Why two nutrients may assist in preventing prostate cancer

The month of September is designated as National Prostate Cancer Awareness Month to help bring attention to a common yet highly curable disease among men. Many different factors can play a role in reducing the risk of developing this disease but a couple of nutrients stand out in the crowd that may possibly help make this more of a reality – the mineral zinc and the phytochemical lycopene.


Before discussing the role of zinc and lycopene, let’s look at some basic facts on prostate cancer from the American Cancer Society for the year 2015:

·         It is the most common cancer diagnosed in American men other than skin cancer

·         About 220,800 new cases will be diagnosed

·         About 27,540 deaths will occur

·         About 1 in 7 men will be diagnosed with it during their lifetime

·         Mainly occurs in older men with the average age at the time of diagnosis around 65

·         It is the second leading cause of cancer death in American men, only behind lung cancer

·         It is a serious disease but most men do not die from it and the cure rate is high

What is the prostate

The prostate is a small gland about the size and shape of a walnut located in front of the rectum just below the bladder and is wrapped around the urethra.  The prostate’s purpose is to make prostatic fluid that is mixed with sperm from the testicles along with secretions from the seminal vesicles during ejaculation.

Causes of an enlarged prostate

The actual cause is unknown but if a man lives long enough, he most likely will experience an enlarged prostate, also known as benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) meaning it is not cancerous.  The causes are thought to be due to aging and changes in the cells of the testicles.  However, an enlarged prostate needs to be checked by a physician to rule out cancer.

Symptoms of an enlarged prostate

Not all men will experience symptoms of an enlarged prostate which is why it is important to have a regular prostate examination starting at age 40.  A physician will do a rectal exam and a blood test called a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) to screen for prostate cancer.  Symptoms include:

·         Needing to urinate two or more times during the night

·         Incontinence

·         Dribbling at the end of urinating

·         Inability to urinate

·         Incomplete emptying of the bladder

·         Pain with urination or bloody urine

·         Slowed or delayed start of the urinary system

·         Strong and sudden urge to urinate

·         Weak urine stream

If you have any of these symptoms, you need to go to your physician to have it checked out.

The role of zinc and lycopene

One lifestyle factor a man can control is his diet.  Choosing to eat a healthy diet may reduce the incidence of prostate cancer and help slow the progression of it.  Several studies have looked into two nutrients – the mineral zinc and the phytochemical lycopene - that appear to have an influence on reducing prostate cancer.

1.      Zinc – The soft tissue of the prostate contain zinc concentrations 10 to 15 times higher than in any other tissue of the body along with high amounts of zinc found in prostatic fluid.  These high levels of zinc appear to prevent cancer cell migration and invasion into other tissues which seem to help keep the prostate healthy by acting as a powerful tumor suppressor.  Men with cancerous prostates have levels of zinc only at about 10 to 25% of what’s found in a healthy noncancerous prostate.

The requirement for zinc in men age 19 and up is 11 mg per day which most men meet.  As men age though their dietary habits can change and they may not be getting in the optimal amount needed of zinc.  Several studies have shown that men who consume the highest levels of zinc were less likely to die from prostate cancer and had better protection from advanced prostate cancer.  At this time there is not a definitive amount to recommend from a supplement so it is advised to obtain zinc from eating actual food sources.  Food sources include the following – note that zinc from animal sources are absorbed better than from plant sources such as legumes and whole grains which contain phytic acid that inhibit zinc’s absorption:

·         Beef steak – 3 oz - 4.9 mg

·         Oysters – 3 oz -  67 mg

·         Shrimp – 3 oz - 1.5 mg

·         Pork chop – 3 oz - 2.8 mg

·         Yogurt – 1 cup -2.2 mg

·         Enriched cereal – ¾ cup – 15 mg

·         Red kidney beans – ½ cup – 2 mg

2.      Lycopene – This naturally occurring phytochemical belongs to a group of pigments called carotenoids.  It is responsible for giving many fruits and vegetables their red color such as watermelon, pink grapefruit, guava and most notably tomatoes.  Tomatoes and all tomato based products contain high levels of lycopene and account for 85% of lycopene in the American diet.

Increased lycopene intake has been associated with decreased risk for prostate cancer for the following reasons:

·         It enhances the antioxidant response of prostate cells

·         Inhibits proliferation of prostate cancer cells

·         Induces apoptosis which is a natural process that eliminates damaged, unneeded or dangerous cells from the body

·         Decreases the spread of prostate cancer cells

Numerous studies have shown that tomato based products such as tomato paste, tomato puree and tomato sauce have richer concentrations and better absorption rates of lycopene than from eating a whole, raw tomato.  Men should include at least two to three servings a week of tomatoes or tomato based products to help lower the risk of prostate cancer.  Here are some ways to increase your intake:

·         Use canned tomatoes in chili, soups, stews, casseroles, or add to grain dishes such as rice, quinoa, couscous or bulger

·         Use tomato sauce or paste in Mexican dishes, lasagna, spaghetti, pizza, meatloaf, Swiss steak or other casseroles

·         Drink tomato juice

·         Serve fresh tomatoes in salads, salsa, dips, sandwiches, tacos, salads, or add cherry tomatoes to a vegetable platter or on kebobs

Final thoughts

Prostate cancer may be a common cancer among men but there are steps you can take to reduce its prevalence.  An enlarged prostate is not automatically cancerous but educating yourself and understanding the symptoms will empower you to take charge of your health. If you have symptoms go see your physician – don’t wait.  Get regular prostate exams and a PSA blood test at the age of 40.   Generally, prostate cancer grows slowly and when caught early is very treatable and even curable.  Incorporating health-promoting lifestyle factors that include maintaining a healthy weight, regular exercise and including rich food sources of both zinc and lycopene, can help you avoid a potentially deadly disease unnecessarily. 


Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD is a registered dietitian and an adjunct professor at Allen Community College, Burlingame, Kansas and Butler County Community College, Council Grove, Kansas; she teaches Basic Nutrition and Therapeutic Nutrition.  She is also a certified health and wellness coach, and a clinical dietitian for the Cotton O’Neil Medical Clinic in Osage City, Kansas where she does individualized nutrition counseling.  She writes Eat Well to Be well, a column about health and nutrition forwww.osagecountyonline.com  and is a blog contributor for Dr. David B. Samadi at www.samadimd.com.  Contact her ateatwell2bewellrd@gmail.com, visit her website www.eatwell2bewellrd.com, or like “eat well 2 be well” on Facebook.