When you were younger, you may not have seen any immediate effects, one way or the other, of your food choices. For example, “as teens, many males seem to eat anything they want and not gain weight,” says Andres Valenzuela, M.S., R.D.N., nutritionist at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. “Then, many men start gaining weight in their 30s, or they wind up overweight in their 50s with cholesterol problems, and they don’t know why.”
What’s on your fork plays a major role in what your health looks like in the future. What you eat, of course, can affect weight gain—which can set the stage for issues such diabetes, certain cancers, as well as high cholesterol and high blood pressure (both risk factors for heart disease). Your diet also influences everything from your energy levels to your cognition to the quality of your sleep. “Men often don’t make the connection between how they eat and how they function, perform and age,” Valenzuela says. “But it’s undeniable.” If issues start to emerge and you’re unsure as to why, your diet may be a big part of the answer.
Whether this realization happens for you in your 20s or your 70s, it can be a real wake-up call that leaves you uncertain about what to do next. The good news is that small changes to your diet can make a big difference, especially when they evolve into habits. “The key is increasing your conscious awareness of what you eat,” Valenzuela says.
Beyond Meat and Potatoes
Over the years, many men learn that they need protein to build muscle and carbohydrates for fuel, especially if they are involved in sports. And it’s no secret that meat and potatoes—a protein and a starch—tend to be favorite picks when it comes to satisfying these needs. “They’re filling, flavorful and what our culture feeds us,” Valenzuela says. “From casual fast food to fine dining restaurants, every plate is starch and protein.” But that type of limited eating pattern doesn’t help with weight management as you age, and it deprives you of nutrients found in the foods you’re leaving out.
If you love steak and mashed potatoes, by all means continue to enjoy them while you take small steps toward a healthier plate. “When it comes to changing behavior, incremental steps work best,” Valenzuela says. Here are the most important changes you can start working toward today:
- Make Room for Vegetables and Fruits. A plant-based diet is the crux of the way most men need to shift, Valenzuela says, and it’s the type of eating plan we encourage at Canyon Ranch. No, this doesn’t mean you have to become a vegetarian. Rather, simply start giving some priority to produce—fresh fruit, leafy greens and other colorful options like carrots, tomatoes and sweet potatoes. Begin by making space for them on your plate during one meal, and then go from there. If cooked veggies aren’t your favorite, try adding a salad to your dinner with a small amount of a dressing of your choice. “When you do that, you’ll find you don’t have to eat so much starch and protein to feel satisfied,” Valenzuela says. Eating more veggies and fruits, of course, also gives your body nutrients like fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants it needs to stay healthy.
- Rethink Red Meat. If you eat fatty cuts of red meat on a frequent basis, you’re flooding your body with saturated fat and cholesterol, which can be bad for your heart. (There’s also increasing evidence linking red meat to certain cancers.) That doesn’t mean you have to say goodbye to beef, pork and lamb. “But red meat should be lean, portions should be moderate, and the frequency at which you eat it should be less than that of chicken or fish,” Valenzuela says. Lean beef includes cuts from the loin or round, rather than the rib. Try some of our tasty, perfectly portioned recipes that use some of these, such as Asian Braised Flank Steak with Bok Choy and Beef Tenderloin with Adobado Paste. While you’re making adjustments to the meat you eat, you might also consider opting for organic, grass-fed varieties, which have a healthier fat profile than conventional livestock that’s raised on corn.
- Make Your Grains Whole. If you haven’t already, start by switching from white bread to whole wheat, white rice to brown rice and regular pasta to whole-grain versions. You might be pleasantly surprised to find that they fill you up more than what you’re used to, which can keep you from overeating. Whole grains, which are rich in fiber, also lower cholesterol, keep your gastrointestinal system running smoothly and help to control blood sugar. Once you’ve made the initial step toward eating more of them, you might want to experiment with other types of whole grains, like farro and quinoa.
- Diversify Your Food Choices. Many men know what they like, and they tend to stick to it—night after night. Being willing to try new things that you may have heard of but been wary of (like lentils, tofu and kale) means you’ll reduce the amount of meat and potatoes you’re taking in while incorporating different nutrients into your diet. And think of it this way: What’s the worst that could happen? There’s always dinner again tomorrow night.
- Eat More of Your Meals at Home. Homemade meals are almost always more nutritious than restaurant or fast food fare. If you like to make elaborate meals, get cooking! If you don’t, explore the many easy ways to prepare healthy food at home. A simple rule of thumb: Each meal should have a whole-food carbohydrate, vegetables and fruits, a protein and a moderate amount of healthy fat—this combination ensures you’re getting a variety of nutrients, plus the energy you need to get through your day without feeling tired or irritable. “Do easy things to make home-cooked food fast,” Valenzuela advises, like hard-boiling eggs in advance for a quick breakfast or buying pre-cut veggies at the supermarket for a quick stir-fry. And remember: “Meals don’t need to be complicated. Make a peanut-butter sandwich on whole-grain bread—you could do worse!”
- Eat Out Intelligently. When you do dine at a restaurant, mix and match to build a better plate. “If you get the burger, choose a side salad instead of fries,” Valenzuela suggests. “Or order turkey, grilled chicken or lean roast beef—they’re generally less fatty and less processed than the ground beef found in many burgers.” Try to practice the tips above when you eat out, too.
- Drink Mindfully. A glass of wine or a frosty mug of beer don’t have to be off limits. But it’s easy to down more drinks than you should when you indulge after work every day, or when you get caught up in buying rounds for the guys. The healthy daily alcohol limit for most men is two drinks. But remember: Alcohol is metabolized primarily as fat, so drinking regularly—even within these guidelines—can add to weight issues. It can also prevent you from getting a good night’s rest and put your health at risk in other ways. Learning to enjoying just a drink or two as a treat, especially with meals, is the best approach.
More: Evaluating Your Drinking