There will never be a “one size fits all” men’s health diet plan – a diet that suits everyone. We each have unique palates, cultural influences, eating experiences, and possible dietary restrictions or health conditions that make food more than just fuel for the body. However, when working on improving men’s health diets to reap the benefits, there are several key components to hone in on to build overall positive food practices.
The influence of our food environment
We can’t ignore the influences that our surrounding food environment has on the day-to-day diet for men and women. By the time we reach adulthood, our food patterns and preferences are often already established from the food system and habits we developed growing up. Learned food and beverage preferences and beliefs are often influenced by those around us, including friends, family, and media messaging from a constant stream throughout the day. Cultural foods, family traditions, and the way we celebrate and show love through food make our eating experiences complex with emotional ties.
Exposure to a variety of foods, flavors, and cooking methods as kids helps us develop diverse palates and provide ample opportunities to enjoy many cuisines and be open to new types of food. Alternatively, the saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is often apparent in the foods we gravitate toward if our exposure and experience with new foods is limited. Many adults have adopted unhealthy eating habits or diet patterns that stem from childhood, and it can be understandably daunting or unappealing to stray from foods that feel comfortable.
Food and our health
Over half of U.S. adults have one or more chronic diseases – diseases whose contributing factors include dietary habits and other lifestyle choices and behaviors, among other determinants of health outside of our control.1 The leading cause of death for all genders, races, and ages is heart disease.2 Across the globe, coronary heart disease mortality is higher in men than women, and men typically develop heart disease at an earlier age than women.3
To support men’s health, diet and positive lifestyle habits are popular targets. As part of healthy eating for men, the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) provides food group consumption recommendations for several different calorie targets and age ranges.1 Because a 2,000-calorie diet is often referenced on food labels, we’ll use it here. The following represents the amount of each food group that is recommended daily or weekly as a healthy diet pattern:1
Vegetables: 2½ cup-equivalents/day
Dark green vegetables: 1½ cup-equivalents/week
Things like broccoli, leafy greens, Bok choy, or broccoli rabe
1 cup-equivalent = 1 cup raw or cooked vegetables, 1 cup vegetable juice, 2 cups leafy salad greens
Red and orange vegetables: 5½ cup-equivalents/week
Try carrots, red and orange bell peppers, sweet potatoes, or tomatoes (great source of lycopene, an antioxidant that has protective effects for prostate and cardiovascular health!)
1 cup-equivalent = 1 cup raw or cooked vegetables, 1 cup vegetable juice
Beans, peas, lentils: 1½ cup-equivalents/week
Options such as garbanzo beans, black-eyed peas, split peas, or green lentils
Starchy vegetables: 5 cup-equivalents/week
Including corn, green peas, white potatoes, or plantains
Other vegetables: 4 cup-equivalents/week
Miscellaneous veggies like avocado, bean sprouts, cabbage, cucumbers, mushrooms, onions, or zucchini
1 cup-equivalent = 1 cup raw or cooked vegetables, 1 cup vegetable juice, 2 cups leafy salad greens
Fruits: 2 cup-equivalents/day
Note: 1 cup-equivalent of fruit equals
1 cup whole, cut, or pureed fruit
1 cup 100-percent fruit juice
½ cup dried fruit
Grains: 6 ounce-equivalents/day
Whole grains: ≥3 ounce-equivalents/day
Refined grains: <3 ounce-equivalents/day
Tip: 1 ounce-equivalent is approximately 1 slice of bread, 1 cup of ready-to-eat cereal, or ½ cup cooked rice, pasta, or cereal
Dairy: 3 cup-equivalents/day
1 cup-equivalent looks like:
1 cup of milk, yogurt, or soy milk
1½ ounce natural cheese
⅓ cup shredded cheese
2 cups cottage cheese
Protein foods: 5½ ounce-equivalents/day
Meats, poultry, eggs: 26 ounce-equivalents/week
Seafood: 8 ounce-equivalents/week
Nuts, seeds, soy products: 5 ounce-equivalents/week
1 ounce serving = 1 ounce of meat, poultry, or fish; ¼ cup cooked beans; 1 egg; 1 tablespoon nut butter, or ½ ounce nuts or seeds
While these guidelines are healthier that the average Western diet because they focus on whole, unprocessed foods and limit sugars, fried foods, etc., readers might find even greater benefit by including more non-starchy vegetables. When grains are consumed, preference should be on whole grains rather than processed grains. Other components of the DGAs recommend limiting foods and beverages that are higher in added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium while also limiting alcoholic beverages.1 Men are recommended to limit alcohol to two drinks daily. You can see what a standard drink looks like here:4
Image source: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Focusing 85 percent of calories on nutrient-dense foods and beverages helps keep the balance between healthful choices and other ingredients or foods that help make meals satisfying or fun.1 Even some simple swaps can help to keep your health in mind with your choices. Things like trying whole wheat wraps or bread to replace regular white flour options, trying some salted nuts or popcorn (a whole grain) instead of potato chips, or air-fried chicken wings instead of deep-fat fried. That being said, no one can or should be expected to eliminate celebratory birthday cake or other indulgences for the rest of their life, right? This 85:15 balance gives us opportunities to incorporate some gentle nutrition into our food patterns without sacrificing the joy of food.
