How Nutrition Impacts Your Testosterone
Low-fat! Keto! Paleo! Zone! The internet is chock-full of diet advice and testimonials from everyday folks who underwent awe-inspiring transformations after switching to [insert favorite diet here]. Frustratingly, many of these self-appointed experts directly contradict one another.
“[Trainer X] says the best way to shred body fat is to cut out bread, pasta, and carbs but [Person Y] says it’s all about calories, which means no more nuts or cheese!”
The sheer amount of proselytizing about nutrition on social media, YouTube, Reddit, and fitness influencer blogs may leave you wondering: What IS the diet you should be following? What IS the fastest, easiest, BEST way to achieve your health goals?
Patients who come to us at Men’s Health Boston for testosterone therapy or cardiology services have these very same questions. Often, there are underlying lifestyle risk factors that contribute to hormonal or cardiovascular issues, which in turn present as problems such as low testosterone, erectile dysfunction, high blood pressure, or elevated cholesterol. Receiving abnormal test results can be both unnerving and validating – you know your body shouldn’t feel this way, and now there’s PROOF. In that moment, the natural human reaction is to search for the quickest way out.
But the truth is, most research to date has come to the conclusion that there isn’t one best diet that works well for everyone in every situation. Food is more than just a cut-and-paste equation of calories-in vs. calories-out, or a golden ratio of macronutrients. It’s an extension of how we live day to day. And for dietary changes to be sustainable in the long run, they have to be able to address to the challenges and barriers of everyday life – of your life, in particular. That’s why individualization is absolutely critical to nutrition counseling.
If that’s not the simple answer you were hoping to hear, we understand. But before you jump ship, consider that even though the promise of “one diet to rule them all” doesn’t hold up, LOTS of people have successfully:
- Boosted their energy and focus, and ditched the feeling of chronic fatigue
- Achieved major body transformations and changed how their clothing fits
- Prevented, managed, or alleviated chronic diseases
- Improved digestive issues and learned how to eat without anxiety
- Broken the cycle of shame, guilt, and frustration and repaired their relationship with food
So how did they do it, and how can you do it too? To answer that question, we first need to shift the paradigm around how we think about the cyclical nature of “dieting”.
Why don’t diets work long-term?
We all know the story:
Someone close to you – a friend, a loved one, maybe even yourself – gets fed up with feeling terrible all the time and decides to make a change. Drastic times call for drastic actions, and after researching the best ways to go about it, this person comes up with a new list of diet rules:
Cut out bread and pasta. No more dessert. Avoid all sugar.
No more high calorie foods, low-fat versions only. Cut out pizza, burgers, fries, bacon.
No more processed foods. Protein shakes for snacks.
Fast until the afternoon. Lift weights for 90 minutes every day.
There are hundreds of other possibilities. Diet and exercise advice is so ubiquitous to the internet, it’s like road construction – you CAN’T miss it, even when you’re trying.
And the thing is, for people who can follow these rules consistently, they do tend to work – at least in the short-term. People lose weight; their blood labs improve; blood pressure comes down; their joints feel better; their digestion issues disappear. The downside, of course, is that living a life full of hard-fast rules tends to be, well, unenjoyable. And pretty challenging to maintain.
Rules are, by nature, rigid. Inflexible. They divide life into a binary result. You either follow the rules, or you break the rules. Choices become black-and-white, all-or-nothing. There is very little room for gray space in between. And that creates a fundamental paradox because life – messy, glorious, complicated, real life – is full of gray spaces. It’s full of challenges, distractions, and diversions from “the plan”.
And when that system of rigid rules butts up against the crucible of life, it often breaks down.
Cutting out all the processed food felt great, but it required an extra 4 hours of meal prep each week.Now that project for work has a crushing deadline, and one of your kids is sick. There’s no extra time for cooking.
Or maybe: you were doing great with going to the gym every day, but then you hurt your ankle, and the doctor told you to take it easy and recover for a few weeks.
Or even: you had the will-power to quit sugar cold-turkey for a few days. But now it’s 10pm after a stressful day, and that pint of ice cream is literally summoning you from the freezer.
It’s impossible to follow the rules 100% of the time, and this leaves many of us feeling as though we have failed. Old habits creep back in, and the weight comes with them. Our blood pressure rises; our labs end up worse off than before. And the cycle of shame and guilt around “just not having the willpower to make it work” gets reinforced.
If this has happened to you or someone you know, it can feel demoralizing. And we want you to know that there is a better, healthier, more fulfilling way forward.
And it starts, instead, with focusing on habits.
What happens at Nutrition Counseling?
Most of us look to make lifestyle changes by focusing on the end results we want to achieve. Clients who come to our Nutrition program often talk about a goal weight they would like to reach, or how they would like their body to feel, or the desire to avoid adding medications. These are all very worthwhile pursuits, but they lack a critical element: they aren’t things that are directly within our locus of control.
This doesn’t at all mean that we can’t have an impact on those outcomes. It means that, as Atomic Habits author James Clear points out, we can often change those results much more effectively by focusing our energy on changing our habits, rather than on chasing our end goals.
Making a goal to get 7 hours of sleep is tenuous, because there’s no way to shut down your brain on demand. However, making a habit-based goal to set a consistent bed-time and turn off electronics an hour beforehand helps to wind down your sympathetic nervous system and regulate your body clock. This, in turn, often results in longer, deeper, more restful sleep.
