Soy Foods: How Food Affects Health

Whole soy foods offer many nutritional benefits — they’re high in protein, low in saturated fat, and cholesterol-free. Plus they contain an abundance of vitamins and minerals!

To ensure you’re getting the maximal health benefits from your soy foods, I recommend consuming primarily whole soy foods like edamame (green soybeans), tofu, tempeh, soy milk, soy nuts, and products made with soy milk or flour (like some soy cheeses and soy crisps). Processed soy ingredients (such as isolated soy protein) — found in bars, snack foods, and many other packaged foods — leave out many of whole soy’s nutritional components, including vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which means you may be missing out on some of soy’s advantages.

Because whole soy foods are great sources of lean protein, they can help you maintain a healthy weight and increase your lean muscle mass. Unlike most vegetarian proteins, soy is a complete protein, meaning it provides the right ratios of amino acids for optimal use by our bodies. And, since soy is plant-based, it’s naturally low in saturated fat and is cholesterol-free. Some research suggests that eating soy foods may help lower cholesterol levels, improve overall heart health, and help keep your blood sugars in check, which is especially beneficial for individuals with type 2 diabetes.

There is also some evidence that the plant estrogens found in soy foods (called isoflavones) may help increase bone density in women after menopause, which could help prevent osteoporosis. But the jury’s still out and more research is needed before a conclusion can be drawn.

Folate and vitamins B6 and B12 in soy foods may help reduce your risk of cardiovascular diseaseand slow age-related memory decline. These vitamins also nourish your scalp, hair follicles, and growing hair. Folate, in particular, contributes to the production of serotonin, so it may help ward off depression as well as improve your mood. Vitamin B6 also helps create dopamine, a mood neurotransmitter that may reduce PMS symptoms.

Soy foods often contain minerals like calcium, magnesium, and potassium, all of which work together to lower blood pressure. Calcium also helps maintain strong bonesand teeth and may help fight PMS symptoms, and magnesium appears to help the body metabolize carbohydrates, thereby aiding in blood-sugar regulation in individuals diagnosed with or at risk for type 2 diabetes. Magnesium may also help prevent migraine headaches.

Some soy foods like edamame (whole green soybeans) contain high amounts of a specific type of omega-3 fat called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which helps reduce inflammation and may reduce risk of cardiovascular disease.

Some people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are especially sensitive to soy foods and experience discomfort after eating them. If you suffer from IBS and find they’re problematic, it makes good sense to limit them in your diet.

Although the nutrients in soy foods can make them good food cures for certain health conditions, optimal dietary amounts of soy protein haven’t yet been determined. I suggest incorporating high quality, whole soy foods into your diet a few times each week. If you have a history of breast cancer, it’s always wise to first speak with your personal physician about incorporating soy foods into your diet, although many health organizations and researchers have concluded that moderate amounts of whole soy foods are perfectly safe. In fact, a growing body of research suggests that eating a diet rich in soy foods during adolescence may help reduce the risk of breast cancer later in life.