In addition to healthy foods for men, other lifestyle recommendations, like regular physical activity, can provide benefits both in the short term (boosting mood, reducing stress, and improving sleep) and long term (improving bone and muscle mass, reducing risk of prostate and other cancers, reducing risk of dementia, etc.).1 It is recommended that adult males participate in at least two days of resistance exercise in addition to 150-300 minutes of moderate aerobic activity each week.1 Smoking status, sleep habits, hydration, and stress levels also play a role in men’s health.
What about men’s diet trends?
There are many different diet trends constantly circulating on social media that claim extreme benefits, primarily within the weight loss realm. Juice cleanses, detox diets, paleo, keto... the list goes on with minimal long-term research in most cases.
But what might actually be a good diet for men? Taking a look at the evidence, plant-forward meals can be a healthy diet plan for men (or anyone) for a variety of reasons. Plant-forward approaches are styles of cooking and eating that make plants the stars of the show but don’t necessarily completely cut out animal products.5 Meats, poultry, seafood, dairy, and other animal-based products might be included from time to time, just not as the main feature of the meal. Focusing on plant-based eating can reduce the total amount of cholesterol and saturated fats consumed in the diet and decrease the risk of metabolic diseases, including cardiovascular disease.5
You might be asking yourself, “But if I'm not eating meat, then will I get the protein I need?” There are many plant protein sources available, whether you’re looking for plant-based meat alternatives or relying on vegetarian staples like beans, tofu, nuts, and seeds. Not only does plant protein come already paired with vitamins, minerals, and fiber, but these powerhouse ingredients also are more sustainable protein options compared to the carbon footprint and water and land use that raising animals requires.
As a comparison:6
1 pound of beef requires between 2,000 and 8,000 gallons of water to produce, with much of this water being used to grow the animal feed
1 pound of beef = 90-100 g of protein, costing 20-80 gallons of water per gram of protein
1 gallon of cow’s milk requires 1,950 gallons of water to produce
1 gallon of milk = 128 g of protein, costing 15 gallons of water per gram of protein
1 pound of tofu requires 302 gallons of water to produce
1 pound of tofu = 45-55 g of protein, costing 6 gallons of water per gram of protein
Another popular long-term diet pattern that supports heart health and focuses highly on plant-based foods is the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet has been shown to reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, and cardiovascular-related mortality by 30 percent with its emphasis on primarily fruits and veggies, whole grains, nuts, and olive oils, and moderate amounts of lean meats, seafood, dairy, and eggs.7 Throw in a little red wine for the resveratrol antioxidants, and that sounds like a balanced diet to me.
Bottom line: healthy diets for men that include eating more plants on a regular basis can reduce risk of cardiovascular disease; boost the consumption of valuable nutrients like fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals; and provide benefits to men’s health meal planning, even if this just means making one dinner meatless each week.1,5,7
If you’re not quite ready to hop on the plant-forward food train, then that’s quite alright. Thorne has a variety of men’s health diet and lifestyle recommendations, health tests, and nutritional supplements to keep your health on track. Whether you’re looking for an essential multivitamin/mineral supplement to support foundational men’s health nutrition, nutrients for cardiovascular and blood flow support, or protein powders to help muscles recover after exercise, Thorne has you covered.
U.S. Department of Agriculture & U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th edition. Published December 2020. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf [Accessed November 8, 2022]
CDC. Leading causes of death – males – all races and origins – United States, 2018. Updated March 2, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/minorityhealth/lcod/men/2018/all-races-origins/index.htm [Accessed November 8, 2022]
Bots SH, Peters SAE, Woodward M. Sex differences in coronary heart disease and stroke mortality: a global assessment of the effect of ageing between 1980 and 2010. BMJ Glob Health 2017;2(2):e000298. doi:10.1136/bmjgh-2017-000298
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. What is a standard drink? NIAAA.NIH.gov. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/what-standard-drink [Accessed November 18, 2022]
American Heart Association. How does plant-forward (plant-based) eating benefit your health? Heart.org. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/how-does-plant-forward-eating-benefit-your-health [Accessed November 9, 2022]
Hunnes D. The case for plant based. Sustain.UCLA.edu. https://www.sustain.ucla.edu/food-systems/the-case-for-plant-based/ [Accessed November 10, 2022]
Cleveland Clinic. Mediterranean diet. My.ClevelandClinic.org. Updated September 19, 2019. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/16037-mediterranean-diet