Are you a man? Do you have one in your family?
If you answered “yes” to either of those questions, read on: this column is for you or the men in your lives and explains how they can, potentially, live longer.
It’s Blue September right now, the month aimed at raising awareness of prostate cancer. It’s a cancer that one in eight men will be diagnosed with; every year 600 men will die from it; around the same number as the women who die from breast cancer.
Prostate cancer doesn’t have to be deadly, though. It’s a highly treatable and survivable cancer, if caught early. The focus of Blue September is for men to have regular checks, in the way that women often do for common cancers affecting them. Many men don’t have symptoms when they’re diagnosed with prostate cancer, and many others do have symptoms, but don’t get checked out. As with another big killer of men, bowel cancer, too many blokes sit on their symptoms for far too long, probably because they don’t like the idea of a slightly invasive check-up at the GP.
I won’t pretend to understand that aspect of male psychology. Women have slightly invasive check-ups all the time; for us it’s not really an issue. And the peace of mind you get from knowing everything is okay – which for the vast majority of men, it will be – is well worth a few seconds of embarrassment or discomfort. Just do it, guys.
That out of the way, let’s talk about prostate health and nutrition.
There’s some interesting emerging evidence about prostate health and the prevention of prostate cancer.
A Mediterranean-style diet is linked with better outcomes for men with prostate cancer, and looks promising for prevention, too. This fits with what we know about eating to lower overall cancer risk. A diet high in plant foods: vegetables and fruit, whole grains, nuts, legumes and olive oil is likely to be protective against cancer. Other aspects of Mediterranean eating that might also have an effect are lots of fish, not too much red meat, low intake of processed foods and low to moderate dairy intake. So far, so sensible, right?
There’s a bit of unpicking to be done there. Some of the specific nutrients we get in abundance from a Mediterranean-style diet are more closely associated with prostate health.
One you may have heard of is lycopene. This is an antioxidant compound found in tomatoes. It’s more well-absorbed from cooked tomatoes – think dishes based on tomato sauces, rather than ketchup on your chips, which would probably negate any benefits! Two or more servings of cooked tomatoes are recommended each week.
Selenium is another mineral thought to be protective against prostate cancer. Our soil in New Zealand is low in selenium, so we tend not to get a lot of this in our diets. No need to resort to supplements, though; we can get a good daily dose via a few Brazil nuts.
Omega-3 has been the subject of some controversy related to prostate health, with a study a couple of years ago seeming to suggest omega-3 supplements might actually increase the risk of prostate cancer. That goes against most evidence, however, which suggests that omega-3s from fish and seafood are generally a good idea for a prostate-friendly diet. Prostate NZ (check) also recommends fish, especially oilier ones such as salmon, should be a regular feature on the man menu.
Alcohol is also worth mentioning here. Although there’s been the odd study suggesting red wine might be protective, it’s worth remembering that alcohol is a group 1 carcinogen, and it’s strongly linked to bowel cancer, which is also a big problem for Kiwi men. So it’s not really worth the risk to drink wine in the hope of warding off prostate cancer. You’re better off focusing on other aspects of diet and lifestyle.
That includes the likely suspects like getting regular exercise, not smoking, and avoiding processed and super-sugary foods.
On the emerging research front, there’s some interesting stuff about, of all things, pomegranate juice. Some studies suggest a daily glass of pomegranate juice may slow prostate cancer progression and reduce the risk of reoccurrence. It’s not something we see a lot here in New Zealand, but it highlights foods high in antioxidants – which includes all fruits and veges – are a good idea.
It might not have escaped your notice that the overall pattern of eating I’m describing here is one I often describe. That’s because it’s a pattern of eating that applies to overall general health. It’s one that’s good – not just for men.