What You Need to Know About Diet and Prostate Cancer

10 anti-cancer nutrition tips for men (and the women who love them)

8 min read

In many ways, prostate cancer is to men what breast cancer is to women. It's the second leading cause of cancer deaths in men (after lung cancer). And the older men get, the higher the frequency of the disease.

Health experts estimate that nearly three out of every 10 men in their 50s have prostate cancer, compared with about seven out of 10 men 80 or older. This may seem like good news for younger men -- prostate cancer develops slowly, and is uncommon before age 50. But the fact that it does develop slowly behooves younger men to do whatever they can to help prevent it. And the fact that prostate cancer often doesn't have noticeable symptoms behooves men 50 and up to get annual checkups and testing.

September is Prostate Cancer Month, so this is a great time to take a few minutes to learn more about this cancer and the dietary steps we can take to reduce our risk.

Where is the Prostate?

The walnut-sized gland below a man's bladder is the prostate. Its function is to produce semen.

How do they screen for Prostate Cancer?

Health care providers test for a substance called prostate-specific antigen (PSA) in blood samples because PSA levels rise as prostate cancer progresses (although higher levels can also be due to infection or enlargement of the gland). Men should have annual PSA tests beginning at age 50, or 45 if they are considered at higher risk. Rectal examinations are also used to detect prostate changes. Annual digital rectal exams are also encouraged beginning at age 50 (45 for those at higher risk). If any problems are discovered (and rest assured that most prostate problems are not cancer), an ultrasound test and biopsy may be done to look for cancer cells.

Who has the highest prostate cancer rates?

Black Americans have the highest prostate cancer rates in the world, while the disease is rare in Asia, Africa, and South America. Prostate cancer is most common in North America and Northwestern Europe.

What are the symptoms?

  • Need to urinate frequently, especially at night.
  • Sense of urgency to urinate, but difficulty starting.
  • Painful urination.
  • Inability to urinate or weak or interrupted flow.
  • Blood in urine.
  • Continuing pain in the lower back, pelvis, or upper thigh.

These symptoms do not necessarily mean you have prostate cancer, but it's wise to see a doctor if you notice any of them.

What's the survival rate?

When the cancer hasn't spread outside the prostate (and most don't), the five-year survival rate is nearly 100%. For all stages of the disease combined, the survival rate is 93%.

We have a lot more to learn about diet and prostate cancer. Although we have some encouraging studies to point to, none of the foods mentioned below have been absolutely proven to prevent the disease. Still, these tips will most likely not only help reduce your risk of prostate cancer, but improve your health in general.

1. Eat at least three servings of cruciferous vegetables a week.

Men who ate three servings a week of cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower) reduced their risk of prostate cancer by 41%, according to a new study from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. It's suggested that the possible protection from these vegetables occurs in the early stages of prostate cancer.

What do they have that's so special? Cruciferous veggies boast two phytochemicals: glucosinolates and isothiocyanates, which are thought to help deactivate cancer-causing substances. Some studies have suggested that people who eat the most of these vegetables have lower rates of prostate cancer as well as other cancers such as lung, stomach, colon, bladder and breast.

2. Enjoy tomato products almost every day.

Men who ate tomato sauce two or more times a week lowered their risk of prostate cancer by almost 25%, according to research. And men who ate pasta with tomato sauce every day for three weeks (while awaiting prostate surgery) lowered their PSA levels and had less DNA damage to their prostate tissues than those who didn't include tomato sauce in their meals. A recent analysis of research showed that tomato products may play a role in the prevention of prostate cancer, but appear to have a modest effect.

3. Switch to soy sometimes.

People who migrate from Asia to Western countries but maintain their traditional diet remain at lower risk of prostate cancer. That may be because of the high amount of phytoestrogens (plant-based compounds that have estrogen-like activity) in Asian diets. Lab and animal studies have found that the main phytoestrogen in soy, genistein, slows the progression of prostate cancer. Although long-term studies have yet to be done, the evidence so far is promising.

4. Have a tablespoon a day of flaxseed.

A few studies show that a low-fat diet, supplemented with doses of ground flaxseed, may slow the growth of prostate cancer in humans and animals. More studies need to be done, but a daily tablespoon of ground flaxseed a day (which contributes 3 grams of fiber along with healthy omega-3 fatty acids, phytoestrogens, and phytochemicals) is, in general, a good thing to do for your health.

