Soy-rich foods like tofu may help lower heart disease risk

By American Heart Association News

naito8/iStock, Getty Images
(naito8/iStock, Getty Images)

Eating tofu and other plant-based proteins may have more health benefits than people realize, according to new research.

Foods like tofu that are rich in isoflavones – an estrogen-like substance made by soy plants – could lower risk of heart disease, particularly in younger and postmenopausal women.

"Other human trials and animal studies of isoflavones, tofu and cardiovascular risk markers also have indicated positive effects, so people with an elevated risk of developing heart disease should evaluate their diets," said lead study author Dr. Qi Sun in a news release. Sun is a researcher at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.

"If their diet is packed with unhealthy foods, such as red meat, sugary beverages and refined carbohydrates, they should switch to healthier alternatives. Tofu and other isoflavone-rich, plant-based foods are excellent protein sources and alternatives to animal proteins."

The study, published Monday in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, examined data from 200,000 people and found eating at least one serving of tofu a week was linked to an 18% lower risk of heart disease compared to those who rarely ate tofu. Those who benefited the most were young women before menopause or postmenopausal women who were not taking hormones.

Sources of isoflavones, aside from tofu, include edamame, chickpeas, fava beans, pistachios and peanuts. Soymilk, a more processed form of soy often sweetened with sugar, was not significantly associated with lower heart disease risk in the new study.

Cultures that consume high levels of isoflavone-rich foods, such as in China and Japan, have lower heart disease risk compared to other cultures with fewer vegetables and more meat in their diets, but Sun said that association needs more research.

And research on the health benefits has been split. In 2000, the Food and Drug Administration backed claims that soy protects against heart disease, but since then studies have been inconclusive. The AHA's 2006 diet and lifestyle recommendations and a science advisory that year on soy protein, isoflavones and cardiovascular health found minimal evidence that isoflavones have any cardiovascular benefits.

Sun said eating more tofu isn't a "magic bullet" to staving off heart disease. He noted the results should be interpreted with caution because other factors – exercise, family history and lifestyle habits – can influence heart health.

"Overall diet quality is still critical to consider, and tofu can be a very healthy component."

If you have questions or comments about this story, please email [email protected].

American Heart Association News Stories

American Heart Association News covers heart disease, stroke and related health issues. Not all views expressed in American Heart Association News stories reflect the official position of the American Heart Association. Statements, conclusions, accuracy and reliability of studies published in American Heart Association scientific journals or presented at American Heart Association scientific meetings are solely those of the study authors and do not necessarily reflect the American Heart Association’s official guidance, policies or positions.

Copyright is owned or held by the American Heart Association, Inc., and all rights are reserved. Permission is granted, at no cost and without need for further request, for individuals, media outlets, and non-commercial education and awareness efforts to link to, quote, excerpt from or reprint these stories in any medium as long as no text is altered and proper attribution is made to American Heart Association News.

Other uses, including educational products or services sold for profit, must comply with the American Heart Association’s Copyright Permission Guidelines. See full terms of use. These stories may not be used to promote or endorse a commercial product or service.

HEALTH CARE DISCLAIMER: This site and its services do not constitute the practice of medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always talk to your health care provider for diagnosis and treatment, including your specific medical needs. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem or condition, please contact a qualified health care professional immediately. If you are in the United States and experiencing a medical emergency, call 911 or call for emergency medical help immediately.