally processed or whole oats — look for the steel-cut (known as Irish or Scottish), thick, or old-fashioned varieties.
Tomatoes and derivative products, such as tomato sauce and ketchup, contain many nutrients that support overall health, but there are two primary reasons they made this list: First, they’re a great source of the potent antioxidant lycopene; and second, unlike a couple of other lycopene contenders (namely, watermelon and guava), they’re available everywhere year-round.
Research shows a strong association between high lycopene consumption and lower rates of prostate cancer — the second-leading cause of cancer death in men. In addition to exhibiting preventive effects, lycopene also seems to inhibit the spread of existing cancer and to decrease malignancy. It has shown protective benefits against pancreatic cancer, which is more common in men than women and is one of the most fatal of all cancers, largely due to late diagnosis. Lycopene is also being studied for its effect on male fertility; research suggests that it may boost sperm concentrations in infertile men.
Finally, tomatoes contain phenolic acids, which combat lung cancer, the second most common cancer in men and by far the leading cause of cancer death in both men and women, according to the American Cancer Society.
Quick and healthy tip: Like oatmeal, think of tomato sauce as a base for other healthy ingredients, such as garlic, another potent cancer fighter and an excellent source of vitamin B6 (which combats fatigue and supports the nervous system). Garlic has been associated with a reduced risk of prostate cancer and has shown protective benefits against colon cancer. Plus, it makes any tomato sauce taste better.
Jessica Black, doctor of naturopathic medicine and author of The Anti-Inflammation Diet and Recipe Book, points out that mushrooms are a powerful immune stimulant and immune modulator. “They’re great detoxifiers because they thrive on what’s decaying around them,” she says. Black adds that reishi mushrooms have been shown to reduce cancer-causing free radicals by 50 percent.
You don’t have to restrict yourself to the more exotic varieties of mushrooms, though. You’ll find health benefits in all types of mushrooms that are available at your local grocery store or farmers’ market.
Take creminis, for example. Available at almost any grocery store across America, creminis are an excellent source of selenium, copper, tryptophan, potassium, phosphorus, and the vitamins B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), and B5 (pantothenic acid). They’re also high in zinc, manganese, protein, and vitamins B1 (thiamin) and B6 (pyridoxine). For good measure, creminis also provide decent amounts of folate, dietary fiber, magnesium, iron, and calcium.
Here are just a few of the benefits of B vitamins: They combat fatigue, maintain energy levels, help lower cholesterol levels, stabilize blood sugar, coordinate nerve and muscle activity, aid in the development of nerve cells, and support mood and proper heart function. The essential trace element selenium has been used to treat male infertility and has shown benefit in protecting against Parkinson’s disease. It’s also been shown to trigger the repair of damaged DNA and to inhibit the spread of cancer and stimulate apoptosis (destruction) of cancer cells.
If that’s not enough, consider how much animal protein you consume in your everyday diet. Then ask any vegetarian what he or she makes for die-hard carnivorous friends (the ones who start sweating at the thought of a single meal without meat) at a dinner party. Nine times out of ten, you’ll get the same answer: mushrooms. All mushroom varieties have a nice, earthy flavor when cooked and can be used as a base for savory gravies, soups, stews, or casseroles. Portobellos in particular make an excellent and flavorful meat substitute due to their size and robust texture. Make them the star dish: Roast them, barbecue them, stuff them, use them in place of burgers. The options are endless.
Quick and healthy tip: Mushrooms are a great addition to just about anything — omelets, pastas, pizzas, and especially tomato-based sauces.
Mollusks comprise one of the largest animal groups on land, in oceans, or in fresh water. Bivalves, the class of mollusks that includes clams, mussels, oysters, and scallops, are extremely rich in a unique combination of nutrients that promote men’s health. Think red meat is your best bet for protein and iron? Think again. Bivalves are a superior source of low-calorie protein loaded with iron. In addition, they’re virtually fat free and are packed with zinc and vitamin B12.
Consider clams: They’re super-rich in iron, manganese, phosphorus, vitamin B12, vitamin C, and are a good source of niacin, potassium, riboflavin, selenium, and zinc. Three ounces of raw clams will only cost you 63 calories, but you’ll get 11 grams of protein, 66 percent of the daily recommended amount for iron, and 700 percent of the daily recommended amount for vitamin B12. Chinese medicine recommends clams for treating hemorrhoids.
Mussels are high in iron, manganese, vitamin B12, and selenium and are a good source of phosphorus, riboflavin, thiamin, vitamin C, and zinc. Three ounces of raw blue mussels contain only 73 calories, but you’ll get 10 grams of protein, 19 percent of the daily recommended amount of iron, upward of 50 percent of the recommended amount for selenium, and more than 100 percent of the recommended amount for manganese, which aids in wound healing and optimal brain functioning. In Chinese medicine, mussels are used to treat impotence, low back pain, and goiter.
Six medium raw oysters, which is roughly equivalent to three ounces, provides 31 percent of the daily recommended amount for iron and 6 grams of protein for just 57 calories. Oysters are high in iron, B12, zinc, selenium, manganese, magnesium, and phosphorus. What’s more, oysters contain the amino acid tyrosine, which is converted into dopamine in the brain, resulting in a mood and mental boost.
Scallops are an excellent source of tryptophan and a good source of protein, vitamin B12 (cobalamin), phosphorus, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, and potassium. To give you an idea how scallops measure up, three raw ounces provide 14 grams of protein and a good amount of B12, all for 75 calories.
Vitamin B12, is a power player in the world of nutrition. It takes on a crucial role in the normal functioning of the brain and nervous system, aids in digestion and proper absorption of nutrients from foods, fights chronic fatigue, and helps expedite the release of melatonin, improving sleep patterns and resulting in better, more restful sleep. B12 also helps maintain red blood cells and nerve cells and aids in the formation of DNA.
Zinc helps balance blood sugar, sharpens smell and taste, and supports immune function. Zinc also plays an important role in supporting male reproductive health. Inadequate zinc has been shown to adversely affect sperm quality, while zinc supplementation has shown benefits in overall sperm health, including higher sperm counts. Other good sources of zinc include sea vegetables.
Quick and healthy tip: Mussels, oysters, and bay scallops are on Oceans Alive’s Eco-Best list; clams make the Eco-OK list. You can easily locate canned clams and mussels, and oysters and frozen scallops at your local grocery. Toss with tomato sauce, fresh herbs, and whole-grain pasta for a quick and healthy meal.