Men are less likely to visit a doctor than women – but are more likely to visit an emergency room. HFG dietitian Zoe Wilson and nutritionist Cindy Williams review some of the most common health problems facing Australian men today, and help you spot the warning signs.
According to a June 2011 report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, men make fewer visits to the GP than women; two-thirds of adult males and one-quarter of boys are overweight or obese; and close to one-third of men have a chronic health condition.
The good news is that most health issues can be avoided or managed with regular health checks, a few lifestyle changes and earlier intervention. So what exactly should you be looking for? Read on to learn our ‘golden rules’ and advice for the most common health problems men face. The people who love you will thank you.
The golden rules of men’s health
The following rules are vital when it comes to maintaining your basic health and fitness. If you do nothing else, try to follow these rules – prevention is far better than a cure.
1. Eat a healthy diet. Follow the ‘1/4–1/4–1/2’ rule when filling your plate. It will help reduce your portion size at meals, and ultimately, your weight.
Fill 1/4 of your plate with lean protein (lean meat, white and oily fish, eggs and legumes).
Fill another 1/4 of your plate with lower-GI carbohydrates like sweet potato, basmati rice, pasta, multigrain bread or other wholegrains.
Fill the remaining 1/2 of your plate with plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables and salad.
Also remember to: eat 2–3 serves of reduced-fat dairy (like low-fat milk and yoghurt) a day; swap saturated fats for unsaturated (such as replacing butter with margarine); cut back on takeaway foods, biscuits, and chips; and drink 1.5–2L water every day.
2. Watch your alcohol intake – no more than two standard drinks a day (two stubbies of beer or 2 x 100ml glasses of wine), with at least two alcohol-free days per week.
3. Get moving! You need 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day, but it doesn’t need to be all at once – three 10-minute bouts are as good as one 30-minute session.
4. If you smoke, make a big effort to quit. Ask your GP for advice on where to start.
5. Grab a tape measure – if your waist measures more than 94cm around, make a concerted effort to lose weight.
6. Schedule regular check-ups with your GP – if you are over 40, be sure to ask your doctor for the following tests: general blood tests, blood pressure, cholesterol and random blood glucose.
High blood pressure
Possible warning signs
High blood pressure is a silent killer because there are usually no symptoms. Potentially, erectile dysfunction, headache, feeling dizzy, irregular or rapid heartbeat, breathlessness or nose bleeds may be due to high blood pressure.
How common is it?
The Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle study (1999–2000) found that 32% of Australian men over the age of 25 had high blood pressure and the occurrence increased with age. To make matters worse, a recent survey found that 22% of men had not had their blood pressure checked in the last two years – so more men could have high blood pressure and not know it.
The National Heart Foundation lists key risk factors for having high blood pressure as smoking, high cholesterol, being overweight, type 2 diabetes or a family history of high blood pressure. Too much salt in your diet and stress can also increase blood pressure.
What to do
If you are over 50 or have any of the risk factors listed above, get your blood pressure checked annually. This quick test could save your life.
Check with your doctor before starting an exercise program, particularly weights, as this may raise your blood pressure further unless properly controlled.
Reduce your sodium intake to no more than 2300mg sodium (6g salt) per day, or 1600mg sodium (4g salt) per day if you already have high blood pressure. See our article Salt: Where it hides and how to cut it for tips on how to avoid hidden salt in your food.
Eat more fruit (2 serves) and veg (5 serves) each day. Studies have shown that people eating five or more serves of vegetables and fruit per day have lower blood pressure and can cut their risk of stroke by 25%, compared to people who eat only three serves of vegetables and fruit a day.
Increase your intake of potassium-rich foods like bananas, rockmelon, butter beans, tomatoes and cucumbers. Potassium works against sodium to reduce the amount of fluid in your blood, reducing your blood pressure.
Urinating more often than usual, painful urination, difficulty in getting started or a weak flow.
How common is it?
