If you are a man over the age of 40, whether you like it or not, you have already begun to experience a decline in your male hormone levels.

This decline actually begins in a man’s thirties, and most men can expect a loss of almost 10 percent each decade thereafter, especially if they don’t take the necessary steps to deal with it.

With age and dwindling testosterone levels, a noticeable loss of muscle mass can be expected. In the process, overall metabolism declines since muscle is one of the primary mechanisms for controlling the body’s ability to burn fat. This drop in testosterone is often referred to as male menopause or andropause.

I prefer to call it the beer belly blues, since two of the hallmarks of male menopause are an enlarged waist circumference and a decline in your once jovial mood.

That Beer Belly

Enlarged waist circumference can also be a good indicator of estrogen levels in men. These levels are so closely linked to excess belly fat that a large waist measurement, 40 inches (100 cm) or more, can often be a determining factor for low testosterone and high estrogen levels.

It is high estrogen that is thought to be linked to abdominal obesity, loss of energy, low moods, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, prostate disease, and the dreaded man-boob syndrome.

To make matters worse, as the amount of belly fat increases so does the activity of an enzyme called aromatase, which breaks down testosterone into estrogen. This, in turn, can lead to an even larger belly and even more estrogen production.

Luckily, there are ways to fend off the beer belly blues, and when it comes to producing healthy levels of testosterone, diet is vital. Your mother was really onto something when she told you to eat your veggies so you would grow to be a strong and healthy man.

The best vegetables for protecting testosterone levels are in the cruciferous family, which includes broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and cabbage. These foods are rich in indoles, which can lower excess estrogens in your system and stop them from competing with your testosterone.

Eat Fat to Maintain Testosterone

Unfortunately, the majority of aging men are told over and over again to greatly reduce their dietary fat and cholesterol consumption, especially if they want to reduce their risk of heart disease. The research, however, does not support this advice.

Researchers from South Carolina published results from a 1990 survey in the Journal of Nutrition that found absolutely no correlation between blood cholesterol levels and a high saturated-fat intake.

According to a body of research reviewed by Mary Enig, PhD, from the American Society for Nutritional Sciences, saturated fats and cholesterol do not increase heart disease. In fact, cholesterol is actually used as a substance to help repair damage to the arteries.

Cholesterol is Part of the Solution

While on the subject of maintaining optimal testosterone levels, it is also important to understand that cholesterol is key in this equation. Not only is cholesterol a major component of all cell membranes, which is why the body deems it important enough to manufacture nearly 1,000 mg every day, but it also happens to be the major building block of testosterone as well as other sex hormones.

What’s most interesting is that low-fat, low-cholesterol advocates will tell you that cholesterol is bad for the arteries and yet never mention how important testosterone is to a healthy cardiovascular system. Research presented in the Journal of Coronary Artery Disease (2007), showed that low levels of free testosterone may be related to the development of premature coronary artery disease.

The Rotterdam Study, one of the largest population-based studies to date, looked at testosterone levels in relation to cardiac health in 504 men aged 67 to 75. According to results of the study, men with the highest levels of free bioavailable testosterone also showed the lowest levels of coronary artery disease. Since healthy cholesterol levels are so important to healthy testosterone production, does it really make sense for men to cut out all the fat?

Everything in Moderation

Although a clear link between low-fat diets and lower testosterone levels has been made, when it comes to a healthy diet it is generally true that too much of virtually anything is unhealthy, including saturated fat. A diet that contains approximately 30 percent fat seems to be appropriate for maintaining healthy testosterone levels and anything more may actually contribute to a bigger belly.

Researchers from Penn State University confirmed that not only is dietary fat positively linked to testosterone levels, but also the effect of dietary fat on testosterone levels depended on the kind of fat consumed. The researchers found that monounsaturated and saturated fats were able to raise testosterone levels, while polyunsaturated fats—contained in corn oil, soybean oil, and fatty fish—were not.

Monounsaturated fats are also those associated with many of the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. The best choices for these testosterone-supporting fats are avocados, olive oil, peanut butter, and walnuts.

Finnish researchers discovered diets higher in fat are most effective in raising testosterone levels when they are accompanied by proper exercise such as weight resistance.

Testosterone-Boosting Exercise

Studies by some of the world’s leading exercise physiologists have shown that some exercises, more than others, contribute to an increase in the body’s production of testosterone; the more resistance on the muscle, the greater the stimulus for testosterone production. Also, compound exercises seem to be more effective at generating an elevated level of testosterone.

Resistance exercise supports lean body mass, also known as muscle, and greater lean body mass supports elevated levels of testosterone. Evidence suggests that performing three sets of a given exercise stimulates the most testosterone.

The take-home message is clear: if you want to improve your testosterone status, lift weights three to four times per week and be sure to include compound exercises. These exercises demand involvement of two or more joints and the activation of several muscle groups. Some examples include squats, dead lifts, lunges, bench presses, and pull-ups in sets of three.

As a side note, try to perform between eight and twelve repetitions per set. Start with lighter weights and higher repetitions, adding weight with each set until you can perform no more than eight repetitions without compromising your form. Lower repetition ranges with heavier weights usually target strength more than lean body mass.

Testosterone may be just a hormone to some, but to men who lack the proper levels, it can mean the world. Resisting the normal aging process and its less palatable side effects is more than possible when you take a healthy approach to diet and exercise.

While the foods and exercises in this article are recommended for helping to maintain healthy testosterone levels, it is important not to go overboard. Remember the old adage: everything in moderation.

Testosterone and the Protein Connection

Sufficient protein intake has been shown to support healthy testosterone levels by lowering sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG). This is a hormone carrier that binds to testosterone, making it unavailable to exert its effect on the body.

Research published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism (2000) showed that elderly men who consumed a diet low in protein had elevated SHBG levels and experienced a decrease in the effects of testosterone.

Sample Testosterone-Supporting Meals

BREAKFAST: Omelette

In a small bowl combine two whole organic eggs plus two egg whites. Cook in skillet over low heat with 1 to 2 tsp (5 to10 mL) of extra-virgin olive oil. Top omelette with half a sliced avocado.

LUNCH: Mixed Organic Green Salad

Toss greens and sprinkle with extra-virgin olive oil and vinaigrette dressing. Top with walnuts and 4 to 6 ounces (125 to 200 g) of fresh shrimp.

DINNER: Chicken Breast with Steamed Broccoli and Cauliflower

Place chicken in an oven-proof pan. Add enough organic chicken or vegetable broth to cover bottom of pan. Bake at 350 F (180 C) for 25 minutes. For the final 3 minutes of baking, brush chicken with basil pesto sauce. If you don’t have time to make your own, look for prepared organic pesto at your local market.

On the stove top, steam vegetables to your liking. The healthiest way to steam is to ensure your vegetables maintain a crunch to them. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil, and top with your favourite fresh herbs.

About the Author

Brad King, MFS, nutritional researcher and author of Beer Belly Blues: What Every Aging Man and the Women in His Life Need to Know (Abundant Health Systems, 2008).