The old cliche "You are what you eat" contains a fair amount of truth. A man's body, including his sex organs, is made from the food he eats, the beverages he drinks, and the air he breaths. Eat right, and everything improves--including sexual health. As with most things in life an appropriate guide for eating to promote sexual health is: "All things in moderation, including excess." The idea is to avoid extremes in any direction and yet to preserve the pleasure of eating as well.
For example, much research shows that a high-fat diet and obesity lower testosterone levels and increase the risk of erection problems. That's because excess fat gets converted to estrogen-like compounds which curtail the production of testosterone, and fat in the blood can clog the small arteries feeding the penis. What is bad for the heart is bad for the penis.
On the other hand, studies also show that very lean men--for example marathon runners--also have lower-than-average testosterone levels. That's because the compound used to build testosterone molecules in the body is cholesterol, and extreme exercise lowers cholesterol levels to abnormal levels. A man needs enough cholesterol in his diet to maintain testosterone production, but not so much that it produces body fat or clogged arteries.
A similar dynamic exists with vitamins and minerals. Many studies in both animals and men show that deficiencies of vitamin E, vitamin B12, zinc, selenium, and a host of other vitamins hurt sperm production. But that doesn't mean guys should go out and start popping extra zinc tablets. Mega-doses of any vitamin can cause problems--the body is simply not built for such levels and a man will be wasting both money and his health this way. Men need adequate levels of all the key vitamins, particularly the so-called anti-oxidant vitamins A, C, and E. Although the current recommended levels of these and other vitamins and minerals may not be perfect (they are revised periodically in light of new research) I think it makes sense to follow the latest recommendations and take a general-purpose vitamin supplement every day that will "cover your bases."
Here are the latest dietary guidelines for men published by the National Research Council. This is the best guide for determining if you are eating enough of a given nutrient, such as fiber or salt, and for determining how much, if any, vitamin and mineral supplements you need.
Total daily calories, 2300
Total Fat, 76 grams (g)
Cholesterol, No more than 300 milligrams (mg)
Sodium (salt), No more than 2400 milligrams (mg)
Dietary Fiber, 20-30 grams (g)
Protein, 63 grams (g)
Vitamin A, 900 micrograms (mg)
Vitamin C, 90 milligrams (mg)
Vitamin D, 400 international units (IU)
Vitamin E, 15 milligrams
Calcium, 1200 milligrams
Iron, 10 milligrams (mg)
Zinc, 15 milligrams (mg)
Beta Carotene, 5-6 milligrams (mg)
Folate, 400 (mg)
Of course, it would be best if we all ate diets that provided an optimal vitamin and mineral balance every day from the foods we eat, but that's not always easy or possible these days. A supplement is particularly important for vegetarians or those on other limited diets because, unless one is very careful, vitamin and mineral deficiencies can result.
Science has not found any particular diet that reliably improves testosterone or fertility. Everything points to the general idea that if a man eats for whole-body health, he'll be eating for his sexual health as well. That means the following:
- Switch from saturated fats such as butter to unsaturated fats such as liquid oils
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables (just don't drown them in butter or salad dressing)
- Keep portions of protein modest, particularly red meat
- Avoid white flours, white bread, white rice, and sugar--these all cause large spikes in blood sugar levels that can sap energy and lead to adult-onset diabetes. Whole grains are far preferable (and are often more tasty as well)
- Get more fiber in your diet--a morning high-fiber cereal is a very good way to help reach the recommended levels
- Eat a diet balanced in protein, carbohydrates, and fats--you'll feel less hungry. In general, carbohydrates increase appetite, fats and proteins decrease appetite--but don't push this to extremes
- Avoid sugary drinks and choose plain water, preferably with a squirt of fresh lemon, since that astringent flavor helps suppress appetite
That may sound overly simple, but you don't need complicated regimens, fancy diets, or other faddish-ideas such as eating a low-carb diet, or a low-protein diet, or a low-fat diet. Most people instinctively know how to eat well--the problem is avoiding the temptations produced by our in-born cravings for fat and sweets, cravings that served our species very well ten-thousand years ago, but which now cause us grief in our current environment.
Optimal sexual health is also promoted by moderate, regular exercise. Again, the key is avoiding extremes. Studies show that men who exercise strenuously (i.e. men who run more than 100 miles a week or who bicycle more than 50 miles a week) usually have lower testosterone levels than men who exercise more moderately. Given that most men do not, in fact, exercise even moderately, this is not exactly a huge public health problem. Exercise at any level--even walking--is better than no exercise, but you derive maximum benefit when exercise is strenuous enough to be aerobic, meaning any activity that uses large muscle groups, can be maintained continuously, and is rhythmic in nature. Such activity causes the heart and lungs to work harder than normal, which is the key to both the physical and mental advantages of exercise.
When an overweight man, particularly one with excess abdominal fat, has low testosterone levels (which often the case), I do not recommend that he exercise right away. It's simply going to be frustrating because he will lack the drive and energy needed to initiate exercise. Instead, I wait for his testosterone levels to rise and, almost always, he finds he wants to exercise because it simply feels good. Exercise may cause an initial small weight gain from added muscle mass, but this is usually followed (in overweight men) by significant weight loss, because more calories will be being burned and the added muscle essentially raises a man's metabolism.
Men need to think about their sexual health when they're making choices about which foods to eat and whether or not to exercise. It's one thing for a man to know in the abstract that it's good to exercise and eat right--it's quite another to understand that doing so will help his sex life and potency.
Used with permission from The Male Biological Clock.