Soy products are touted as wonder foods when it comes to coping with menopause symptoms and associated health risks. Evidence suggests that this “natural estrogen” may help women in their 50s and 60s face as their bodies begin to produce less of the hormone. But just as with prescription hormone therapy for menopausal women, it’s important to know the potential pitfalls.
Soy’s popularity in Asia has spread to the West over the years. Yet not everyone is aware of how versatile the humble soybean actually is.
In whole form, soybeans can be cooked just like any other dried bean. Use the canned type, or soak overnight and simmer for up to four hours. The cooked beans can be added to chili, stews and stir-fries. Or make a traditional beans and rice dish, which will give you complete nutrition in a one-pot meal.
Immature soybeans — known as edamame — are also versatile. These young, green beans can be prepared as a side dish, or cooled and enjoyed by the handful as a snack. Roasted soy “nuts” made from edamame are also popular. By them premade from the store, or bake them yourself, using your preferred spice blend.
Soy milk is readily available, either plain or flavored. (Choose plain if you’re watching your calories and carbohydrates.) Soy milk is made from dried, powdered soybeans. It’s naturally rich in B vitamins and protein, and some brands come fortified with calcium and Vitamin D.
Tofu is made with soy milk curds. Unlike dairy-based cottage cheese curds, however, tofu comes in smooth blocks. Tofu has been both celebrated and reviled for decades as a meat and dairy substitute. The trick, fans say, is to choose the right tofu for the right dish — and to season it accordingly. Use softer, “silken” types to scramble like eggs. (Many people prefer to add yellow or orange spices, like cumin and turmeric, to both season and color the “eggs.”) Firm or extra-firm tofu is better for meat-like dishes. These types can be cubed or sliced, then seasoned. Tofu is versatile enough to breaded and bake, grill, or add to stir-fries.
Other high-protein, soy-based meat substitutes include tempeh and TVP. Tempeh is made from whole soybeans that are fermented. Some types have been mixed with grains before the fermentation process. Tempeh can be sliced and cubed and cooked in a variety of ways — much like chicken breast. TVP (texturized vegetable protein) resembles ground beef rather than chicken breast. It comes from soy flour and soy concentrates, and needs to be reconstituted in water before use. There are other types of soy-based meat substitutes on the market, often labeled as “not dogs,” “fakin’ bacon,” and so forth. These are made from different forms of soy, depending on the manufacturer and the desired texture and form.
Flavorings made from fermented soy also abound. Soy sauce is one of the more well-known types. Another popular soy condiment, miso, is a paste which can be mixed with liquid to make soups and sauces. Both of these ingredients are flavorful but pack a giant sodium punch, and not much nutrition.
Your own personal health profile, as well as the type of soy you ingest, influences whether soy is likely to be beneficial for you. Soy’s estrogen-like qualities aren’t unmixed blessings. Excess estrogen can be as dangerous as too little. In addition, not all soy products are processed organically.
Soy supplements and soy additives are the types most likely to be problematic when it comes to a possible link between soy and breast cancer risks. The issue concerns the isoflavones in certain soy products. These are “phytoestrogens” because they have a chemical composition that is similar to the human hormone estrogen.
Theoretically, soy isoflavones pose a risk for breast cancer in the same way that estrogen creams may. Breast cells have receptors which can be activated if they receive the right “signals.” Excess estrogen or plant-based estrogen-like compounds can send the kind of signals that trigger the production of tumors.
Some soy products are processed using hexane, a solvent that can be a neurotoxin if used at high enough levels. Hexane is used to extract Nutritious oil from soybeans. Concern was first raised about the issue when Chinese workers using hexane in factories were poisoned, and suffered permanent nerve damage.
It’s still unclear whether the trace amounts of hexane that may remain after processing are significant. Not all soy foods are produced with hexane. The ones most likely to are protein bars, nutritional powders, and “TVP” (texturized vegetable protein), a meat substitute resembling ground beef when reconstituted.
For women who are trying to avoid animal products, soy offers several advantages. These include protein and valuable nutrients — without the cholesterol and saturated fat found in some meat and dairy foods.
Soy is also packed with fiber. That’s important for women over 50 facing heart issues. In fact, between the ability to replace at least some animal proteins with no-fat soy, along with its fiber content, soy can be one of the more important tools in the menopausal “arsenal.” (And don’ forget what fiber can do to address those constipation blues that come with age!)
Another big issue for women over 50? Bone density. Soy milk, tofu, and other products can supply up to 30 percent of your calcium needs with each serving. In addition, there’s evidence that soy isoflavones also work to to improve bone density.
Finally, there are potential benefits for women suffering from hot flashes. Studies of menopausal women taking supplements containing soy isoflavones found that doing so seemed to make hot flashes more tolerable. Currently, the official take is that soy-based supplements for menopause may be a useful alternative for women who wish to avoid hormone treatment.
The American Cancer Society stresses that more research would need to be done to determine if soy isoflavones have the same detrimental effect on humans that they do on lab rodents in certain studies. But the preliminary research indicates that the type of soy food matters when it comes to health risks for older women, as well as for the general population.
If you have reason to think you’re at higher risk for breast cancer, avoid soy isoflavones used in supplement pills and nutrition bars. Stick to soy foods that offer the protein, calcium, fiber and other nutrients that make soy so nutritious. These include tofu, soy milk, and roasted soy nuts.
As with other foods, moderation is often the best approach. Even if you practice a vegan lifestyle, there are protein alternatives to meat and dairy other than soy. Nut milk, oat milk, and plant-based cheeses and meats can now be found in even conventional supermarkets. Other high-protein options to add to meals for complete nutrition include beans, nuts, seeds and grains like quinoa. Feeling exotic? Tried the powdered seaweed known as spirulina. Not only is it high in plant-based protein, but it turns smoothies an intriguing shade of blue.
Still not sure? It may be a cliche, but as with most “wonder cures” that seem to come with both good and bad press, asking your gynecologist or dietician is usually the best idea. Soy supplements in particular may be helpful if you have hot flashes and other symptoms. But if there’s a history of breast cancer in your family, your medical team may advise you to try other natural remedies.