Real men don’t eat quiche, according to the old joke. But what do they eat? And, more important, what should they be eating?
Generally speaking, men tend to have less variety in their diet than women, says preventive cardiologist Arthur Agatston, MD, author of The South Beach Diet. Men are more apt than women to eat fatty meats, processed carbohydrates, fast food, and snacks that are high in fat, sodium, and calories. Men are also apt to eat fewer whole fruits, grains, and vegetables, he says.
"As a group, men don’t get the breadth of nutrients they need," Agatston says.
One reason for this may be that men tend to be creatures of habit, he adds. They can get in the habit of eating the same foods over and over — and oversized portions at that. They may not eat from all of the food groups, and they don’t necessarily make a conscious effort to select nutritious foods.
The real problem with all this, says Creighton University nutritionist Rita Frickel, MS, RD, LMNT, is that men tend to eat a diet higher in saturated fats, which increases the risk of heart disease and certain cancers.
Most American men also need more fiber in their diets, says Agatson. Fiber not only has a host of important health benefits but also promotes satiety — the feeling of fullness that can keep you from overeating.
And it’s not just in food choices where men slip up, says Agatston. Beverages can be a problem, too, when men make a habit of drinking sugary soft drinks or juices, or alcoholic beverages.
Less Worry About Weight
Men aren’t necessarily clueless by nature when it comes to healthful eating, says nutritionist Joy Bauer, MS, RD, CDN, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Nutrition. Fortunately for them, many men don’t have to worry about their weight until they are older.
"Women worry earlier, so they are more knowledgeable about good nutrition at an earlier age," says Bauer.
"Men have a tendency to grab whatever’s convenient and also gravitate to whatever they grew up on," Bauer says. Coffee loaded with cream and sugar, fatty ‘bar food,’ sandwiches slathered with mayonnaise … men don’t give these things a second thought, she says.
"Men — unlike women — don’t have a 'diet head,'" Bauer says.
But while men are generally able to consume more calories than women, they have the same need for a nutritious diet that is low in fat and rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients, says Agatston.
So how can men move toward eating more healthfully, even if they're not all that knowledgeable about nutrition?
Easy Ways to Improve Your Diet
First of all, Frickel recommends choosing only lean cuts of beef and pork, and limiting servings to a total of 6 ounces to 7 ounces per day (about the size of two decks of cards). Several times a week, she advises, choose skinless poultry and fish instead (fish provides heart-healthy benefits from omega-3 fatty acids).
Frickel also suggests boosting your intake of fruits and vegetables by having at least one serving of fruit as a snack several times a day, plus 1 cup of vegetables at each meal.
Current U.S. dietary recommendations suggest that adults consume two daily servings of fruit plus three servings of vegetables, and "most Americans are not meeting this guideline," says Frickel.
"An easy way to spot-check the balance of your plate is to visually divide it into fourths," says Frickel, "with 1/4 being covered by a lean protein/meat source, 1/4 with a grain or starch (such as pasta, rice, or potatoes), and the remaining 1/2 with a combination of fruits and/or vegetables."
Keep in mind that a healthy diet is one that adds food variety, not limits it, says Agatston.
"By learning the nutritional 'pecking order' among foods you enjoy, it’s easier to make better food choices that optimize the nutrition in your diet," he says.
For example, a white potato is good, but a sweet potato is more nutritious. Almonds are rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, making them a better snack choice than pretzels. A whole orange has fiber that makes it much better than a serving of juice.
It's also important to remember that the best way to start eating more healthfully is to make gradual, doable changes.
"Healthy eating is a way of life, so it’s important to establish routines that are simple, realistically, and ultimately livable," says Agatston.
More Tips for a Healthy Diet
To help you get there, Agatston and Bauer offer these tips:
—Set and stick to regular mealtimes, and avoid undereating and skipping meals. Hunger can undermine the best eating plan. Try to eat every 4 to 5 hours so your system is being fueled throughout the day.
—Get to know your "hunger cycle" and start snacking strategically. Have a healthy snack on hand for those times you usually get hungry, whether it's late in the morning or in midafternoon.
Instead of hitting the office vending machine, keep a stash of pre-portioned nuts, chopped vegetables or fruit, some low-fat cheese and whole grain crackers, or a container of nonfat yogurt.
—When dining out, avoid meals that are high in fat, sodium, and sugar. You can find healthier choices at most restaurants, including fast-food chains. In fine dining establishments, check the menu for healthy items. Keep in mind that most foods that are offered deep-fried can also be prepared by steaming, baking, or sautéing.
When in doubt, ask your server for healthy suggestions.
—If you’re filling up at a salad bar, avoid the "crunchies" (things like croutons and bacon bits); limit cheese and mayo-based salads if you’re watching calories; use only one small ladle or packet of salad dressing, and make it a vinaigrette or a low-fat variety.
—For sandwiches, choose lean protein fillings like roast beef or ham; use mustard instead of mayonnaise; and choose whole-wheat or rye bread.
By Carol Sorgen, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
SOURCES: Rita Frickel, MS, RD, LMNT, the Cardiac Center of Creighton University. Arthur Agatston, MD, cardiologist; and author, The South Beach Diet. Joy Bauer, MS, RD, CDN, author, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Nutrition.