Soy foods: Good or bad for you?

Soy foods: Good or bad for you?

Soy and soy-derived foods are all the buzz in many nutrition discussions. People can't seem to agree if they're good or bad for you, or if they lower or increase the risk of certain illnesses. It's like a never-ending debate that leaves us scratching our heads!

If you're curious but cautious about eating soy, you've landed in the right place. In this article, we'll explore the world of soy and its known and potential benefits and risks. You’ll also find some tasty tips on how to consume soy foods in healthy and delicious ways.


Are soybeans really nutritious?

Yes! Soy and soy-derived foods are packed with high-quality protein, fibre, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, iron, and other vitamins, minerals, and compounds. 

What is “high-quality protein,” you ask? It means that soy contains complete protein or well-balanced essential amino acids (all nine of them!), giving soy a high digestible value. This is partly why soy is very popular among vegans, vegetarians, and anyone looking for plant-based protein sources.


Are all soy foods equally healthy?

As nutritious as soy can be, not all soy foods are equal. Just like other food groups, less processed is generally better when it comes to soy. In fact, most studies that found health benefits from soy focused on whole soy foods.

However, that’s not to say that you should avoid processed soy foods altogether – they have benefits, too!

Soy products that go through minimal processing – like tofu, edamame, and even soy milk – can be a great addition to your diet. The same goes for fermented soy products like miso, tempeh, natto, and soy sauce.


Other processed products like soy-based meats, pasta, bread, cheeses, protein powder, yogurt, and ice cream – sometimes called the second generation of soy foods – can have their place in your diet too. For example, soy-based meats make a great option for people who need to reduce or stop animal meat consumption for health reasons.

Just make sure to check labels before you purchase or consume any processed product, especially if you’re medically advised to lower your sodium intake. High sodium content is the usual disadvantage of processed foods. 

 Related: What is plant-based meat?

 

Textured soy protein in clear jars

Are processed soy foods any good?

Yes. Processed soy foods can be healthy soy foods too. In fact, processes like soaking, fermentation, and cooking help reduce soy’s phytate content – a substance also known as an “antinutrient” because it blocks the absorption of certain nutrients.

Plus, if you’re not a fan of whole soy foods, some processed options offer a way to enjoy the health benefits of soy in tastier ways.

 

Health benefits of soy

1. Lowers risk of coronary heart disease

Soy has been proven to reduce bad cholesterol levels, which in turn reduces the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) and other cardiovascular diseases. The US Food and Drug Administration approved in 1999 the use of food labels that indicate soy’s CHD risk-lowering benefit, and plenty of other countries have followed suit – including Canada (Source: canada.ca).

Now, it’s important to understand that a person’s cholesterol levels don’t always respond to dietary changes (or at least not immediately, for some people). Plus, factors like body weight and the type of soy consumed influence what the food does to your body. So, it’s no surprise that while there’s strong evidence of soy’s ability to decrease cholesterol, there are still studies that showed little to no results.

 

2. Lowers risk of breast cancer and prostate cancer

Ever wondered why breast and prostate cancers aren’t as common in Asian countries? Well, some scientists believe it’s partly because of their regular soy consumption.

Soy contains isoflavones – compounds also known as plant estrogen that can provide protection against hormone-dependent cancers. Another fun fact: soy is considered safe for most cancer patients.

 

3. Supports bone health

Soybeans are naturally rich in calcium – about 200mg per cup! But, there’s another way that soy supports bone health, particularly among post-menopausal women, and it has nothing to do with soy’s calcium content but everything to do with isoflavones.

Post-menopausal women go through estrogen decline, affecting their bone mass and elevating the risk of fractures and osteoporosis. Some women go through estrogen therapy to address this, but the isoflavones in soy can help!

 

4. Helps reduce hot flashes

This is another benefit of soy isoflavones. Studies prove that soy as well as isoflavone supplements can significantly reduce hot flashes in terms of severity and frequency.