Nearly 3300 Australian men die each year from prostate cancer. It’s the most common cancer in men and the second most common cause of death from cancer.
While the symptoms listed above don’t always indicate prostate cancer, it’s important to get checked out, as it’s not known what causes prostate cancer. Your risk increases from age 50 onwards and if you have a family history of prostate cancer.
What to do
Have a physical exam and a blood test annually if you are over 50, or if you are over 40 with a family history of prostate cancer.
Exercise. Inactivity is a possible risk factor for prostate cancer.
Little interest or pleasure in doing activities you normally enjoy; reduced sex drive; feeling tired, irritable, anxious and/or unmotivated; trouble sleeping and concentrating; withdrawing from family and friends.
How common is it?
One in six men suffers from depression at some time in his life.
Depression can be caused by recent events (such as conflict, loss or disappointment); ongoing difficulties (like unemployment or living in an abusive or uncaring relationship); personal risk factors including your personality type (being a worrier, shy or a perfectionist) or having low self-esteem; genetics; medical factors (low thyroid function, quitting smoking, chronic pain or anaemia); or a combination of the above risk factors.
What to do
If you or someone you know needs urgent assistance, see your GP or contact: Lifeline: 13 11 14; Suicide Helpline Victoria: 1300 651 251; Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800; Mensline: 1300 789 978.
Professional counselling from a psychologist or psychiatrist can help with negative thoughts and help you to cope with daily life.
Moderate or more serious depression may require medication and this must be managed by your GP.
Don’t self-medicate. While there is evidence that St Johns Wort may help in the treatment of depression, it can also have serious interactions with other medications you are currently using. It’s vital you speak with a doctor before you start taking any medication – natural or otherwise.
Exercise regularly. Your body creates endorphins –natural anti-depressants – when you exercise.
Avoid drinking and using drugs as these are known to make depression worse.
Alternative therapies, such as acupuncture, yoga and massage can help but may need to be combined with other types of treatment.
A change in bowel habits – either constipation or diarrhoea – which lasts more than a few weeks. Also be wary of blood in your stool, abdominal cramps, gas or pain in your gut, or feeling that your bowel hasn’t emptied completely.
How common is it?
Bowel cancer affects more than 14,000 Australians (both men and women) every year, but is one of the most curable types of cancer if detected and treated early.
Your risk of bowel cancer increases with age (particularly over 50), and if your parents or other close relatives have had it. Your risk is even higher if they were younger than 55 years when diagnosed, or if you have more than one relative with the disease. Bowel problems that inflame and irritate the bowel over many years also increase your risk, as does having polyps or a family history of polyps.
What to do
If you are over 50 – or under 50 with a family history of the disease – see your doctor for a bowel cancer screening every year.
Get rid of that beer gut. Being overweight, especially around the stomach, accounts for 11% of bowel cancer cases – and that risk is more strongly associated in men than women.
Eat at least 30g fibre per day. Studies show that people who ate more than 30g fibre had a 25–40% lower risk of bowel cancer than those who ate less than 10g fibre a day.
The Cancer Council NSW recommends eating lean red meat (65–100g cooked meat) only 3–4 times a week. Also limit your intake of processed meat (sausages, frankfurts, salami, bacon and ham) as they are high in salt, fat and nitrates, which have been linked to an increased risk of cancer.
If your waist circumference is larger than 94cm, your health is at risk. If it’s greater than 102cm, you could be in serious danger of developing of high blood pressure, heart disease, impotence, some types of cancer and/or diabetes.
How common is it?
According to 2007–2008 data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 68% of Australian males over the age of 18 are overweight or obese.
Obesity is caused by eating more food than your body needs, and if you don’t burn off the kilojoules, that extra energy is stored as fat. Men tend to store excess fat around the middle, creating an apple-shaped body. This centrally-located fat is dangerous because it surrounds vital organs, and is associated with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes and prostate cancer.
