Last November, the CDC released a report which confirmed something many of us have long sensed: Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. “Enough,” in this instance, means the USDA’s recommendation of 1.5-2 cups per day of the former and 2-3 cups of the latter. Did you know that only 12 percent of Alaskans meet or exceed that amount of vegetables? If you think that sounds pitiful, you should know that residents of the largest state in the union are in fact at the very top of the vegetable consumption leaderboard.
The most voracious fruit consumers, on the other hand, are to be found in Washington DC, with 15.5 percent of adults meeting the guidelines. In West Virginia—nationally ranked 2nd and 3rd in the death rates of cancer and diabetes respectively—only 7.3 percent and 5.8 percent of people are eating enough fruits and vegetables. All told, only around one in ten Americans are eating the amount of produce deemed sufficient for good health.
The same CDC study also supported a couple of other things we all sort of knew: that women eat more produce than men and young adults across the board eat fewer servings of fruits and vegetables than any other age group. It’s at this point that I’m going to pivot and suddenly start talking about boners quite a lot. See, during research for another Tonic article, I was surprised to learn that two independent studies both found that between a quarter and a third of men under the age of 40 experienced erectile dysfunction (ED). Men under 40 don’t have the same rates of disease that go hand in hand with ED, of course, which lead the authors of both studies to point the finger of blame at young guys’ lifestyle choices. They smoke, they drink, they don’t prioritize sleep, and they have a poor diet.
When I read “poor diet” I automatically thought about the junk young guys are prone to consume. In what would be paradoxically referred to as my “salad days,” I survived on pizza, bagels, and McDonald’s dollar menu items almost exclusively. I imagined that the “poor diet” was a reference to high-fat, high-carb, highly processed convenience foods that are making 20- and 30-year-old penises behave like wizened and world weary ding-dongs two or three times their age.
But new research suggests that it’s not what young guys are putting into their bodies that’s taking a toll on the pole but what they’re not: flavonoids.
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Flavonoids are found in almost all fruits and vegetables. The name refers to a diverse group of phytonutrients (plant chemicals) that—along with carotenoids—are responsible for blur of vivid colors we see with as we hurry through the produce section on our quest for flavored seltzer, coffee beans, and yogurt. Numerous studies have demonstrated that the consumption of flavonoids is correlated with lower rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, certain cancers and neurodegenerative disease and, as a result, could potentially extend a person’s life span.
But when you’re a snake-hipped twenty-something, the prospect of lowering your risk of developing a chronic disease is unlikely to have you suddenly swearing off foods designed to light up the brain’s reward center and rushing home to roast a spaghetti squash. The promise of owning an indefatigable erection, on the other hand, just might.
The study published in the January issue of the Journal of Sexual Medicine wasn’t the first to point at the link between the consumption of eggplants and having a penis that strives to live up the promise of eggplant emoji. In 2016, other research found that a higher intake of flavanones, anthocyanins, and flavones—three of the six categories of flavonoids—were significantly associated with a reduction in risk of erectile dysfunction in men under the age of 70. This latest study however, looked only at men between 18 and 40—the age bracket traditionally associated with a greater frequency of sex and an apparent ambivalence toward chard.
Researchers found that all the young dudes who reported a lower intake of flavonoids were significantly more likely to experience erectile dysfunction and called out flavones as being the flavonoid which contributed most to healthy erectile function. Members of the nightshade family like peppers, tomatoes—and as it turns out, eggplants—are high in the flavone luteolin. Celery is high in the flavones apigenin and luteolin and eating plenty of it may also do double duty as an aphrodisiac of sorts: Each stalk contains androstenone and androstenol, which have been shown to have an effect on women’s mood, sexual response, and mate selection.
Exactly how flavonoids effect erectile function isn’t yet clear, but previous research has demonstrated that flavonoids make arteries more flexible and thereby increase blood flow. Lead author of the 2016 study, Aedin Cassidy, professor of nutrition at the University of East Anglia, in England, links her findings to other studies that showed flavonoids effect on reducing cardiovascular disease, noting in her paper that erectile dysfunction is often an early barometer of poor vascular function and that men are more likely to “recognize dysfunction in their sexual health early, in contrast to risk factors for CVD, which are frequently identified after much of the irreversible vascular damage has occurred.”
Whether or not this new research is will finally coerce young guys—fully one third of whom will experience ED in their lifetime, remember—to start chomping on brightly colored vegetables is unknowable, particularly given that there’s no clear evidence of just how effective flavonoids are at safeguarding erectile function when compared to cutting down on cigarettes, booze, drugs, and late nights.
“[ED] is usually a multifactorial issue but every positive change either reduces the risk or helps improve the condition,” says Michael Reitano, a retired internist and “doctor-in-residence” at men’s health startup Roman. “Improvements in health from losing weight, exercising, smoking cessation, positive sleep habits, and consuming more fruits and vegetables might each make only small contributions, but cumulatively the effect can be dramatic.”
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