Research links calcium and folate to the prevention of many illnesses and conditions in men, including heart attacks, cancer and low sperm counts, writes Timothy Gower.
SOME scientists who study the link between nutrition and disease have a message for the health-conscious man: Start eating like a woman.
In recent years, doctors have instructed women of childbearing age to include plenty of folate in their diets, because the B vitamin lowers the risk of certain birth defects. Likewise, public-service campaigns (particularly the familiar milk-moustache ads) have encouraged women of all ages to consume lots of calcium, in order to fight osteoporosis, the brittle-bone disease.
A growing body of research suggests that folate and calcium also may be essential for preventing diseases and conditions that affect men and women alike. Unfortunately, many of us shortchange ourselves of these critical nutrients.
“Men could do a lot better,” says Arizona State University nutritionist Jeff Hampl, a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association. The statistics don’t lie: According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most American men consume less than the daily recommended intake of folate; furthermore, the average guy over 40 doesn’t get enough calcium.
Yet there are good reasons for everyone to get their fill of folate and calcium. For instance, scientists have long known that folate (and it’s supplement form, folic acid) helps the body control levels of homocysteine, a by-product of protein metabolism. Population studies suggest that too much homocysteine in the blood increases the risk for heart disease and stroke. Last year, a pair of major studies showed that heart attack victims given a regimen of folate (along with vitamins B6 and B12) were less likely to develop re-clogged arteries or have second heart attacks.
Evolving research also shows that keeping homocysteine in check may slow the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related cognitive problems. A 2002 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people with high homocysteine levels in their blood (14 micromoles per litre or more) were twice as likely as people with low levels to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.
The US National Institute on Ageing plans to launch a study later this year to determine whether folic acid supplements, along with vitamins B6 and B12, help people who already have Alzheimer’s disease think more clearly and function better.
Other research hints that folate may be important to prospective fathers. In 2001, researchers from the US Department of Agriculture and the University of California at Berkeley published a small study showing that men with low levels of folic acid in their semen were likely to have low sperm counts.
Bread, pasta, rice and other grains are enriched with folic acid in the United States; other good sources of folate include green vegetables (such as spinach and broccoli), beans, orange juice and liver. Multivitamins usually contain 400 micrograms of folic acid, which is the recommended daily allowance for men. And you can even tip back an occasional beer in the name of good health. The key ingredients in the popular beverage – hops, barley and brewer’s yeast – are rich in B vitamins, including folate. A 2001 Czech study found that beer drinkers had lower homocysteine levels than teetotalers.
It’s no secret that calcium bolsters bones, but recent studies suggest that the main mineral in milk and other dairy foods fights other diseases, too. “The potential benefits for calcium are large and dramatic,” says public health expert Mark Moyad, director of complementary medicine at the University of Michigan Medical Centre and author of The ABC’s of Nutrition & Supplements for Prostate Cancer (Sleeping Bear Press, 2000).
For example, a 13-year study at Harvard found that men over 40 who consumed the most calcium-rich dairy foods had the lowest risk of colorectal cancer. Several other trials suggest that calcium supplements prevent the recurrence of colon polyps, which can develop into tumours. Other research indicates that calcium helps control blood pressure and raises HDL (“good”) cholesterol. The mineral may even help you lose a belly roll, since calcium appears to regulate the breakdown of fat.
Some concern has arisen that a high calcium intake increases the risk of prostate cancer, possibly by lowering levels of vitamin D, which appears to fight tumours.
A 2001 Harvard study found that men who consumed the most calcium had the highest risk for developing the disease. However, Moyad says subsequent research has failed to show any connection between calcium intake and prostate cancer. Overall, the benefits of calcium “far outweigh any of the prostate problems”, he says.
You can get the recommended daily allowance of 1,000mg of calcium per day (1,200mg after age 50) by including low-fat dairy foods and enriched products (such as orange juice) in your daily diet. Calcium supplements may be appropriate for some men, but check with a doctor before raiding your wife’s side of the medicine chest. – LAT-WP