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The Way to a Man’s Healthy Heart Is Through His Stomach

Optimal nutrition for the performance-driven male.

For most men, trying to eat optimally can be a Herculean feat. For a start, the dietary needs of males, whether they are fit athletes or couch potatoes, can be difficult to pin down. Men are bombarded with conflicting dietary information from a wide spectrum of sources, ranging from sound scientific research to media tidbits to plain old personal anecdotes. Add the proliferation of optimal-performance
diets—which run the gamut from high-profile, high-protein food plans to calorie-restricted vegan regimens—and it’s easy to see why men are confused. What’s more, their confusion is only heightened by today’s hectic lifestyles, age-old eating habits and taste preferences, and typically a dearth of culinary skills—so it’s no wonder guys “hunger” for a safe, sound and, most important, doable approach to eating well.

So here’s a basic primer on the nutrients that active guys need, along with specific nutrient suggestions! This article will provide a menu of options for your male clients to ensure that they make the best-informed dietary decisions at each stage of their lives.

The Rewards of
a Healthy Diet

When it comes to choosing optimal fuel for physical performance, making the right choices can pay off for men in more ways than one. Male clients are typically looking to optimize not just their physical performance but their mental and sexual performance as well.

David L. Katz, MD, MPH, medical contributor for ABC News, director and co-founder of the Yale Prevention Research Center and co-author of The Way to Eat: A Six-Step Path to Lifelong Weight Control and The Flavor Point Diet: The Delicious, Breakthrough Plan to Turn Off Your Hunger and Lose the Weight for Good, says he feels that all these elements are connected. “High performance affects all important areas for men—muscles and brains,” says Katz. “Health is health. If you want your body to be vital, following a healthy diet cuts across all levels of performance.”

Getting guys to buy into the multiple benefits of choosing nutritious foods is vital to the success of any food plan or diet, according to Cynthia Sass, MPH, MA, RD, CSSD, a board-certified expert in sports nutrition, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and co-author of Your Diet Is Driving Me Crazy: When Food Conflicts Get in the Way of Your Love Life. “Good nutrition is more important than training,” says Sass. “You can’t train as long or as intensely and can’t recover as well without good nutrition. Guys tend not to connect nutrition and performance or recovery, especially younger men. They can usually get away with not being as good with their nutrition, but inevitably it catches up with them.”

Calories = Energy

A man’s energy needs can be influenced by many factors, including body size, fat-free mass, duration and intensity of workouts and also genetics. Individualization of caloric needs should be based on demand and should account for both the client’s peak intensive training periods and his less demanding periods of training, during the off-season.

So how many calories does an average, active man need each day to fuel
his body? According to the American Dietetic Association (ADA) and the American College of Sports Medicine, anywhere from 37 to 41 calories per kilogram (kg) of body weight is a good ballpark figure for moderate to very active men (ADA 2000). This means that a
180-pound guy would need 3,021–3,348 calories daily.

When it comes to assessing the caloric needs of athletes, Sass suggests another method. She looks at the resting energy expenditure of an athlete and then multiplies that by a factor of 1.5–1.7 to take into account his daily activities; she also adds in an “activity factor” to cover the additional energy requirements of the sporting event for which he is training.

The Take-Out Message: Men should ensure that they get their calories from a variety of nutrient-dense foods that provide all of the necessary macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates and fats. No one macronutrient group is more important than the other!

Pumping Up the Protein

Active men need protein for tissue repair and maintenance. It’s no wonder that Sass stresses the importance of ingesting protein within 2 hours of an athletic event. “If the delay of protein intake is too long, you won’t achieve optimal muscle repair and growth,” says Sass.

The prevailing standard for protein recommendations is 1.2–1.4 grams (g) per kg of body weight for endurance athletes and up to 1.7 g per kg of body weight for resistance and strength training athletes (ADA 2000). So, for a 180-pound client, that translates to 98–139 g. This level can be easily achieved in a healthy diet that derives at least 15%–20% of its calories from protein. In fact, more
often than not, men have a tendency to “overshoot the runway” when it comes
to protein intake. However, vegan male athletes are more at risk of not achieving adequate protein intake; as a result, they may want to consider protein supplementation or make a concerted effort to add more protein to their daily diets.

The Take-Out Message: According to Katz, high biological quality protein sources are the best option for active men. “Protein sources that contain all of the essential amino acids are needed to make muscle, because we can’t make these amino acids ourselves,” says Katz. He says the best sources of protein are egg whites, meat, dairy products and a few plant sources, such as soy. Sass favors easily digested protein sources, such as low-fat dairy products, tuna, nutrition bars or protein shakes. “Poultry, fish and hemp are other good sources of high-quality protein,” says Sass.

