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Why A Functional Food Expert Says Soy Isn't So Bad — It May Even Offer Benefits

Abby Moore
Assistant Managing Editor By Abby Moore
Assistant Managing Editor
Abby Moore is an assistant managing editor at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine.
Spicy Curry Tofu With Rice And Garlic Chapati

Whether or not soy is a healthy food has been hotly debated. While tofu and tempeh are complete proteins, making them some of the most effective plant-based alternatives to meat, many people worry that soy can negatively affect hormones. Functional food expert and spice aficionado Kanchan Koya, Ph.D., says that may not be the case. 

"Tofu (and soy) may be one of the most misunderstood foods out there," Koya writes in an Instagram post. Let's back up: Why are people so concerned about soy in the first place? 

Soybeans contain a bioactive compound called isoflavones. "Isoflavones belong to a class of compounds generally known as phytoestrogens, plant compounds that have estrogen-like structures," states a review in the health journal Environmental Health Perspectives. Because of those estrogen-like structures, some people report having negative hormonal effects from eating soy.

That said, the research surrounding phytoestrogens and their role in the human body are pretty inconclusive. From Koya's perspective, there's nothing to be concerned about. "In actuality, the plant-based phytoestrogens in soy bind to our endogenous estrogen receptors differently than our own estrogen," Koya explains. In other words, the "estrogen-like" component may not interfere with human hormones at all.

On the other hand, there is some promising evidence that plant-based estrogen might be helpful for women going through menopause, who have low levels of estrogen, as a natural alternative to hormone replacement therapy (HRT). OB/GYN Maria Sophocles, M.D., FACOG, NCMP, tells mbg the estrogen-like compounds in soy may provide relief from hot flashes or vaginal dryness. However, the research is very limited, and more is necessary to draw a definite conclusion. 

Overall, soy in moderation likely won't hurt you, and it might even help. Beyond hormonal health, soy may be protective against cancer while also benefiting cardiovascular and bone health, Koya writes. When fermented, soy may even support longevity.

To maintain the health benefits, she recommends sticking with no more than one to two servings per day (and opting for organic, when possible).

One way to enjoy soy is with Koya's Muttar Tofu Masala recipe. If you're a visual learner, watch her video for a step-by-step approach.

Ingredients

  • Avocado oil 
  • 1 onion, chopped 
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced 
  • 3 tsp. cumin seeds
  • ½ tsp. ginger, minced 
  • ½ tsp. turmeric
  • 2 tsp. ground coriander 
  • ½ tsp. Garam Masala 
  • 1 tbsp. tomato paste 
  • 1 cup tomatoes, finely chopped (with juice) 
  • 1 cup firm tofu, chopped 
  • ½ cup peas (fresh or frozen) 
  • Salt and pepper to taste 
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Method 

  1. Sauté 1 tsp. cumin seeds in 1½ tablespoons of avocado oil (1 minute).
  2. Sauté 1 chopped onion, 3 to 4 minced garlic cloves, and ½ tsp. minced ginger (5 to 7 minutes).
  3. Add ½ tsp. turmeric, 2 tsp. ground cumin, 2 tsp. ground coriander, and ½ tsp. Garam Masala (1 minute).
  4. Add 1 tbsp. tomato paste (1 minute).
  5. Add 1 cup finely chopped tomatoes with their juice and stir everything together (1 minute).
  6. Add 1 cup chopped firm tofu, ½ cup peas, and cook, stirring well (2 minutes). 
  7. Stir in salt and pepper to taste.
  8. Cover the pot. Cook on low heat for 5 to 10 minutes, or until the veggies are softened.
  9. Finish with a sprinkling of ground cumin, coriander, and cayenne.

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