The diet industry has long been targeted to women and typically focuses on dropping pounds. New fad diets marketed to women seem to emerge daily, but these variations on a theme sometimes neglect half the population – many American men also need to lose weight, and not just so that they can look a certain way or adhere to the current beauty standard.
Men’s and women’s dietary needs are a little different, but across the board, taking a balanced approach to diet can provide the nutrients you need to look and feel your best.
Men’s Specific Dietary Needs
“In general, most men have higher calorie and protein needs than most women because men have more muscle mass,” says Liz Weinandy, a registered dietitian with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Having a higher proportion of muscle to fat and bone typically correlates to a higher metabolic rate, and thus a need for more calories.
“Men also have slightly higher needs for some other nutrients like magnesium and fiber, which come hand in hand with needing more calories,” Weinandy says.
While it would be nice to be able to point to one diet pattern that works for all men and is the very best option in all instances, such an option doesn’t exist. “There’s no scientific evidence to show any particular diet is better for men than women,” Weinandy says.
That said, balance and eating a wide variety of foods is a solid bet. “The best diet for men trying to lose weight or boost athletic performance is one that includes a variety of foods from all five food groups with a focus on getting enough fiber from plant foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains.”
For both men and women, “protein, calorie and other nutrient needs change based on age and activity level, so accurately estimating a person’s needs depends on a number of factors,” Weinandy explains. You can calculate your caloric and nutritional needs using the MyPlate program offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Nutrients to Focus On
The USDA notes that while there’s no magic food men must include or specific eating patterns to follow, men should try to eat a broad variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy and proteins such as beans, eggs and lean meats.
Men typically need to pay attention to a few specific areas of nutrition to ensure good health, including:
A calorie is a unit of measure denoting how much energy certain foods contain. You must consume enough calories to keep your body running, but eating excessive amounts of calories can lead to weight gain and other health issues.
Calories are a highly individual measurement, and certain people – especially larger or very active people – will typically need more calories to fuel their days than smaller or less active people.
“Men, in general, tend to have more muscle mass than women, meaning they burn calories faster – approximately 300 to 400 calories per day more than women,” says Megan Wroe, wellness manager and registered dietitian at St. Jude Medical Center in Southern California. Therefore, men typically tend to need additional calories.
It’s also why “men tend to lose weight more easily than women. It’s the simple structure of their anatomy that works metabolically more efficiently than for the ladies. Men have a slight metabolic advantage to their female counterparts so they should take advantage of it,” she adds.
“It makes sense that a 6’3″ tall male would need more vitamins and minerals than a 5′ tall petite woman,” Weinandy notes. Scaling up portion sizes to provide additional calories is important when you’re fueling a large, more active body, as long as the ratio or nutrients continues to meet your needs.
The key with calories is to find the right balance and to ensure you’re choosing to get your calories from whole, nutrient-dense foods that cover all your nutritional bases. “Because men generally have higher calorie needs, along with those calories come higher amounts of some nutrients that are needed by the body,” Weinandy says.
The average man is typically advised to consume somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 calories per day, but individual needs will vary based on age, activity level, height and weight. “Men and women can eat the exact same foods, while modifying portion sizes to meet their macronutrient needs,” Wroe says.
It’s true that protein is the primary macronutrient that helps build strong muscles. But somewhere along the way, the notion that men need to consume lots more protein than women developed, and it’s not entirely accurate. “Men often think they need large amounts of protein, but usually around 80 to 100 grams a day is enough for most men,” Weinandy says.
In some cases, this association between protein and masculinity had led to the development of fad diets aimed specifically at men, such as the carnivore diet, an extreme approach that removes all plant-based foods from the diet and uses just meat and other animal products to help dieters lose weight. The diet also claims to cure a number of autoimmune problems and other chronic diseases.
But there’s no evidence that these claims are true, and consuming too much protein without adequate levels of other nutrients can lead to nutritional deficiencies or set you up for other problems.
Hollie Zammit, a registered dietitian with Orlando Health in Orlando, Florida, explains that “we have strong evidence from several meta-analytical studies that demonstrate a plant-based diet can greatly reduce your risk of several cancer types, as well as other disease states, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. It’s well known that a diet heavy in red and processed meats can increase risk of stomach and colorectal cancer. We also know that a diet rich in saturated fat can increase risk of liver cancer.”
Wroe notes that protein also comes into play for men looking to lose weight, specifically if they’re following the keto diet. “This high-fat, minimal carb diet structure does tend to promote faster and more effective weight loss over time for men than women.” The reason men seem to see stronger weight loss results is believed to be related to the fact that women use carbohydrates to create estrogen in the body, she explains.
However, she notes that “I don’t recommend long-term keto for anyone, including men. Once some weight loss is achieved, men should shift toward more of a paleo style diet to make sure that adequate protein needs are met, which can be a risk of long-term keto.”
Wroe adds that “men tend to do slightly better physiologically with long- term fasting than women. Not all men necessarily benefit from this dietary method, but women show faster degeneration when long-term fasting,” Wroe says.
Fiber is also protective against colon cancer and heart disease, two chronic issues that tend to affect men more frequently than women. According to the American Cancer Society, men have a 1 in 23 chance (4.4%) of developing colon cancer in their lifetimes, versus women’s 1 in 25 chance (4.1%).
With heart disease, the disparity is significantly bigger. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that heart disease is the leading cause of death for men in the United States. In 2017, it killed 347,879 men, or about 1 in every 4 male deaths. In addition, men are about twice as likely as women to have a heart attack.
