The Science Behind the Effects of Food on Testosterone Levels
Men’s wellness magazines and other platforms are riddled with “how-to” articles about how you can boost your testosterone (T) levels by eating, drinking, or exercising in a specific manner. Headlines are commonly touting which foods, supplements, or exercise routines are the most testosterone-boosting. There is an assumption that a magic bullet just discovered has the answer. However, this is the wrong way of looking at it.
When it comes to testosterone levels, food is indeed important. However, overall dietary changes are much more effective than eating specific foods. Eating various healthy foods as part of a healthy lifestyle helps prevent obesity and nutritional deficiencies that can reduce testosterone and increase your chances of hypogonadism.
What is Testosterone, and Why is it Important?
Testosterone is an anabolic sex hormone produced primarily in the testes and regulated by the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. Testosterone is responsible for:
- Skeletal development.
- Increased red blood cells.
- Enhanced metabolism.
- Facial, pubic, and body hair growth.
- Libido enhancement.
- Improving sexual function.
- Development of sex organs.
- Increasing muscle mass and strength.
- Protein anabolism.
Healthy circulating T levels in men range from 270–1070 ng/dL, peaking around age 20. Testosterone fluctuations within this range are unlikely to impact vitality or sex drive.
In most men, testosterone levels decline about 1% annually, starting around age 40. There is a natural decline in T because:
- The testicles begin producing less T with age.
- Reduced T levels stimulate the hypothalamus to produce less gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH).
- Decreased GnRH causes the pituitary gland to produce less luteinizing hormone (LH).
- Decreased LH decreases T production.
While the natural decline in T with age does not cause symptoms for most men, significant decreases may cause:
- Reduced libido.
- Erectile dysfunction and decreased spontaneous erections.
- Lowered sperm count and semen volume.
- Difficulty sleeping.
- Unexplained weight gain.
- Decreased muscle and bone density.
The clinical diagnosis of T deficiency is made via a serum testosterone blood test result of < 300 ng/dL and symptoms resulting from the deficiency. Testosterone Replacement Therapy (TRT) is the only effective treatment for symptomatic testosterone deficiency.
Can You Boost Testosterone by Eating Specific Foods?
There is insufficient evidence and a lack of quality research to support specific foods' ability to increase T levels directly. However, preliminary studies and studies done on animals suggest that certain foods may affect T levels. More extensive human clinical trials are needed.
Testosterone is self-limiting. When there is enough testosterone in the blood, the brain stops directing cells in the testes to produce more testosterone. If blood testosterone becomes low, the hypothalamus and pituitary gland in the brain stimulate the testes to make more.
This testosterone production and regulation system is called the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis.
Certain nutrients, such as magnesium and zinc, are necessary for the HPG axis to function correctly. For example, magnesium-rich leafy green vegetables provide magnesium to support the HPG axis. Similarly, omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish seem to make cells in the testes more sensitive to brain stimulation. Hence, specific foods don’t directly increase testosterone but provide nutrients that support its production and regulation.
Adequate levels of specific nutrients are required for the HPG axis to function correctly. In addition to magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids, Deficiencies in nutrients like zinc, vitamin D, and polyphenols can decrease T levels by hindering the HPG axis.
If you are malnourished and clinically deficient in these nutrients, replenishing them should effectively raise testosterone levels. However, men of a healthy weight without comorbidities are unlikely to have such a deficiency.
How Diet Affects Testosterone Levels
Diet studies are challenging to interpret because changing one dietary component, such as fat intake, alters other components, such as carbohydrates, protein, and micronutrients. If a diet prompts a hormonal change, it is difficult to determine which dietary component led to the change or if the difference was due to other factors, such as improved sleep or decreased stress. Furthermore, studies on specific foods and diets have generally been small, and their findings are inconclusive.
When a patient commits to a disciplined diet, it may carry over to other factors influencing testosterone levels. For example, according to Dr. Faysal Yafi, chief of the division of Men's Health and Reconstructive Urology at the University of California, Irvine, patients who opt to follow specific diets tend to start drinking less alcohol and begin to exercise more often. He believes the links between diet and T may result from a healthier lifestyle instead of food consumption factors.
While more studies are needed, the following appear to have merit and deserve mentioning:
Low-Fat Diet and Mediterranean Diet
An extensive study of 3,128 men examined the relationship between T levels and a low-fat diet, a Mediterranean diet, and a low-carbohydrate diet. After controlling for such variables as age, body mass index, activity level, diabetes, and prostate cancer, results suggest that mean T is lower in men who consume a low-fat diet and a Mediterranean diet. Hence, avoiding fat-restrictive diets should be weighed against the potential benefits on an individual patient basis.
