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The Benefits, Risks, and Uncertainties of Soy for Lower Blood Cholesterol

Soy, a type of legume, can be found in many products. On the grocery store shelves, you will see soy milk, tofu, protein bars, veggie burgers, and many other options. If you are interested in adding soy to your diet and wondering if there health benefits, then read on to find out if soy is a good option for you.

Soy and Cholesterol Levels

Some studies have found that substituting soy protein for high-fat meats and other foods may slightly reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. Since high cholesterol puts you at an increased risk of developing heart disease, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows a "heart healthy" label on foods that contain 6.25 grams (g) of soy protein. But, researchers do not know the exact components of soy that may lead to these benefits. And some experts are debating if this label is deserved at all.

Soy Safety Issues

While soy is considered safe for most people, there may be some health concerns if you have certain conditions, such as:

  • Problems with absorbing certain nutrients—Soy could reduce how well your body absorbs zinc, iron, and calcium.
  • Impaired thyroid function—Soy may affect the thyroid gland, but research has produced conflicting results. In general, if you have problems with your thyroid gland, you may want to avoid eating large amounts of soy.
  • Lower testosterone levels—One study found that soy may decrease testosterone levels in men. This could potentially cause problems with infertility or erectile dysfunction.

If you are concerned about any of these safety issues, talk to your doctor before adding soy to your diet.

Ways to Get More Soy Into Your Diet

Here are some tips on substituting soy protein for meats and other protein sources in your diet:

  • Include it in other dishes:
    • Mash a cake of tofu and use it in place of ricotta cheese in your lasagna, soups, or stews.
    • Mix textured vegetable protein into hamburgers and seasoned meat dishes like tacos, chili, and casseroles.
    • Add cubes of fried, seasoned tofu to salads.
  • Try Asian cuisine—Japanese, Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese foods often contain flavorful soy options, including tofu, tempeh, and edamame (green soy beans). Edamame is eaten cold and salted. Tofu and tempeh can be stir-fried, steamed, or added to soups.
  • Use supplements and soy protein powders—Try mixing soy protein powders into smoothies or mashed potatoes.
  • Soy nuts, flavored with salt and spices, make a delicious snack.
  • Use soymilk in cereal.
Major Food Sources
Soy FoodServing sizeSoy content (grams)Isoflavones (milligrams)
Soybeans, cooked½ cup9-1140-50
Soy milk (regular)1 cup710
Soy milk (fortified)1 cup1043
Textured soy protein¼ cup1133
Isolated soy protein½ ounce1127
Tofu½ cup1025
Meat alternatives (soy crumbles)½ cup118.5


American Heart Association

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute


Dietitians of Canada

Health Canada


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Go Ask Alice: What are the benefits of soy? Columbia University website. Available at: Accessed May 10, 2016.

Hypercholesterolemia. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated April 29, 2016. Accessed May 10, 2016.

Harland JL, Carr TA. Does a practical daily intake of ~25 g soy protein significantly lower cholesterol?—A meta-analysis of recent studies. J of Nutr. 2004;134(5):1267S (Poster Abstract).

Mackey R, Ekangaki A, Eden JA. The effects of soy protein in women and men with elevated plasma lipids. Biofactors. 2000;12:251-257.

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Rosell MS, Appleby PN, Spencer EA, Key TJ. Soy intake and blood cholesterol concentrations: a cross-sectional study of 1033 pre- and postmenopausal women in the oxford arm of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition. American J of Clin Nutr. 2004;80(5):1391-1396.

Sacks FM, Lichtenstein A, Van Horn L, Harris W, Kris-Etherton P, Winston M; American Heart Association Nutrition Committee. Soy protein, isoflavones, and cardiovascular health: an American Heart Association Science Advisory for professionals from the Nutrition Committee. Circulation. 2006;113(7):1034-44.

Siegel-Itzkovich J. Health committee warns of potential dangers of soya. BMJ. 2005;331(7511):254.

Soy. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: Updated December 2015. Accessed May 10, 2016.

Last reviewed May 2016 by Michael Woods, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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