 

5. Has anti-inflammatory properties

Anti-inflammatory foods are a wonderful gift of nature, and you’d be happy to know that soy is one of them! One study found that soy consumption reduces certain markers of inflammation, while another study suggests beneficial effects on a person’s gut.

Of course, different soy foods have varying levels of anti-inflammatory properties. And if you’re excited to enjoy such benefits, most studies point to whole soy foods as well as fermented soy foods.

 Soy foods offer plenty of benefits, especially if consumed with a well-balanced diet while maintaining healthy amounts of sleep and exercise.

 

Soybeans and cooked tofu on a dining table

 

How often should you eat soy?

Soy can be safely consumed several times a week or even every day. If you’re after lowering your cholesterol levels through soy consumption, the US FDA suggests 25 grams of soy protein daily. Below is a guide to help you get your daily 25 grams.

 

Soy protein content chart by UCSF Health 

Soy food

Protein content

1/2 cup canned white soybeans

13 grams

1/2 cup canned black soybeans

11 grams

2/3 cup green (sweet) soybeans

7 - 9 grams

1/2 cup rehydrated textured vegetable protein (TVP)

12 grams

3 ounces of water-packed tofu

6 to 13 grams

3 ounces of silken tofu

6 grams

8 ounces of plain soy milk

3 - 10 grams

8 ounces vanilla soy milk 

3 - 6 grams

1/4 cup (1 ounce) soy nuts

12 grams

2 tablespoons soy nut butter

6 - 8 grams 

1 soy burger

1- grams

1/2 cup (4 ounces) tempeh 

16 - 22 grams

 

Soy consumption precautions

Now before you go binge-eating soy foods, a few precautions:

1. Make sure you don’t have soy allergies.

No need to worry about this if eating soy never caused you problems in the past. However, if you’re unsure, then it’s best to talk to a doctor. Common soy allergy symptoms include stomach upset, runny nose, and rashes.

 

2. Constipation, diarrhea, gas, and bloating are common side effects.

If you repeatedly experience constipation after eating soy, it might be a sign of food allergy and you should consult a doctor. However, in most cases, your stomach is probably just having a hard time digesting soy. Non-fermented soy foods are generally tough to digest compared with fermented soy.

 

3. Isoflavone supplements should only be taken with medical advice.

While some isoflavone supplements can be purchased easily and without a prescription, it’s best to err on the side of caution. Think about why these supplements got your attention and whether or not your normal diet is enough to address your concerns. If you’re eager, talk to a doctor and ask for safe and healthy options.

 

4. Most soy meats make require careful preparation just like animal meat.

Most soy-based meats require hydration and cooking, and you should always follow their label to ensure food safety (and the best flavours). Some soy meat options can be eaten as they are, as long as they were stored properly.

 

Tasty tips for consuming more soy

  1. Serve boiled soybeans or steamed edamame as a side dish
  2. Try tofu recipes (stir-fry with vegetables, teriyaki tofu, curried tofu, tofu biryani, etc.)
  3. Add baked tempeh to rice bowls and salad bowls
  4. Add miso paste to ramen
  5. Use soy milk in pancakes and French toast
  6. Bake with soy flour
  7. Use soy nut butter
  8. Add roasted soybeans to salads
  9. Add soy nuts to cereals
  10. Blend smoothies with soy milk
  11. Use soy milk on your latte
  12. Make tacos with veggie strips and soy-based meat strips
  13. Cook pasta dishes with soy-based sausage
  14. Swap meatballs with soy-based chunks
  15. Add miso soup when ordering food from Asian restaurants

 

Enjoy your soy-licious meals!

As you can see, there are many ways to enjoy soy and its health benefits. Try different recipes, or start by adding soy foods like tofu, tempeh, and soy meat, to your favourite dishes. There’s really no end to how soy foods can make your daily meals yummier and healthier!

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