Intermittent fasting has become a popular weight-loss method but adversely affects T levels. A recent comprehensive literature review suggests intermittent fasting decreases T levels in active, lean, younger men. The associated T reductions did not negatively affect muscle mass and muscular strength.
A 2021 study found that men who ate a more pro-inflammatory diet (higher refined carbohydrates and saturated fats) had a higher risk of T deficiency than men who ate less inflammatory foods. Also, eating a pro-inflammatory diet is associated with an increased risk of obesity, which is linked to lower T levels.
The Ketogenic diet involves eating lots of fats, some proteins, and a small amount of carbohydrates. The ketogenic diet may help increase T due to its effect on obesity and weight loss, according to some research.
Plant-based and vegan diets appear to have little effect on T levels but offer other health benefits, like reduced risk of heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.
Testosterone Levels and Obesity
Low serum T and obesity are correlated and strongly influenced by diet-related factors; alteration of dietary factors creates a substantial risk of hypogonadism. While specific foods may not affect T noticeably, multiple studies suggest decreased weight increases T levels. Further studies are needed to confirm whether an improvement in a dietary pattern can directly improve T levels and reduce hypogonadism or if improved T levels are due to decreased body fat. So far, the answer appears to be that the relationship is bidirectional.
Research indicates a complex relationship between T levels and obesity. Men who prefer Western-style food (bread and pastries, dairy products, and desserts) and eat fewer homemade foods, noodles, and dark green vegetables are more likely to have more body fat, lower serum testosterone levels, and develop hypogonadism. It is clear that increased body fat results in decreased testosterone. It is less clear if food choices directly impact testosterone levels meaningfully.
Testosterone Levels and Alcohol
Light to moderate alcohol consumption will not significantly affect your T levels. However, heavy alcohol consumption decreases T production and can lower T levels. Research suggests, however, that a man of average weight would need to drink 5–6 beers daily containing 4.5–6% alcohol to cause a direct decrease in serum T levels.
Testosterone Levels and Soybeans
Soybeans are often classified as T disrupters based on animal studies. A recent review (417 reports) analyzed the relationship between soy and endocrine endpoints and found no adverse effects on T levels in men.
Foods That May Improve Testosterone Levels
A study looked at the effects of diet on T levels in healthy men. Results showed that T levels decreased when men decreased their healthy fat intake. Healthy fats that may boost T include coconut oil, fermented dairy products, quality fish oil, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, avocado, olive oil, and almonds.
Eating quality protein from grass-fed beef, wild salmon, organic chicken, bone broth, whey protein, eggs, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds is essential for maintaining healthy T levels. Studies indicate that protein restriction negatively affects T production.
Consuming complex carbohydrates is vital for optimizing T levels, especially for athletes who engage in weightlifting. The best carbohydrate sources include oats, quinoa, barley, brown rice, chickpeas, other beans, legumes, and sweet potatoes.
Studies suggest a link between ginger and increased T levels by enhancing LH production, normalizing glucose, and reducing oxidative stress.
A study suggests that ashwagandha intake over eight weeks increased T by 14.7% compared to placebo.
Research suggests that zinc plays an important role in serum T modulation. Zinc-rich foods include lamb, grass-fed beef, chickpeas, yogurt, pumpkin seeds, eggs, mushrooms, and cashews.
Studies indicate that magnesium is associated with increased T levels in male athletes. Foods rich in magnesium include wheat bran, dark chocolate, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, cooked spinach, banana, amaranth, and almond butter.
For otherwise healthy men with healthy lifestyles, altering specific foods or the composition of their diet is unlikely to make much difference in their T levels.
Dr. Fantus of NorthShore University says, "I don't think there is a way to game the system to get large [testosterone] increases by changing the diet."
Studies suggest overall diet and other lifestyle factors impact T levels, but certain foods won't boost T. Eating "testosterone-boosting foods" may lead to a healthier and more varied diet, but it probably won't increase your T levels or improve conditions related to low T.
The best way to increase T naturally is to eat a balanced diet focused on fresh foods, avoid overeating, avoid obesity, decrease stress, exercise regularly, and get plenty of sleep each night. Eating a healthy diet has many benefits, but there does not appear to be a way to obtain significant increases in T by altering the diet.