Think of your closest nine male friends, classmates, or coworkers. Now consider this: At least one of them will be diagnosed with prostate cancer at some point in his lifetime. Prostate cancer is the most common non-skin cancer among men–so common, in fact, that every three minutes, another man is diagnosed with the disease in the US, according to the Prostate Cancer Foundation.
Yet don’t let that news scare you, as prostate cancer, like other hormonally sensitive cancers, is preventable. “Something most people don’t know is that 90 percent of cancers (including prostate cancer) is caused by non-hereditary issues,” says A. Daniyal Siddiqui, M.D., medical director of the Saint Vincent Cancer and Wellness Center, part of Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Mass., and assistant professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
That essentially means that your lifestyle habits (such as diet and exercise) play a strong role in your risk of getting cancer. One of the most impactful habits? What you put on your plate. Fortunately, though, switching to a mostly or fully plant-based diet can go a long way in protecting that prostate. (The prostate is a walnut-shaped gland in men that lies just below the bladder and is instrumental in making semen.) Men often suffer from an enlarged prostate as they age, so taking care of this tiny body part is essential for regulating sexual function, bladder control and overall health and wellbeing for men over 40. This month is Prostate Cancer Awareness month, so it’s the perfect time to reassess how to lower your risk or that of the men in your life, through lifestyle choices.
The connection between prostate cancer and diet: Red meat and dairy increases risk
There are numerous ways diet can impact prostate cancer risk, but let’s start with the most obvious: It can drive obesity, which is the number one risk factor for prostate cancer. “Obesity is strongly associated not only with prostate cancer but other cancers, too,” Siddiqui explains, adding that fast food and processed foods can drive obesity and cancer risk up.
Specific foods may impact your risk and the highest-risk foods appear to be animal products. “Although the data supporting plant-based diets on reducing the risk of developing prostate cancer, or for improving prognosis once diagnosed, is limited, several dietary factors including intake of processed red meat, eggs, whole milk, and saturated fat have been associated with increased risk of prostate cancer progression or mortality,” says Stacey A. Kenfield, Sc.D., associate professor of urology at the University of California San Francisco.
Take, for instance, one study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a high intake of dairy products, including milk and cheese, increased the risk for prostate cancer. Men who consumed 2.5 servings or more of dairy products per day had an increased risk versus men consuming half a serving of dairy or less than that a day.
Red meat is another risk factor: Men who eat the highest amount of red meat had a 30 percent increased risk of prostate cancer, versus those eating the least amount, according to a study in The American Journal of Epidemiology. In that same study, every 10 grams (roughly a third of an ounce) of processed meat that men ate was associated with a 10 percent increased risk of prostate cancer. So cutting back on red meat can make a big difference.
Eating eggs weekly raises the risk. Eating just 2.5 eggs a week increased the risk of a deadly form of prostate cancer by 81 percent versus those eating fewer than half an egg a week, according to the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, reported by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine That study followed 27,607 men from 1994 to 2008 and found that among “men who already had prostate cancer, eating poultry and processed red meat increased their risk for death.”
Switching to a plant-based diet can protect against prostate cancer and lower risk
Now consider a plant-based diet. There are studies to support its efficacy in lowering prostate cancer risk. As an example, one from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that men who followed a vegan diet had a 35 percent lower risk of prostate cancer (and were less likely to be obese) than individuals who followed even a semi-vegetarian diet. “You’re not only reducing the animal protein, which comes with unhealthy things like saturated fat, but you’re also eating more nutrient-rich foods,” says Zhaoping Li, M.D., professor of medicine and director of the Center for Nutrition at UCLA Health in California who wasn’t connected with the study.
Exactly what to eat to beat prostate cancer or at least lower your lifetime risk
So the message is clear: Just eat fewer animal products, right? That’s part of the equation, but it’s not all, as Li finds that when men go on this plant-based journey, They often swap animal products for the wrong thing, namely refined starches. They might, for instance, stay away from eggs and have cereal for breakfast, or skip the ham sandwich and have pasta for lunch and choose mac and cheese instead of steak for dinner. While they’re obviously not eating animal products, “they’re eating foods that don’t do the body as much good as whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans and legumes,” she says.
Instead, focus on whole, plant-based foods, something the Prostate Cancer Foundation has been highlighting during Prostate Cancer Awareness Month in September, running an “Eat It to Beat It” challenge. PCF selected 30 foods from its Periodic Table of Healthy Foods and is introducing one each day for men to eat. (Or sign up for the Vegetable of the Day newsletter from The Beet, which sends you free recipes for adding plant-based foods to your plate.) The 30 foods to eat all have high fiber, antioxidants, and nutrients to help lower risk.
All of them are plants and include kale, broccoli, blueberries, lentils, black beans, Shiitake mushrooms, eggplant, oats, and even popcorn. Think about how easy it is to add a black bean burger to your favorite dinner rotation. “Thanks to advances in understanding metabolism and mutations, the concept of using food as medicine is finally converging,” said Jonathan W. Simons, MD, President and CEO of PCF in a press release. A graphic from PCF indicates that these foods contain nutrients that keep prostate cells safe, as well as fiber, which feeds the gut microbiome, and phytochemicals that protect against DNA damage. “Men who adopt these healthier lifestyle changes can help reduce prostate cancer risk, especially Black men who are at a higher risk for developing the disease.”
While part of the message is to eat more plants – Li recommends three to five cups of vegetables and one to two fruits a day – it’s also to eat a variety of plant-based foods. Among them are: Green leafy vegetables, cooked tomatoes and cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli and cauliflower), which are especially potent against prostate cancer, Siddiqui says.
One caveat: Don’t think that eating more plants alone will give you a pass from hitting the gym. The combo of the exercise and a healthy plant-based diet, plus maintaining a healthy weight, offer the most potent protection against prostate cancer, Siddiqui says.