Making a goal to lose 10 pounds can be hard to check off, because we aren’t directly in control of our body weight. But focusing on habits like building an hour of intentional, enjoyable movement into your daily schedule and finishing most meals at 80% full are positive steps toward a healthier, more fulfilling lifestyle (and will very likely lead to a drop in weight).
Focusing on a habits-based approach has additional advantages. Unlike rules, habits are designed to flexible, to be useful in a variety of different situations. Making a rule not to eat pasta or bread doesn’t work very well when your partner wants to go on a date night to that new Italian joint down the road. In contrast, building the habit of eating lean proteins and vegetables at most meals also reduces your starch intake, and can still apply here. It allows you the flexibility to decide whether you want to order the Chicken Parmesan with grilled chicken and a side of broccoli, or whether tonight will be a “special occasion”. Whatever you choose, your normal habits kick back in at breakfast.
It’s the resilience of habits to situational circumstances that makes them a critical component to sustainable behavior change. Much like skills, they are transferrable. And when life inevitably throws us curveballs, it’s our habits that we fall back on.
However, they are also usually a rate-limiting step. True, lasting change happens at the same speed new habits are formed, which is why overhauling everything at once rarely works out the way we hope. So, how should you go about it instead? We have a few tips that will help.
How do you build new habits?
Your current results are pretty well matched to your current lifestyle, so the goal here is to focus on changing the inputs and allow new results to follow. Because habits are naturally resilient to change, we recommend employing the following tactics:
Tip #1: Get very clear about why these changes are important to you – and what you are (and are not) willing to sacrifice for them. Then write it down.
Why does making these changes matter to you? How will your life be different if you achieve the goals you have set for yourself? What will it look like, feel like, be like? What are the necessary trade-offs, and do they feel worthwhile?
These are essential questions to consider because changing habits is difficult work. There will be hard days. And on those days, it’s necessary to be clear with yourself about what is most important to you. But motivation can be a fickle friend, and it’s often the most difficult moments when remembering your why is most challenging. So, write it down, stick it somewhere obvious, and remind yourself regularly.
Tip #2: Translate the outcomes you want to see into intentional actions that will support your goal.
As noted earlier, often the best way to change the outputs is to change the inputs. Rather than hard-fast rules, focus on repeatable skills and activities which, when done consistently, are likely to bring you closer to your goal, and then try to achieve them 80% of the time. For example:
- Instead of “Cut out bread and pasta”, try include one fistful of vegetables with each meal. They will naturally take the place of some of the carbs you are looking to cut back on.
- Instead of “No more dessert”, try aim for dessert twice per week. Portion it into a pre-selected cup. Paradoxically,allowing yourself the freedom to choose a food when you want it can make the cravings much less severe. And getting into the habit of pre-portioning higher calorie foods can go a long way towards helping you enjoy those foods, thoughtfully and intentionally.
- Instead of “No more processed foods” try batch-cook protein foods for easy week-night meals. On nights when you need something quick and easy, pair your already-cooked protein with a pre-made salad kit, or some frozen vegetables and microwaveable rice.
The specific habits that work best for you will depend on your goals and current capabilities. But by focusing on behaviors, you keep the emphasis of change where it should be – on things you can directly control.
Tip #3: Choose a system to track your new habits.
As the old saying goes, “what gets measured gets managed.” Because consistency is key to behavior change, tracking new habits can help build-in self-accountability. There are a variety of ways to implement this, depending on personal preference:
- Journaling or using a blank calendar to mark off days
- Habit tracking apps (HabitBull is an excellent free option)
- Regular check-ins with a coach or dietitian – obviously we’re biased, but we think this is a great way to get accountability AND support
Tip #4: Focus on changing one thing at a time.
When things aren’t going well, it’s understandable to want to overhaul everything at once. Our advice: resist this urge. The “overhaul” approach can often be counterproductive because trying to make too many changes at once divides your focus and sets up an “all-or-nothing” scenario where failure and disappointment are the likely outcomes.
Instead, pick one thing and focus all of your extra energy on it. Remember, habits are resilient, which means that to form a new habit, you have to practice under various conditions.
On good days AND chaotic days. On days when everything is going according to plan, AND on days when just getting out of bed feels like a major accomplishment.
Interestingly, it’s practicing the new habit on the most challenging days that allows you to troubleshoot barriers and forms the catalyst for incorporating it into your lifestyle long-term. Eventually, these actions become easier to do and require less conscious effort to maintain. The bricks start to fall into place, allowing new bricks (habits) to build on top of them.
How do you sign up for Nutrition Counseling?
If you’re thinking to yourself, ‘this sounds like something that takes time and effort’, you’re right. Therein lies the crux of lifestyle medicine: new ways of living take time to build.
But if you’re willing to commit yourself, you can fulfill your vision of a hopeful future. And along the way, you can build the resilience and flexibility necessary to sustain this new lifestyle indefinitely.
There’s no way around it; behavior change is hard. And you shouldn’t have to do hard things alone.
If you or someone you know is struggling with nutrition and lifestyle habits and looking for a personalized approach, Men’s Health Boston can help. For more information on our nutrition counseling program at MHB, click here. Most major insurance plans cover Medical Nutrition Therapy (MNT), but coverage may vary depending on plan specifics*. Call our office for more information and to schedule a nutrition consultation.
*For clients whose insurance will not cover nutrition services, see our discounted packages here.