VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System
VA-bc's of Healthy Living
Potent Flavor with Powerful Benefits: Garlic, Onions, and Men’s Health
Bothered by the bad breath left after a zesty dinner with garlic and onion? For your health’s sake, get over it. Despite their arguably unpleasant aroma, these vegetables’ nutritional benefits and unique taste make up for their smelly side effect.
Acting as staple ingredients in many cultural cuisines, garlic and onion tend to dominate the flavor of the dish they are put into. These vegetables belong to a nutritious group called allium vegetables, with other notable members being leeks, scallions, chives, and shallots.
Recently, attention have been given to allium vegetables' role in boosting prostate health, specifically, their potential to reduce the risk of inflammation, benign prostatic hyperplasia (enlarged prostate), and cancer. Complications of these conditions range from mild yet annoying, such as trouble with urination, all the way to deadly. According to the American Cancer Society, in 2015 it is estimated that 1 in 7 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during their lifetime.
The VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System (VAAAHS) cares for Veterans struggling with these conditions. Sharon Durkins, an LPN and the Administrative Assistance for the Urology Clinic in Ann Arbor, reports that in Fiscal Year 2014, out of the 329 prostate biopsies performed, 194 returned positive for cancer. Additionally, of the 6,432 appointments performed in the clinic 12 percent of the Veterans seen had the primary diagnosis of prostate cancer, making it the leading diagnosis in the clinic that year.
After being extensively studied, promising results have been found. A 2013 meta-analysis published in the Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention looked at the relationship between allium vegetable intake and risk of developing prostate cancer among men. In total, 9 research articles were reviewed, and the paper concluded that allium vegetable intake, specifically garlic, was indeed related to a decreased risk for prostate cancer. Although the meta-analysis pin-pointed the weaknesses in its own design (such as the accuracy of dietary recalls and the small number of studies reviewed) it still gives justification for ongoing research.
Interestingly enough, the science behind garlic and onion’s offensive stench is also thought to be a secret weapon for protecting prostate health. These vegetables contain organic compounds with sulfur attached. Yes, sulfur, the same thing that causes eggs to smell rotten. When garlic or onion is chopped, the compounds come alive and a smell is released. Currently, researchers are looking into how these compounds may help kill off prostate cancer cells that are trying to reproduce at a rapid pace. At this time, positive results have been seen in rats, but more research is needed to find how much of these compounds are needed to help humans.
Aside from prostate health, it is widely accepted that these stinky offenders have the ability to help reduce platelet aggregation in the body, and therefore reduce the risk of blood clotting and heart disease. As of 2009, heart disease was noted as being responsible for 1 in every 4 male deaths in the United States. Reason enough to include garlic and onions in your favorite recipes. As for how to do this, the best way is to crush or slice the vegetables first, then waiting 10 to 15 minutes before cooking. This allows time for the powerful, new compounds to form, and not be killed off right away in the heat of the cooking process.
Annette Hoffmeyer, Clinical Dietitian at VAAAHS, cares for Veterans undergoing treatments for various cancers, including prostate. She offers this advice to make a meal more nutrition packed, “Garlic and onions can really liven up the flavor of many dishes. Consider adding crushed garlic and onion to your homemade vinaigrette or marinade. They are also delicious when added to omelets, guacamole, your favorite pasta sauce, or sautéed with vegetables. The options are limitless. Get creative!”
The organic sulfur compounds do not stand alone when working to keep a body in tip-top shape. The exact mechanism that makes allium vegetables so powerful is likely multifactorial, and their high flavonoid and antioxidant content is surely a principle contributor. These compounds are dynamic cell preservers. In combination with a diet including a wide variety of colorful fresh fruits and vegetables, allium vegetables work to promote optimal health.
How much garlic and onion one needs to consume in order to reap the benefits is still being studied, but a degree of insight has been provided. A study conducted at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle found that eating a teaspoon of fresh garlic and a half cup of onions each day raised levels of key enzymes used for removing toxins in the blood cells of healthy women. Although the amount needed for men has not yet been directly studied, the authors believe there would also be benefit, but a higher daily dose is likely needed.
Next time you devour an allium vegetable-filled dish, don’t be agitated by the unpleasant aroma that lingers, but rather embrace it. It is a reminder that the vegetable are doing their job to enhance your health. If you’re interested in learning more about this topic or other health-related conditions influenced by diet, contact your local VA to meet with a dietitian.