Soy products used to confuse me.
As a nurse, I worked with breast cancer patients. At the time there was confusion about whether women with breast cancer, or at a high risk of getting breast cancer, could safely eat soy.
That’s because soy contains an abundance of isoflavones. Isoflavones are phytoestrogens or plant compounds that mimic estrogen and bind to estrogen receptors in our bodies.
Because most breast cancers are fueled by estrogen, women with breast cancer were told to avoid eating soy. I avoided it, too.
But that was years ago. More research has been done, and now nutrition experts believe soy not only doesn’t cause breast cancer, but may actually be protective. And women already diagnosed with breast cancer appear to live longer if they include soy in their diets.
I polled a few friends, however, and found the myths about soy persist, so I wanted to share what I learned about the health benefits of soy.
The other health benefits of soy
In addition to lowering risk of breast cancer and possibly prostate cancer, soy products have other health benefits.
Soy is cholesterol free and low fat. It’s packed with nutrients, but low in calories, so soy milk, tofu, edamame and other soy products are great diet foods.
Soy has a low glycemic index. That means the carbohydrates in soy are metabolized more slowly and don’t cause spikes in blood glucose or insulin levels.
Soy is a complete protein. Soy contains all the essential amino acids, which makes it a great source of protein. Especially for vegans and vegetarians. And plant proteins are easier on the kidneys than animal proteins.
Soy contains both soluble and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber may lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol in some people. Insoluble fiber is important for lowering the risk of constipation and colon cancer.
Soy contains significant per serving amounts of several important minerals and vitamins.
- folate (especially in edamame, which are immature soybeans)
- vitamin K (especially in edamame)
- vitamin C
Soy may ease menopause symptoms and prevent bone loss. Hot flashes and bone loss are caused by low estrogen levels. Soy’s phytoestrogens may help both these conditions, but the evidence is weak. And most studies use isoflavone supplements rather than soy foods.
Soy milk and yogurt are good substitutes for regular milk. Choose products that are fortified with calcium and vitamin D and don’t have added sugars.
Soy supplements may be too much
Trying to get more isoflavones via a supplement may do more harm than good. Some studies have linked high concentrations of isoflavones with breast cancer.
My takeaway from soy research is the same for many other foods: soy products like soy milk, tofu and edamame are great when added to your diet in combination with other highly nutritious foods, but don’t bother with expensive supplements.
I don’t take supplements. I prefer to get everything I need from the foods I eat, and I’ll definitely try to add more soy foods to my weekly diet plan.
Soy is low-fat, low-calorie, low-carb and highly nutritious. It’s also relatively inexpensive and easy to find in most supermarkets.
Bottom line: Enjoy soy but don’t spend money on soy supplements hoping to get the same health benefits.
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