Plant-based diet tied to improved sexual health, slower disease progression in men with prostate cancer

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Researchers say a plant-based diet can be helpful in numerous ways for men being treated for prostate cancer. Westend61/Getty Images
  • Researchers are reporting that a plant-based diet can ease side effects from prostate cancer treatment, including erectile dysfunction and urinary problems.
  • They added that people on plant-based diets also showed better hormonal health, which can help when dealing with depression.
  • In another study, researchers report that a plant-based diet can also help slow the progression of prostate cancer.

A new study links a plant-based diet to fewer side effects experienced by people being treated for prostate cancer.

Researchers said limiting meat and dairy while eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains can lessen erectile dysfunction, urinary incontinence, and other common side effects experienced by men after treatment.

The research, published in the journal Cancer, looked at more than 3,500 men with prostate cancer. Scientists put them into five groups based on the proportion of animal versus plant-based food the men reported eating.

The researchers found the group consuming the highest proportion of plants scored 8% to 11% higher in measures of sexual function, compared with the group consuming the least.

Results also showed up to 14% higher scores for urinary health, with fewer examples of irritation, obstruction, and incontinence.

The highest group of plant eaters also demonstrated up to 13% higher scores in hormonal health, assessing symptoms such as depression, hot flashes and low energy, compared to the lowest group on plant-based diets.

“Our findings offer hope for those looking for ways to improve their quality of life after undergoing surgery, radiation, and other common therapies for prostate cancer, which can cause significant side effects,” said Dr. Stacy Loeb, a urologist and the study’s lead author, in a statement.

Loeb, a professor in the Departments of Urology and Population Health at NYU Langone Health in New York, also said that “adding more fruits and vegetables to their diet, while reducing meat and dairy, is a simple step that patients can take.”

The study pointed out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says prostate cancer is among the most common and deadliest forms of cancer among men in the United States.

The same team did previous research finding that eating a plant-based diet can reduce the risk of developing prostate cancer in the first place. They pointed out in a statement that other research linked a plant-based diet to a lower risk of general sexual dysfunction, but not specifically in those suffering from prostate cancer.

In another study published in the journal JAMA Network Open, researchers report that men diagnosed with prostate cancer who switch to a more plant-based diet have a lower risk of disease progression.

The researchers looked at cohort study of more than 2,000 men in the earlier stages of prostate cancer. They said the men who had a higher intake of plant-based foods had a lower rate of disease progression than those who had a lower intake of plant-based foods.

The research team from the study on prostate cancer side effects analyzed data from the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, an ongoing investigation sponsored by the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston that started in 1986.

The follow-up study used data from more than 50,000 male dentists, pharmacists, optometrists, osteopaths, podiatrists, and veterinarians.

The project was meant to analyze nutrition’s impact related to cancer, heart disease, and other serious illnesses. Men with prostate cancer answered a questionnaire every four years about what and how much they ate.

The team also looked at a survey administered every two years that assessed difficulties in maintaining an erection, frequency of incontinence, and issues with mood, energy, and bowels, among other health factors. More than 83% of the participants had received prostate cancer treatment.

Loeb said that both in the earlier and current studies, the cancer hadn’t spread from the prostate. The team also factored in physical activity, weight, and other quality of life information.

They said that regardless of lifestyle factors or other medical issues such as diabetes, consuming large amounts of plant-based food was linked to better sexual health, urinary health, and vitality scores.

“These results add to the long list of health and environmental benefits of eating more plants and fewer animal products,” Loeb said. “They also clearly challenge the historical misconception that eating meat boosts sexual function in men, when in fact the opposite seems to be the case.”

Loeb noted that the men examined in the study were mostly white healthcare professionals.

She said the team will now expand their research to a more diverse group of men, including those with a more advanced stage of cancer.

Dr. Ramkishen Narayanan, a urologist, urologic oncologist, and director of the Center for Urologic Health at The Roy and Patricia Disney Family Cancer Center at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in California, told Medical News Today that research of this type is “valuable and needed.”

However, he agrees a more diverse group needs examining.

“The population studied was a large cohort of white male health care professionals, who typically are in the upper echelon of health compared to the general population. We also don’t have granular data on any erectile dysfunction medications or therapies these men may have been taking,” said Narayanan, who was not involved in the study.

He said plant eaters would also go into the study with better metrics concerning diabetes and cardiovascular health, even before being diagnosed with prostate cancer. So pre-treatment and post-treatment comparisons are necessary.

Dr. Angelo Kanellos, a urologist at Urology Nevada and a member of the Society of Robotic Surgeons who also was not involved in the study, told Medical News Today the study is “very encouraging.”

“Quite frankly we as professionals have been slower in encouraging patients to improve their lifestyles and dietary habits,” Kanellos said. “We are often focused on medical treatment and have opportunities to adopt more holistic approaches. I do think a study like this will encourage urologists to educate patients about the importance of diet to help in their recovery.”

Kanellos said a cancer diagnosis is often a trigger for people to become more conscientious with their health. In addition, the study helps arm doctors with scientific data to help encourage lifestyle changes.

“I believe it also shows us that the die is not cast. A dietary life of fries and burgers does not mean that some of the damage can’t be reversed,” he added. “More validation that healthy eating is a good idea is helpful.”

Stephanie Meyers, a senior oncology clinical dietitian at online health platform OncoHealth, told Medical News Today that changing one’s diet isn’t easy.

“In my experience, one challenging thing that can come up from a study like this is health professionals referring to changing eating habits as ‘simple steps people can take,’” said Meyers, who wasn’t involved in the study.

“I’m up close and personal with the struggles people face trying to eat more vegetables and fruits while dealing with difficult side effects and financial hardship related to their treatment. I think people underestimate the pressure those with cancer feel to ‘eat better,’” she noted.

“What’s needed is specific support that takes into account the barriers people face day-to-day as eaters when going through cancer,” Meyers added.

Narayanan said people should look for protein and “bursts of color” in each meal. He also said, “healthy animal protein is certainly acceptable.”

“Eat whole foods. Stay away from processed foods,” he advised. “To keep it simple, one can think of a vegetarian diet, but being flexible with protein is fine. A serving of healthy, unprocessed animal protein such as fish per meal is perfectly acceptable.”

“Be wary of the amount of processing that can take place with fake meat,” Narayanan said. “It is preferable to have unprocessed, healthy animal protein. The Mediterranean diet is a great option that still tips the scales toward more of a plant-based diet.”

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