Reap the health benefits of soy

From edamame to tofu to beverages to yogurts, soy is seemingly everywhere. Soy began its meteoric rise to dietary fame as an alternative to dairy and meat products and has been made more popular by Asian cuisine.

Many tout the health benefits of soy, while others suggest it may not be so great. However, soybean fans can breath a sigh of relief as they gain a greater knowledge of this versatile legume.

Soybeans are the seeds of the soybean plant used in a variety of foods, especially when replacing animal protein. They are a cultivated plant of the pea family that produces edible seeds. Native to East Asia, soybeans have been an important part of Asian cooking for thousands of years. But soy was only introduced to the Western world in the 20th century.

The Soyfoods Association of North America says that, between 1992 and 2006, soy food sales increased from $300 million to nearly $4 billion and became synonymous with healthy eating. Soybeans are a source of high quality protein. Three-quarters of a cup of cooked soybeans contains as much protein as 12 cup cooked meat, chicken or fish. Like meats, soybeans contain ample amounts amino acids, but without the side effects of saturated fats, according to Dietitians of Canada. But soy isn?t fat-free, as it contains more fat than other legumes. But the fat from soy comes mainly in the form of beneficial monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, including omega-3 fatty acids.

Soybeans contain isoflavones, which have estrogen-like effects in the body and can help maintain bone health and protect against heart disease.

The North American Menopause Society has studied soy for its benefits to women at midlife. The report published in the journal Menopause found soy can relieve certain menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes. While it does not work as well as hormone therapy, it scored moderately well. The data also revealed that soy appears to help women under the age of 65 with cognitive function.

One area of concern involves high levels of soy and its relationship to cancer. Researchers at Oregon State University?s Linus Pauling Institute said consuming high amounts of soy isoflavones may stimulate the growth of tumors in breast cancers that are estrogen-sensitive or for women with a history of this type of cancer. Therefore, moderation is essential, especially for those with a history of cancer sensitive to hormones.

When consuming soy, whole beans are best because they are the least processed. The Women?s Health Network also advises to choose non-GMO, organic soy whenever possible. That?s because there is no consistent data on the possible health detriments of consuming genetically modified foods. Also, organic products are grown without pesticides, which may bioaccumulate in body tissue and cause problems over time.

Soy can be a healthy addition to one?s diet but should not be viewed as a cure-all. In moderation, soy can be a viable substitute for some animal proteins. Discuss the potential benefits or risks of soy with a doctor before consuming soy or soy supplements.