High blood pressure, high low-density lipoprotein (a condition called hyperlipidemia) and high cholesterol can all contribute to the development of heart disease. But consuming enough fiber can help you bring these numbers down into a safer range. Fiber binds to cholesterol molecules in the small intestines and helps remove them as waste, preventing them from entering the bloodstream where they can build up and create blockages that could lead to a heart attack or stroke.
“So many men that I work with tell me that they’re always hungry, so they snack on foods like chips, crackers or trail mixes since they know they need extra calories due to being larger in size than their wives and kids,” Wroe explains. “While their muscle mass does indeed mean more calories are needed, these calories should come from fiber and protein, not refined starches, inflammatory oils, salts and sugars that contribute to heart disease and cancers that men – especially overweight men – are already at high risk for.”
Men should aim to consume 38 grams of dietary fiber per day. Women are recommended to eat at least 25 grams daily.
Omega-3s are another nutrient that’s been shown to be part of a heart-healthy diet, especially when they’re consumed from food sources. The American Heart Association recommends eating one to two servings of seafood per week to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Adding a fish oil supplement with the guidance of a health professional is an option, but the AHA doesn’t recommend supplementation for people who aren’t at high risk of heart disease.
Because heart disease tends to be more common in men, talk with your doctor about your cardiac health and whether you’re getting enough omega-3s in your diet, especially if you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or a family history of heart disease.
Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fatty acids found in foods such as flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, plant oils and cold-water fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines and tuna. Fish oil supplements are also a common source of omega-3s.
Teenaged boys aged 14 to 18 and men are recommended to consume 1.6 grams of omega-3s every day, compared to the 1.1 grams recommended for women and teen girls. Pregnant teens and women should consume 1.4 grams and breastfeeding women and teens should consume 1.3 grams.
Sodium is linked to increased blood pressure, which can cause heart disease. As such, men in particular need to be careful how much sodium they consume. And watch out for processed or packaged foods that can contain way more sodium than you might realize, such as soups, bread, breakfast cereals, sauces and snacks.
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans issued by the CDC recommend that you consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day as part of a healthy eating pattern. But as it turns out, most of us are eating way too much—an average of more than 3,400 milligrams per day.
To help lower your sodium intake and help reduce the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease, be mindful of adding salt to foods and use other seasonings instead. When buying prepared or packaged foods, check the label and opt for low or very low sodium options. The CDC reports that foods that contain 35 milligrams or less per serving are very low in sodium. Foods with 140 milligrams or less of sodium are considered low sodium.
There are also a few differences between the amount of certain minerals between men and women. For example, Wroe notes that “men tend to need less calcium and iron but more zinc than women. This is due to the hormonal cycles and higher risk of bone degeneration for females, whereas male reproductive hormones demand a bit more zinc.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Dietary Supplements provides the following recommendations for daily intake for key minerals including calcium, iron, zinc and magnesium:
- Calcium. Calcium helps build strong bones and is involved in the proper functioning of the heart, brain and circulatory system. Adults 19 to 50 years should consume 1,000 milligrams per day. Adult men aged 51 to 70 years stay with that recommendation, while women in the same age bracket should consume 1,200 milligrams.
- Iron. Iron helps carry oxygen around the body and maintain a healthy circulatory system. Men aged 19 to 50 years should consume 8 milligrams per day. Adult women in that same age range need much more at 18 milligrams, and during pregnancy those needs are even higher at 27 milligrams daily. After age 51, all adults are recommended to consume 8 milligrams per day.
- Magnesium. Magnesium is integral to the proper electrical functioning of the heart. Men need higher levels of magnesium. From age 18 onward, men are recommended to consume 400 to 420 milligrams per day. Women are advised to get 310 to 320 milligrams daily.
- Zinc. This mineral helps support cellular function and a strong immune system. It’s also important to building testosterone, the primary male hormone. As such, men need more zinc then women who are not pregnant or breastfeeding. Teens and men from age 14 onward are recommend to consume 11 milligrams of zinc daily. Adult women should consume 8 milligrams a day.
Men’s Health for a Lifetime
Beyond aiming for a balanced, healthy, plant-based diet, men should also be mindful of other aspects of health. The American Academy of Family Physicians reports that compared to women, men are more likely to:
- Smoke. You shouldn’t be smoking at all, so if you don’t, don’t start. If you do, make a plan to quit.
- Drink alcohol. Alcoholic beverages are high in calories and offer zero nutritional benefits. Plus, their intoxicating effects can lead to other unhealthy choices, such as eating too many calories. If you don’t drink alcohol, don’t start. If you do drink, keep it moderate. For men, that means two drinks or less per day up to age 64 and just one drink per day if you’re older than that. Your risk of liver, stomach and colon cancer all increase with higher intakes of alcohol.
- Make unhealthy or risky choices. Studies have shown that men tend to take more risks than women, and those less-healthy choices can extend well beyond what you put on your plate. Take common sense safety precautions any time you’re undertaking a potentially dangerous activity.
- Put off routine medical care. Conditions such as prostate cancer and low testosterone affect only men, and can be screened for with routine testing and regular checkups.
When it comes to your overall health, diet is just one piece of the puzzle, and the best diet for you may not the best one for another person, Zammit says. “Genetics, age and gender play a huge role in how your body reacts to certain food items or diets, and this is not something we can change. It’s also not helpful to compare yourself to anyone else – the human body is incredibly complex.”
To that end, she notes that “there are no ‘bad’ foods, just bad overall diets. Behavior and lifestyle modification are still the best predictors to your health and happiness.
Lastly, Zammit notes that you need to “nourish your body based on your individual needs and preferences. If you’re thinking of beginning a particular diet, please contact your local registered dietitian, to help educate and guide you.”