5. Go fish -- a couple of times a week.

Although more studies are needed, there's growing evidence from animal and laboratory studies that omega-3 fatty acids (especially the so-called long-chain omega-3s found in fish) help stop the development of cancer. A Swedish study showed that men who ate no fatty fish (such as salmon and tuna) were two to three times more likely to develop prostate cancer than men who ate fish regularly.

6. Red (in fruits and vegetables) means "GO."

Lycopene is the healthy substance that gives tomatoes and other red fruits and vegetables their color. Tomato products and lycopene have been linked to a lower risk of prostate cancer.

7. Decrease saturated fat in your meals and snacks.

Saturated fats from animal products may help promote prostate cancer. You'll find saturated fat in higher-fat animal meats and dairy products; processed foods that use hydrogenated fats and oils; and products that contain coconut or palm kernel oil.

8. Eat less fat and more fruits and vegetables.

The American Institute for Cancer Research concludes that some men are at a higher risk of prostate cancer if they eat a diet high in fat and low in vegetables and fruits. A recent Italian study on prostate cancer patients showed that vegetables in general may have a protective effect.

9. Enjoy foods rich in selenium.

The Physicians' Health Study shows that men with the highest levels of the mineral selenium in their blood were 48% less likely to progress to advanced prostate cancer over 13 years than men with the lowest levels of selenium. The researchers suggest that selenium may slow tumor growth by helping cancer cells to self-destruct, and by protecting cells from oxidation. In foods, selenium tends to come along with protein; some top sources are seafood, lean meats, eggs, whole grains, Brazil nuts, and legumes.

10. Limit preserved foods.

A recent study noted that preserved foods -- particularly pickled vegetables, fermented soy products, salted fish and preserved meat -- were associated with a significantly higher risk of prostate cancer. As the amount of preserved food increased, so did the risk.

To get you started on a diet that could improve your odds against prostate cancer, here are a couple of man-friendly recipes to try.

Better-for-You Mashed Potatoes

Journal as: 1/2 cup vegetables without added fat + 1/2 cup starches without added fat + 1/4 cup low-fat milk.

Make a higher-nutrient side dish by blending mashed cauliflower with mashed potatoes -- all dressed up with seasonings and even a sprinkling of reduced-fat cheddar, if you like.

2 large baked potatoes, peel removed and cut into pieces
2 cups steamed or microwaved cauliflower florets, cooked just until tender
1/2 cup grated, reduced-fat sharp cheddar cheese (optional)
2/3 cup low-fat milk (fat-free half-and-half can be substituted); use more if needed
Salt and pepper to taste
A sprinkle or two of paprika or garlic powder (optional)

  • Put hot potato pieces, cauliflower florets, and grated cheese in a large mixing bowl. Beat on medium-low speed until nicely mashed. Pour in milk, and continue to beat until blended. Add a tablespoon or two more of milk, if needed for desired consistency.
  • Add a touch of salt, pepper, and garlic powder or paprika (if desired) to taste.

Yield: 4 servings

Per serving (not including salt to taste): 140 calories, 5 grams protein, 30 grams carbohydrate, 0.7 grams fat (0.3 grams saturated fat, 0.2 grams monounsaturated fat, 0.2 grams polyunsaturated fat), 2 milligrams cholesterol, 4 grams fiber, 51 milligrams sodium. Calories from fat: 4%.

Broccoli Marinara

Journal as: 1/2 cup vegetables with no added fat + 1/2 cup vegetables with 1 teaspoon fat

This dish gives you the health benefits of broccoli AND tomatoes.

2 teaspoons olive oil
2 teaspoons minced garlic
14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes in tomato puree (Italian-style, if available)
1 pound broccoli florets (about 5 cups)
Pepper to taste
1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

  • Heat oil in a large, covered, nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and sauté for a minute or two, stirring constantly.
  • Pour in the diced tomatoes with puree and cook about five minutes (reduce heat to medium-low, if needed, to keep it at a gentle boil).
  • Place the broccoli on top of the tomatoes and season with pepper. Cover skillet and simmer over low heat for five minutes. Sprinkle Parmesan over the top, cover skillet again, and continue cooking until broccoli is tender (about four minutes more). Do not overcook the broccoli; it should be a vibrant green. Serve as is, or toss the broccoli with the marinara sauce and enjoy!

Yield: 4 servings

Per serving: 101 calories, 5.5 grams protein, 14.5 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fat (0.9 grams saturated fat, 1.7 grams monounsaturated fat, 0.4 grams polyunsaturated fat), 2.5 milligrams cholesterol, 4.5 grams fiber, 269 milligrams sodium. Calories from fat: 27%.