Soy: Very Good, but Not a Miracle Food

by Charles Platkin, PhD

What makes soybeans interesting is that they contain a complex mix of phytochemicals, including isoflavones. Some isoflavones are “phytoestrogens” or plant estrogens, and their possible effect is to mimic the effects of estrogen or act as an anti-estrogen (blocking the effects of estrogens in the body).

Each of soy’s professed benefits comes with its own set of debates, leaving researchers stumped and consumers confused:

HEART DISEASE: Soy supposedly reduces the “bad” cholesterol, increases the “good” cholesterol, and is said to provide a small reduction in blood pressure. Even the Food and Drug Administration approved the following dietary health claim for soy foods: “Diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol that include 25 grams of soy protein a day may reduce the risk of heart disease.”

Although some experts claim that the heart healthy benefits are a bit “exaggerated and unrealistic,” most researchers agree that there are advantages to eating soy protein to prevent and treat cardiovascular disease — they just don’t concur as to the degree or reason why. Some say it’s the isoflavones, others claim it’s the unique protein, and there are still others who say it’s because soy often replaces other unhealthy foods — or a combination of all of the above.

“The positive cardiovascular effects of soy are really a package which includes: using soy protein as a replacement for foods that are high in saturated fats and cholesterol; the modest reduction in blood pressure; the small reduction in LDL (bad cholesterol) and increase in HDL (good cholesterol). All this bundled with other positive dietary changes offers enough to make a difference,” says David J.A. Jenkins, M.D., Ph.D., D.Sc., a professor in the department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto.

Bottom Line: “Eating soy protein (not just soy-based products) in moderation and replacing foods that are high in saturated fats can only be positive,” says Dr. Jenkins.

BREAST CANCER: Although there have been a number of clinical trials, there’s no definitive answer as to the reduction of breast cancer risk associated with consuming soy. The basis for this claim stems from the fact that women in Asian countries who regularly consume a minimum of 11 grams of soy per day had a lower incidence of breast cancer. Note that much of the positive research shows that soy protein is particularly helpful if consumed during adolescence for the prevention of breast cancer.

Recent news about estrogen brings forth another issue for women and soy intake: If soy mimics estrogen, and estrogen is related to increased breast cancer risk — then couldn’t soy actually cause breast cancer instead of protecting against it? “This is a very valid concern, but it is specific to women who already have estrogen-receptor-positive breast cancer. The research is pretty clear that there is no effect [for the average person], and soy should not be removed from a person’s diet,” says soy researcher Mark Messina, Ph.D. Also, it should be noted that estrogen is about 1000 times as active as phytoestrogen, and is actually a different substance.

Bottom Line: “It is way too early to draw any conclusions as to whether soy decreases risk (or even increases risk) of breast cancer in women — with all the studies completed, there is still no conclusion,” says Christopher D. Gardner, Ph.D., a professor at Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention.

PROSTATE CANCER: The theory is that soy and isoflavone (specifically genistein and daidzein) consumption reduce the risk of prostate cancer. A recent study in China concluded that soy consumption reduced the risk of prostate cancer among men ages 50-89.

Bottom Line: Although there have been few human studies to date, “there seems to be a real indicator that there is a link to risk reduction,” says Dr. Gardner. It couldn’t hurt to add a little soy to your diet if you’re concerned about prostate cancer.

MENOPAUSAL SYMPTOMS: In theory, it makes sense — soy protein contains phytoestrogens, which mimic the action of estrogen in some tissues, so it should be able to reduce the problems associated with menopause (reduction of estrogen). Some of the research does show a slight reduction of symptoms in those women who have a high frequency of hot flashes (i.e., five or six per day).

Bottom Line: “Although a great deal of the clinical trials looking at hot flashes and night sweats have shown soy isoflavones fared no better than the placebo, if people believe that it works [placebo effect], then why not?” says Dr. Jenkins.

OSTEOPOROSIS: The theory is that isoflavones, the proteins, or some other components of soy stimulate bone growth, just like natural estrogen. An article in the September 2003 Journal of Clinical Nutrition reviewed all of the latest clinical studies on soy protein and osteoporosis, and concluded that there is evidence that soy protein assists in building stronger bones.

Bottom Line: It is too early to make any firm conclusions, but many researchers are excited about the positive results from early clinical studies.

Although the benefits of soy have been studied, reviewed, and debated among experts, there are still very few definitive conclusions that a consumer can rely on with certainty. However, given that the evidence does point to many positive, albeit unexplained, benefits — experts recommend integrating a total of 11 grams of soy protein (two eight-ounce glasses of soymilk, or one ounce of Dr. Soy nuts) specifically from food sources — not supplements — into your diet throughout each day.

“Soy is among the top in terms of food choices. You still need to have variety in your diet, but if you could only have one spoonful of food for your next meal, and if you hadn’t already had soy earlier in the day, you really couldn’t do much better in a single spoonful than soy,” says Dr. Gardner.

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