Carbo Loading

It would be hard to overstate the importance of nutrient-dense carbohydrates. “Carbohydrates are the predominant energy source for Homo sapiens,” says Katz. “A carbohydrate-driven diet is optimal for peak performance.”

Sass encourages active male clients to get an adequate intake of carbohydrates to prevent muscle tissue from being
broken down for calorie needs. “High-
intensity strength training mainly burns carbs,” she explains. “Your metabolism never shuts off, so you need to focus on energy needs. Carbs will help spare protein from being used for fuel.”

According to Jennie McCary, MS, RD, LD, IDEA’s nutrition contributing editor, men should get 45%–65% of their total daily calories from complex carbs. This would translate to about 337–488 g of carbs each day for an 180-pound male client.

The Take-Out Message: Active men should focus on getting adequate supplies of whole grains (e.g., brown rice, whole oats, wheat breads and cereals) and also of starchy vegetables, like squash, which provide long-burning carbohydrates. All fruits and vegetables are nutrient-dense sources of carbohydrates. Katz also encourages men to add more fiber-rich sources, such as beans and lentils, to their regular diet. “[Beans and legumes] offer concentrated sources of nutrients that are rich in soluble fiber, which slows the release of carbohydrates’ entry into the bloodstream for sustained energy,” explains Katz.

Chewing the Fats

Fat provides a concentrated source of
energy for the active body, about twice as much per gram as either protein or carbohydrate. That’s why it may be easier to achieve the level of energy needed by the male athlete if a moderate amount of fat is included in the diet. Fat helps with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A, D, E and K, and is essential for hormone production. Of course, not all fats are created equally: “Avoid trans [fat],” warns Katz. “It will gum up your arteries, lower HDL (good cholesterol) and raise LDL (bad) cholesterol.” Instead, Katz suggests that active males focus on getting plenty of omega-3 fats, which help reduce inflammation and combat heart disease and cancer.

Men should get 30% of their daily calories from fat sources. According to McCary, that would break out as “10% from polyunsaturated fats, 10% from monounsaturated fats and no more than 10% from saturated fats.” To sustain their energy for training and competition, male athletes should not get less than 15% of their total calories from fat.

The Take-Out Message: One way to incorporate healthier fats into the diet is to eat more omega-3-rich fatty fish each week. The American Heart Association recommends mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon, which are high in two types of omega-3 fats (AHA 2007). Other good fat sources include plant oils, such as olive, flax and canola, and nuts and seeds; flax oil can be added to fruit smoothies, for example. Omega-3-rich eggs and beef or dairy from grass-fed cattle might be other options,
especially for men who don’t eat fish.

Boys Will Be Boys

Simply “telling” guys what to eat can be the fast track to “Disasterville,” unless they are also told which foods offer the best nutrition for the buck. Feel free to share with your male clients some of the practical suggestions offered in “The Top 6 Food Choices for Men,” on page 88.

It can also be helpful to teach your male clients how to prepare some fast and easy recipes that feature these optimal food choices without sacrificing great taste. You might want to team up with a local registered dietitian (RD) to hold cooking demonstrations or nutrition seminars for your clientele, or you can offer your active male clients additional assistance by referring them to an RD who is board-certified in sports nutrition. Visit www.eatright.org for a list of dietitians in your area.

Sidebar: The Manliest Micronutrients

Sidebar: The Top 6 Food Choices for Men
Here are some of the optimal foods that men should add to their daily diet, according to author David L. Katz, MD, MPH:

  1. Eggs: an excellent source of B vitamins, vitamin A and essential amino acids.
  2. Fish: an excellent source of protein. Fatty varieties of fish also provide anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats.
  3. Nuts and seeds: these “nutrition powerhouses” are a great source of fuel.
  4. Fruits and veggies: a concentrated source of antioxidants, especially when it comes to berries and darkly pigmented veggies, such as spinach. “High performance has been linked to more fruit and vegetable consumption,” says Katz.
  5. Dark chocolate: products that have a 50% or higher cocoa content are rich in flavonoids and the amino acid arginine, which helps improve blood flow in arteries. “Try not to have more than 1-2 ounces per day,” warns Katz. “It can be a calorie hazard!”
  6. Beans and lentils: they provide long-sustained energy and help regulate insulin and glucose levels.


American Dietetic Association (ADA). 2000. Position
paper on nutrition and athletic performance. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 100 1543–56.
American Heart Association (AHA). 2007. Summary of recommendations for omega-3 fatty acid intake. www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier
=4632; retrieved Jan. 2007.

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