5 Myth And Facts About The Low Testosterone

The rumor is out in popular media that a vegetarian diet might not be appropriate for strength and power athletes because plant-based diets reduce testosterone levels. Although these reports might scare strength athletes, I can assure you that they mean little to your performance and muscle-gaining abilities, and, in fact, may not be true at all.

  1. Testosterone may be lowered when switching to a drastically different diet. A handful of small-scale studies have found that the concentration of total testosterone in blood tends be lowered when people switch to either a vegetarian diet or a low-fat omnivorous diet. Unbound testosterone concentrations—the small fraction that is free to enter target cells—are not typically affected, however, unless the diet is extremely low in fat.  
  2. Why this drop in total concentration occurs is not well understood but may be related to the reduced fat and cholesterol content of the diet or to the sudden and substantial change in dietary habits. Interestingly, testosterone levels were also found to drop in black South African men who switched from their usual vegetarian diet to a Western diet.
  3.  Vegan and vegetarian men do not have lower testosterone levels. Larger-scale comparisons between long-term vegetarians and meat eaters have found that neither total-testosterone nor free-testosterone concentrations are different among vegans, vegetarians, or meat eaters. In fact, if anything, total testosterone has been noted by several investigators to be slightly elevated in long-term vegetarians compared to omnivores,and in vegans compared to both vegetarians and omnivores. Thus, it appears that if testosterone levels are lowered during the transition to a vegetarian or vegan diet, this drop is probably short lived.
  4.  What does it mean if testosterone levels drop? In the aforementioned studies,total testosterone was lowered when people switched to a different type of diet, butthis reduction was just a small dip and did not fall below the normal range of 300 to 1,200 nanograms per deciliter (ng/dl) for total testosterone. Free testosterone did not drop and remained within the normal range for free testosterone of 9 to 30 ng/dl.Because there is no relationship between muscle gain or strength and total testosterone that varies within the normal range, this small dip is meaningless for athletic performance but may be advantageous for cancer prevention. Certainly, if testosterone drops below the normal range, muscle and bone loss may ensue. On the other hand,elevating testosterone beyond the normal physiological range through anabolic steroid use promotes gains in muscle mass. Neither, however, is the issue here.
  5. What if I am concerned? If you are concerned about your testosterone level, have your personal or team physician measure total and free testosterone during your next physical. (You may have to pay out of pocket for this.) If it is on the lower range of normal, assess your intake of dietary fat and total energy and increase smart fat choices as needed. Most likely, however, the test will put you at ease.

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