What to do
Exercise for 60 minutes a day. It doesn’t have to be all at once, and increasing your daily incidental activity, such as taking the stairs, working in the garden and walking or cycling to the shops all count.
Don’t sit for long periods – whenever possible, stand up and move your body.
Reduce your portion size at meals. Using smaller plates and bowls can help. Small, healthy snacks throughout the day may also help you decrease your portion sizes if you are overeating at main meals.
Include low-fat protein (e.g. eggs, low-fat milk, low-fat yoghurt, baked beans, hommous, tinned tuna or salmon, lean meat or skinless chicken) at each meal.
Don’t diet. Instead, make small changes that become habits, which will turn into a healthy lifestyle. A quick fix or ‘crash diet’ may help you lose weight in the short-term, but you could revert back to your old, unhealthy habits.
Is it time for an annual check?
Any mechanic worth their salt will tell you to bring in your car for a maintenance check at least once a year, even if you think it’s running fine. Your body may also appear to be running just fine, but serious health problems – such as high blood pressure and high blood sugar – often have no symptoms. By the time you notice something is wrong, you could be in serious trouble. If your car breaks down, you can fix it or trade it in for a better model – you can’t do that with your body. If you want this complex machine to last, schedule a visit with your GP annually.
Important nutrients for men – and where to find them
Lycopene is a carotenoid that protects DNA, blood proteins and fats from oxidation. It also has anti-carcinogenic effects – it was found to reduce the risk of prostate cancer by a 25% in men who ate 2–4 serves of tomatoes each week.
Find it in: Watermelon, papaya, apricots, guava, pink grapefruit and tomatoes. Lycopene is more easily absorbed from cooked tomatoes, especially if they are cooked with a small amount of good fat, such as olive oil. Try adding no-added-salt tomato purée or canned tomatoes to meals, or pan-fry tomatoes with a spray of olive oil and serve with avocado on grainy toast.
Calcium helps protect against high blood pressure and bowel cancer. However, there is a small chance that too much calcium could increase the risk of prostate cancer. Include 2–3 serves of low-fat dairy in your diet each day (but skip the mega thick shakes and slabs of full-fat cheese).
Find it in: Low-fat milk, low-fat yoghurt and low-fat cheese (to reduce the risk of eating more energy than your body needs), sardines, canned salmon with bones and dark green leafy vegetables.
This B vitamin is essential for making DNA and red blood cells. Scientists think that low folate levels may increase the risk of depression and reduce the effectiveness of anti-depressants. Researchers are currently testing whether folate can reduce the risk of bowel cancer, too.
Find it in: Spinach, citrus fruit, broccoli, wholemeal bread, legumes, wheat germ and liver.
High-fibre foods, which help protect against bowel cancer and obesity, move through the bowel faster, meaning your body has less time to re-absorb any toxic substances. Fibre also fills you up so you don’t eat too much – reducing your chances of becoming overweight or obese.
Find it in: Plant-based foods including dried beans, baked beans, lentils, split peas, nuts, wholegrain or wholemeal bread, wholegrain cereals (such as oats and quinoa), vegetables and fruit.
Catechins are one of the many flavonoids found in natural foods. They may reduce a number of cancers, including prostate and bowel cancer, by preventing DNA damage and blocking the growth of tumour cells. They also increase energy expenditure, making them potentially helpful when it comes to losing weight.
Find them in: Green tea. It contains 3–10 times more catechins than black tea. Try alternating cups of green tea with your daily cuppas.
Potassium and magnesium
These minerals help reduce high blood pressure and keep muscles, including the heart, working properly.
Find them in: Most vegetables and fruit including citrus fruits, bananas, dried fruit, spinach, legumes, unsalted nuts and wholegrain cereals.
As well as supporting brain health, omega-3 fats keep artery walls flexible and resilient, and reduce blood triglyceride levels, the risk of blood clots and blood vessel inflammation.
Find them in: Oily fish, walnuts, linseed or flaxseed and canola oil.
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