Soy Protein May Help to Lower Cholesterol

Soy Protein May Help to Lower Cholesterol

Soy and components of soy called "isoflavones" have been studied scientifically for numerous health conditions. Isoflavones (such as genistein) are believed to have estrogen-like effects in the body, and as a result are sometimes called "phytoestrogens."


Soy is a subtropical plant, native to southeastern Asia. This member of the pea family (Fabaceae) grows from one to five feet tall and forms clusters of three to five pods, each containing two to four beans per pod.

Soy products such as tofu are high in protein and are an acceptable source of dietary protein.

Numerous studies report that infants and young children (ages 2 to 36 months) with diarrhea who are fed soy formula experience fewer bowel movements per day and fewer days of diarrhea. This research suggests soy to have benefits over other types of formula, including cow milk-based solutions. The addition of soy fiber to soy formula may increase the effectiveness.

Numerous human studies report that adding soy protein to the diet can moderately decrease blood levels of total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein ("bad" cholesterol). Small reductions in triglycerides may also occur, while high-density lipoprotein ("good" cholesterol) does not seem to be significantly altered. The greatest effects seem to occur in people with elevated cholesterol levels, with benefits lasting as long as the diet is continued.

Soy protein may help improve your cholesterol levels, though any benefit is likely to be small, according to an analysis of several dozen studies.

Pooling data from 41 clinical trials conducted between 1982 and 2004, researchers found that people who were given isolated soy protein tended to see a decline in their "bad" LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, another type of blood fat.

In a majority of the studies, however, the benefit was not statistically significant, meaning the finding could have been due to chance.

Across the studies, soy protein lowered LDL cholesterol by about 4 points, on average, the researchers report in the American Journal of Cardiology.

The findings echo those of a recent research analysis by the American Heart Association. That study concluded that isolated soy protein lowers LDL cholesterol by only a few points, and that supplements containing isoflavones -- estrogen-like compounds found in soybeans -- are ineffective.

These latest findings are generally consistent with that report, according to lead study author Dr. Kristi Reynolds of the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans.

Still, she said, while the cholesterol benefits of soy may be small, they are not insignificant.

"Even if we see just a small decline (in cholesterol)," Reynolds told Reuters Health, "that actually could have an important effect on the prevalence of high cholesterol in the general population."

The key, according to Reynolds, is to eat soy products -- like tofu, tempeh or soy nuts -- in place of foods high in cholesterol-raising saturated fat or "trans" fats.

Saturated fat is found in animal products, so replacing a hamburger with a soy burger could be a heart-healthy move. Trans fats are found in a range of processed foods, including shortening, margarine, cookies, crackers and other snack foods.

Soybeans, on the other hand, contain heart-healthy unsaturated fat, as well as fiber and other nutrients that may help lower cholesterol, Reynolds and her colleagues point out.

There's no good evidence, however, that soy isoflavone supplements help lower cholesterol, Reynolds said. It's better to save the money you'd spend on pills and use it on some tofu hot dogs, according to the researcher.

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