We have been working as nutritional therapists for 11 years now. Over the years we have seen hundreds of people in clinic and couldn’t help but notice that very few of our clients are male. Is this, we wondered, because men feel more comfortable seeing a male nutritional therapist? It seemed a possibility until we learned that nutritional therapist Ian Marber experienced the same thing: He has seen around 6,000 clients but noted that only between 400 and 600 of them were male. 

Is this because men have more robust health than women? Do they just not need us? Looking at the statistics, that does not seem likely. For one thing, it is widely accepted that all over the world women have a longer life expectancy than men. In 2016 to 2018, life expectancy at birth in the UK was 79.3 years for men, 82.9 years for women. Healthy life expectancy, too, was slightly reduced for men: 63.3 years as opposed to 63.9 years for women. What is worrying is that although expectancy is still increasing, healthy life expectancy is going down. What that means is that both men and women spend more and more years sick. 

The most common health issues affecting men, particularly in later life, are heart disease, diabetes, liver disease, dementia and Alzheimer’s. Cancer affects more men than women – prostate cancer has now replaced lung cancer as the most common cancer in men (followed by lung and colon cancer). Even in cancers that affect both men and women, men have a 60% higher risk of developing them and are 70% more likely to die from cancer. These are frightening statistics, and one can’t help but wonder why. 

Of course, the most common type of cancer in men – cancer of the prostate – does not affect women. Deaths from breast cancer in women have decreased consistently since 1999, while in the same period, prostate cancer deaths have increased. One likely reason for that is that twice as many scientific studies have been published on breast cancer than on prostate cancer. Another reason might be that cancer is frequently discussed in women’s magazines, creating awareness. At the same time health – at least beyond sports and fitness – does not feature as much in men’s magazines. Moreover, women have regular contact with health professionals throughout their lives and may, therefore, feel more at ease discussing personal health issues with a stranger. Contraception, pregnancy, birth, childcare and routine breast cancer and cervical screens mean that they are routinely in and out of their GPs surgery, which gives women ample opportunity to mention any health concerns. Men, on the other hand, are more reluctant to go to the doctor, which may delay diagnoses and treatment, leading to worse outcomes. 

One possible reason that men don’t visit their GP as often as women is a greater tendency to suffer from FOFO – Fear of Finding Out. Faced with a diagnosis of cancer or dementia, some people still mistakenly believe it’s better not to know. Some of the factors driving FOFO are stigma, concern about treatments, and taking time-off from work.

When it comes to nutrition, again, women seem to be better informed. Nutritional advice frequently features in women’s magazines – albeit most often in the context of weight loss diets and may be discussed among friends and colleagues. Nonetheless, women are more likely than men to consider the fat, sugar and salt content of their meals and to consume fresh fruit and vegetables, thus ensuring a good intake of vitamins, minerals and fibre. These are not just stereotypes: “A University of Huddersfield study in 2012 created two diets, one with burger and chips for lunch with pizza and beer in the evening. The second diet consisted of pasta salad and fruit at lunchtime with vegetables, rice and wine in the evening. The 200 participants judged the latter as significantly more feminine, but also the men who ate that diet were also deemed more feminine”, wrote Ian Marber in an article in the Telegraph last year. He went on: “However urban we might be, I don’t think men, especially those in their 40s and above, are immune to this type of stereotyping. It goes without saying that making healthy eating choices isn’t feminine – it’s just sensible.”

The good news is that – once you get over worrying about what your mates think when they spot what’s on your plate – you can improve your health by making just minor tweaks. It’s not all green juices and fat-free yoghurt – Low-fat diets are now outdated and we are fans of the much less restrictive lower-carb/healthy fats (LCHF) approach. The result is a menu of tastier, more enjoyable food, which makes the LCHF diets easier to stick to.

The one thing the typical male health complaints (see above) have in common is inflammation. It features in heart disease, diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), cancer and even Alzheimer’s and dementia. By adopting a diet that combats inflammation, you could potentially kill many birds with one stone. 

1. Balance your blood sugar

A diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates – regardless of the number of calories – contributes to blood sugar fluctuations. When blood sugar is high, insulin is secreted to bring it back down again. Both sugar and insulin are independently pro-inflammatory. In the long-term, frequently elevated insulin levels result in insulin resistance and ultimately type 2 diabetes. Diabetes is considered the main contributor to heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease, now commonly referred to as “type 3 diabetes”. Overconsumption of sugar and refined carbs is what is behind non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. We have explained in more detail how to balance blood sugar in an earlier blog post. Click here to read it. 

