By Russ Klettke
This is the second in a two-part series on building levels of testosterone naturally. Part 1 provides an overview of the hormone testosterone, why it is essential to men's health, and methods to increase testosterone levels through exercise. Part 2 shows how proper nutrition can boost the body's testosterone levels further.
Diminishing testosterone happens to every man eventually, but there are steps you can take to slow that decline and even reverse it. We've already shown you how to fight your testosterone losses through exercise—and now it's time to talk about diet. It turns out that you can do a lot to maximize your body's testosterone production just by changing your eating habits. And you can do it healthily—without supplements or medications, and without the risks associated with both. But it's going to be more complicated than just a pinch of this and a dash of that.
That's why we spoke with Manuel Villacorta, a registered dietitian and medical nutrition specialist who, in addition to his practice, runs the interactive weight-management web site Nutrition for You. Villacorta sees a predominantly male clientele from his practice in San Francisco, with many clients whose doctors have prescribed testosterone supplementation either to counter unwanted weight loss due to HIV or to lose excess body fat. His take on diet and testosterone—or T, as it's popularly known? "Sure, it works," Villacorta says. "But I prefer lifestyle modification." Here are his seven key recommendations to cover both bases:
Zinc about this: A deficiency in zinc allows an increase in male estrogen (the female hormone, present in men as well) through a chain of events involving an enzyme called aromatase. Estrogen essentially overrides available testosterone, a natural if unwelcome phenomenon that progresses as we age. To fight this effect, eat zinc—most concentrated in oysters, red meat (beef, pork, lamb), chicken, turkey and other fowl (especially wild game), beans, dairy products, onions, and garlic.
Lower-fat protein, smarter carbs: In addition to containing zinc, Villacorta says, "protein helps build the muscle you want from exercise." Shoot to consume about 30 percent of calories from protein, but keep the saturated fat level (most present in animal sources) from protein foods below seven percent. Your lowest-fat protein sources are boneless/skinless breasts of chicken; tenderloin (beef or especially pork), pork loin and all other red meats with the "loin" suffix; filet mignon; and seafood, particularly cod, crab, monkfish, octopus, pike, pollock, scallops, scrod, skate, bass, mussels, perch, red snapper, sea bass, turbot, and abalone. Complement protein with unprocessed carbs—wild and brown rice, whole grain pastas and breads, sweet potatoes, corn or fruit—so that the body draws energy from those, freeing up the protein to fuel muscle growth.
Nuts, fish, and eggs: Limit saturated fats, but don't cut out the fat completely. "Fats without feet"—from coldwater fish (salmon, king mackerel, sardines, anchovies), avocadoes, olive and canola oil, and certain nuts (almonds, pistachios and cashews)—are monounsaturated and heart-healthy, and they contain Omega 9 fatty acids that support the production of testosterone. And the cholesterol in egg yolks—yes, the fatty yolk—also contributes to testosterone levels. Rethink that egg white omelet next time you're out for breakfast.
Get up on your cruciferous: Cruciferous vegetables—cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, bok choi, radishes, turnips, collard greens, and kale—provide indole-3-carbinol, a phytochemical that reduces estrogen. Again, estrogen tends to dampen available testosterone, so to boost testosterone, you need to fight estrogen. Cabbage is a vegetable found on every continent of the world, including on islands off Antarctica—perhaps explaining why no matter where they were born, almost everyone's grandparents ate it in a broad variety of ways. Do the same, and you'll be doing well.
Drop the pounds: Visceral fat—that is, fat around the organs—also increases estrogen (are you seeing a theme here?). "A gradual reduction of one to two pounds per week," Villacorta says, "through smart eating and exercise is the smartest weight loss strategy." This is particularly true if you're trying to eat foods that will boost your testosterone levels. That may not be as hard as it sounds if you eat more cruciferous vegetables and lower-fat proteins.
Don't be a lush: Sad but true—too much alcohol has a dampening effect on testosterone. For cardiovascular health, the American Heart Association recommends a maximum of two servings of alcohol per day. But if you're trying to control body fat and optimize testosterone, keep it at three to five servings per week.
Stress less: Villacorta warns us to watch out for the hidden costs of stress: "Poor sleeping habits or an inability to handle stress stimulates production of cortisol, which in turn interferes with your ability to build muscle." Exercise should counter this, as might a pet, therapy, entertainment, or loving relationships. Just don't relieve stress with junk food—if you must eat to reduce stress, try radishes (they're crisp and spicy!) and get your fix of indole-3-carbinol.
The Testosterone Meal Plan
So to summarize, you're trying to get the right mix of protein, carbohydrates and monounsaturated fat, all within a reasonable calorie count that feeds your muscle growth but won't add to visceral fat. Here's a suggested meal plan for a single day:
|Breakfast||Oatmeal with benefits||Oatmeal with almonds, fruit and an egg. Microwave five minutes and top with non-fat yogurt and cinnamon. You can also make this cold in a smoothie (oatmeal only needs to be hydrated, not cooked)—just add the nuts after blending.|
|Mid-morning snack||Simply nuts||A handful (no more) of cashews or pistachios will keep you going through the morning, and keep you from snacking on things that promote estrogen production—like doughnuts.|
|Lunch||Man sandwich||Mash a cup or more of garbanzo beans, then mix in albacore tuna (8-12 ounces), chopped onions, and flavorings such as lemon juice, mustard and perhaps spicy Giardiniera vegetables (often packed in Omega 9-rich canola oil). Spread avocado on the inside of two whole grain pieces of bread, and add some lettuce/greens before spooning on the tuna-garbanzo salad.|
|Late-afternoon snack||Pre-gym power package||Try a coldwater fish on whole grain crackers or pita. Eaten 30 to 60 minutes in advance of going to the gym, the protein and healthy fats can power you through an after-work workout. Cleanse the breath with an apple or other fruit.|
|Dinner||A salad to pair your protein||You'll need to grill chicken, or bake some fish—in other words, get on your protein. But to punch this up, you can make a cabbage or broccoli salad in advance of the workweek. It can be a T-boosting side-dish to the healthier meats and unprocessed carbs described above, and require no time for preparation. One idea: Chopped cabbage (or substitute broccoli), lightly sautéed in olive oil and bacon bits. Add onions and black beans into the mix, stir and flavor with vinegar, salt, pepper, and chopped cilantro. Slivered almonds would add texture.|
About Russ Klettke: Russ Klettke is a Chicago-based business writer, fitness trainer, and author of "A Guy's Gotta Eat, the regular guy's guide to eating smart" with Deanna Conte, MS RD LD (Marlowe/Da Capo Press, 2004).