Sure, consuming lots of unhealthful foods can result in listless workouts, a flabby belly and a shorter life span. But lurking behind those buckets of finger-lickin' goodness is a catastrophic consequence you may not have considered: Eating too much junk could be softening your sausage, and a lot sooner than you think. "Sexual function depends on the cardiovascular system, the heart and blood vessels, and the nervous system - the body's electrical wiring," says Shari Lieberman, Ph.D., a nutrition scientist and exercise physiologist in New York City. "Good food choices can keep these sexually crucial systems functioning at their best, but bad ones can poison them."
The occasional food splurge won't destroy your mojo overnight, but consuming too many of the worst nutritional offenders is likely to sap your function sooner or later, adds Leslie Bonci, M.P.H., R.D., director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a nutrition consultant for the Pittsburgh Steelers. "It's not that you have to avoid bad foods entirely. But eat them sparingly, and base your diet on the foods that are good for sex and for your body as a whole."
Here are the worst foods for your nether region, a rogue's gallery of comestibles that can let the air out of your balloon faster than she can say, "That's all right, baby. There's always next time."
1) Fatty meats: More bacon means less porkin'
Myth has it that gorging on red meat is manly, but fatty cuts of beef, bacon, sausage and full-fat luncheon meats can be wack for your wood. "Most men know that saturated fat and cholesterol narrow the arteries that nourish the heart and increase risk of heart attack," Lieberman says. "But they also narrow the arteries that carry blood into the penis, which contributes to erectile dysfunction [ED]." These arteries, by the way, are some of the smallest and will be the first to jam up with plaque.
Researchers at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine in Columbia examined the cholesterol levels and sex lives of 3,250 men over age 24. They found that as a guy's cholesterol went up, so did his likelihood of suffering from ED. Those with cholesterol counts above 240 were almost twice as likely to report erection problems as those with levels below 180.
And while high cholesterol is bad in the long run, a single fatty meal can impair your arterial function immediately - something you may regret when she surprises you in her latest Victoria's Secret purchase.
2) Dairy: Are you a man or a mouse?
Low-fat milk and cheese can be excellent protein sources, as long as you aren't allergic or sensitive to them. But think twice about opting for their higher-fat cousins. Most cheeses are high in saturated fat, and they can be as damaging to your arteries - both above and below the belt - as prime rib.
"Many men know that meats cause problems, but don't know that full-fat cheeses are just as bad," Lieberman says. "The worst mistake is to combine meat, milk and cheese - for example, a bacon cheeseburger with a shake. A meal like that is loaded with saturated fat and, over time, can reduce blood flow into the penis." Which could eventually leave it softer than warm brie. Merde!
3) Baked goods: The trans-formed man
When hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to change it from a liquid to a solid, the result is something called trans fat. The prime example is margarine, but you'll also find this kind of fat in a wide variety of crackers, cookies, chips and fried fast foods. And it's bad - real bad. "Trans fats are worse for the arteries than saturated fats," Bonci says.
The Food and Drug Administration is planning to require that trans fats be listed on food labels, but until then cut back on any products that contain "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" vegetable oil, or margarines that aren't labeled "trans fat-free." Think of hard margarines as leading to harder arteries - and a limp noodle.
4) White flour: Don't be a sponge-bread soft-pants
Trans fats aren't the only reason to cut back on packaged foods such as white bread, sweets and many refined-grain breakfast cereals. Processing removes most of the nutrients in these items, including ones that are important to your sex life. "For health, for fitness and for good sex, you want a well-nourished body, not one filled up on empty calories with few nutrients," Bonci says.
When whole wheat is processed into white flour, for example, it loses about three-quarters of its zinc, a mineral essential to men's sexuality and reproduction. "One of the highest concentrations of zinc in the body is found in the prostate gland, which produces most of the fluid in semen," Lieberman says. "There is some evidence that a diet high in zinc helps prevent midlife prostate enlargement and prostate cancer."
There's another reason to avoid too many refined grains, Lieberman says: They're associated with insulin resistance, a precursor of diabetes, which in turn can accelerate narrowing of the arteries, increasing your risks of heart disease and ED. Moreover, 60 percent to 70 percent of those with diabetes experience nervous-system disease as well.
5) Soy: Avoid too much of a good thing
Yes, eating soy foods is good for you. In fact, studies of some traditional cultures in which soy is a major protein source found that many men who consume it regularly keep indulging in the pleasure principle well into old age. The FDA allows label claims that soy foods help lower cholesterol, and other studies have found that they reduce the risk of prostate cancer.
Still, researchers haven't ruled out the possibility that too much soy can affect your manliness. That's because one of the ways it achieves its healthful effects is by mimicking the female sex hormone. "Soy foods have estrogenic qualities," Lieberman says. "And it's not really clear how this affects men."
While there's no evidence that a moderate soy intake will have a negative impact on your sex life, it's theoretically possible that a high intake could - say you were to drink several soy protein shakes, which are high in the estrogenic constituent called isoflavones, every day. "I'd say it's fine to have soy foods a few times a week," Bonci says. "Just don't go overboard with them."
Hear us now, thank us later
While a double cheeseburger with fries is more likely to be followed by a nap than a romp in the sheets, most foods that poison men's sexuality usually take decades to do their dirty work.
Of course, if you abuse many of these foods, then your problems can start showing up in mild forms earlier in life, as early even as the mid-30s. Often, erectile dysfunction starts at this stage; some docs believe it's an early indicator of arterial disease.
So what's a guy to do? "Start eating healthier now," Bonci suggests, "and commit to improving your diet in the future. Every time you eat some vegetables instead of a muffin drenched in trans fats, you're helping your arteries stay healthy - and that keeps your penis working properly as well."