This should be step 1 of your new healthy diet. If you do nothing else, you are already making serious inroads towards reducing inflammation. 

2. Kick out the man-made fats

Often touted as the Holy Grail of Heart Health, vegetable oils have enjoyed decades of positive publicity. The name is misleading, as hardly any of these oils are actually made of vegetables. Instead, they are made of seeds, such as rapeseed, sunflower, peanuts or soya beans. That in itself would not be too bad if only they were cold-pressed – which protects the sensitive polyunsaturated fats they contain. A cold-pressed flaxseed oil, for example, is a valuable source of omega-3 fatty acids. Alas, those cheap oils you can buy by the gallon in clear plastic bottles are not cold-pressed. The seeds are first heated to extremely high temperatures. The oil is then chemically extracted, using solvents, and lastly, it is deodorised, which requires another set of chemicals. By the time those oils are bottled, their polyunsaturated fats – which are, after all, the #1 asset those oils are meant to possess -, are not only no longer healthy, but downright damaging.

The oil is then stored in plastic. In the last few years, there has been a lot of noise about hormone disruptors from plastics. Bisphenol A (BPA), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), phthalates and more are found in almost all plastic – including that labelled as “BPA-free”. These chemicals are fat-soluble and therefore find it easy to transfer from plastic into fatty foods – such as oils. We discussed concerns over plastics in a previous blog post.

Polyunsaturated fats are highly sensitive to light. If they have any more life left in them by the time they hit the supermarket shelf, sitting under bright lights for weeks is not going to improve their quality. We then take them home and use them for frying at high temperatures, possibly even several times, as is common practice with deep-fat fryers (which we recommend you retire anyway).

Knowing all this it is hardly surprising that ‘vegetable oils’ are highly inflammatory – and this is before we even start to worry about the high proportion of omega-6 fats these oils often contain. Omega-6 fats are essential – meaning that our body cannot make them, we have to eat them. Click here to read more about essential fats.

Replace these industrial seed oils with natural fats, especially if you are planning on heating them. Saturated fats such as coconut oil and butter tolerate heat much better without suffering damage. Olive and avocado oil can take a little heat – say to sweat an onion – and cold-pressed nut or seed oils, such as sunflower, walnut or flaxseed oil are absolutely fine as long as you just add them to your food after cooking or use them in salad dressings.

Putting this step into practice will – once you get into the habit – not take any effort at all, while significantly reducing your risk of inflammation.

3. Pile on the Veg

Free radicals are unstable oxygen atoms that have the potential to damage cells, enzymes and chemical compounds in the body, which can then malfunction. Antioxidants are chemicals – vitamins, minerals or other plant nutrients or substances the body makes from them – that can disarm free radicals without suffering damage themselves. Free radicals cause what is called “oxidative stress” and ultimately inflammation. The role of free radicals in chronic disease is well known, as is the protective effect of antioxidants. Yet studies about antioxidant supplements have so far failed to come up with any promising results.

However, research that considers the role of real food – such as fresh fruit and vegetables – did find a reduction in oxidative stress and inflammation. A real food item is more than just the sum of the vitamin C or zinc or selenium it contains. It is a natural product containing a myriad of compounds, which perhaps need to work together to be able to do the magic.

If you want to get healthy, there really isn’t a way around vegetables. They are low in sugar, high in minerals, vitamins, phytonutrients – some of which are antioxidants – and fibre. Different antioxidant nutrients have different colours: beta-carotenes are found in yellow, red or orange veg, anthocyanins in blue, purple and black ones, chlorophyll in greens. Although that makes white vegetables look a bit limp, they are not: White vegetables, too, contain anthocyanins. Whether these are visible or not depends on the plant’s pH, so although you can’t see them, they are still there. To make sure you cover all the healthy antioxidants, aim to cover the whole rainbow of the vegetable colour spectrum. It’ll make your plate look very appealing, too! To read more about antioxidants, click here.

So, there you have it: our top three steps towards a healthier you. If following these three steps was all you were prepared to do, your body would thank you for it.

Our newsletter this month is all about men’s health, too. We have some surprising news about the underlying reason for male-pattern baldness and a simple and versatile recipe full of antioxidants. Curious? It is not too late to sign up!

If you are interested in our Mens Health webinar, please email info@vitalhealthnutrition.co.uk