The Mediterranean diet can bring many benefits for the human body, including a healthier heart and a sharper brain.
But there's another benefit that might be of particular interest to men.
Following a Mediterranean diet can lower a man's future risk of erectile dysfunction, according to research presented online on Friday at the European Society of Cardiology's annual meeting.
Researchers found that the diet improves blood vessel health throughout the entire body -- including the penis.
Men following the Mediterranean diet had higher levels of testosterone, better erectile performance and more flexible arteries, results showed.
"It seems plausible that this dietary pattern may improve fitness and erectile performance by enhancing function of the blood vessels and limiting the fall in testosterone that occurs in midlife," researcher Dr. Athanasios Angelis, from the University of Athens in Greece, said in a meeting news release.
For the study, Angelis and his colleagues followed 250 men with high blood pressure and erectile dysfunction. Their average age was 56.
The men were quizzed about their diet, and their responses scored to indicate how well they stick to a Mediterranean diet.
The diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains and olive oils. You can eat dairy products, eggs, fish and poultry in low to moderate amounts, but should limit consumption of red meat.
Men who stuck more closely to a Mediterranean diet had a better ability to increase blood flow throughout the body when needed, and more testosterone. Those who were more physically fit did even better. However, research presented at medical meetings is considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
It makes sense that a diet known to improve heart health would also help with erections, said two U.S. experts not involved with the study.
"Erectile dysfunction and cardiovascular disease, they're all on the same spectrum," said Dr. Andrew Freeman, co-founder of the American College of Cardiology's Nutrition and Lifestyle Work Group, and a cardiologist at National Jewish Health in Denver. "A lot of the time, we call erectile dysfunction the canary in the coal mine. It often shows up first, before someone has a cardiovascular event."
The Mediterranean diet has been shown to improve the health of the cells that line the inner walls of blood vessels, said Freeman and Dr. Carlos Santos-Gallego, a cardiologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
"When the arteries are healthy, they are able to dilate, increase their diameter, and therefore bring more blood to tissue" throughout the body, Santos-Gallego explained.
"It's not a surprise that if it improves [blood vessel] function in general, it will also improve it in the vessels taking blood to the penis. It is absolutely expected," Santos-Gallego said.
The Mediterranean diet also improves the body's production of nitric oxide, a biochemical that helps blood vessels relax and dilate, Santos-Gallego added.
These new findings agree with earlier studies that also showed similar benefits in men from a Mediterranean diet, Santos-Gallego said.
However, Santos-Gallego warned that men currently struggling to maintain an erection won't see an immediate benefit in that area if they take up the diet.
"The Mediterranean diet is not going to be a treatment for erectile dysfunction," Santos-Gallego said. "It's not if a patient has erectile dysfunction, he will immediately start the Mediterranean diet and that will work like Viagra."
Rather, men following the diet will have a lower chance of erectile dysfunction in the future, he said.
Freeman also cautioned against Americanizing the traditional Mediterranean diet, if you want to see benefits.
"A traditional Mediterranean is predominantly a plant-based diet. It's loaded up with greens and lentils and maybe some olive oil, whereas in the United States when you think about Mediterranean everyone's thinking about feta and lamb," Freeman said. "If you're going out and having an incredibly rich, rich meal that's 'Mediterranean,' that may not be the traditional take on it."
Harvard Medical School has a practical guide to the Mediterranean diet.
SOURCES: Andrew Freeman, MD, cardiologist, National Jewish Health, Denver; Carlos Santos-Gallego, MD, cardiologist, Mount Sinai Hospital, New York City; European Society of Cardiology annual meeting, Aug. 27, 2021, presentation, online