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Soy Foods

Are soy foods part of a heart healthy diet?

What are soy foods?

  • Soy foods are made from soybeans. The soybean is a legume, named so because it grows in pods containing seeds (or “beans” as we call them).
  • Soybeans are an excellent source of high quality protein, which most other legumes lack, making the soybean and its food products a superior protein source for people following a strict vegetarian diet.
  • This kind of protein is next only to the protein we get from animal foods, many of which contain high levels of saturated fat and dietary cholesterol.

Position of the American Heart Association

Earlier this year, the American Heart Association revised its position on the role of soy protein and isoflavones on cardiovascular health. In contrast to the organization’s 2000 report that encouraged adding soy protein to a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, the 2006 report highlights newer research findings that indicate neither soy protein nor soy isoflavones have strong cholesterol lowering abilities.

The report analyzed studies that compared the cholesterol-lowering effects of soy protein to milk protein, wheat protein and other animal proteins. The average LDL or “bad” cholesterol-lowering benefit of soy was found to be approximately 3 percent, which was much lower than expected (previous research indicated an 8 percent reduction). Although soy protein appears to have a small impact on LDL cholesterol (a primary risk factor for the development of cardiovascular disease), it still has a number of cardiovascular health benefits. The American Heart Association advocates that eating foods containing soy protein to replace foods high in animal fats may prove beneficial to heart health.

  • Eating soy is a great way to increase your plant protein. Research indicates that including more plant protein in your diet, as opposed to more carbohydrate, has clear cardiovascular benefits, such as lowering blood pressure.
  • Soy foods are naturally cholesterol-free and low in saturated fat. Animal protein foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol increase your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
  • Substituting them with soy a few times each week can help cut saturated fats and reduce your overall risk for disease. See our table of savory soy protein substitutions.
  • Eating soy-based foods is a great way to boost your fiber intake. Fiber promotes a healthy gastrointestinal system, reduces cholesterol, and is associated with a reduced risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Including fiber-rich soy foods like edamame (green soybeans), black soybeans, soy nuts, soy flour and tempeh in your diet can help you boost your daily dietary fiber.
  • Soy foods are a good source of polyunsaturated fat. Polyunsaturated fats have a number of heart health benefits, such as lowering cholesterol. Choosing minimally processed soy foods will help you benefit from these heart-friendly fats.
  • Soy foods contain omega-3 fats, essential polyunsaturated fats. Omega-3 fats are linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Soy foods are a great source of vitamins and minerals. B-vitamins, iron, zinc and an array of antioxidants round out the nutritional qualities of soy. In addition, many soy foods are enriched with vitamin B 12 , calcium, and vitamin D to help vegetarians get these much needed nutrients.
  • Soy foods are a good source of phytochemicals. The phytochemicals in soy are called isoflavones. Isoflavones are currently being studied for their role in preventing postmenopausal bone loss and certain cancers. You can also contact the American Cancer Society for more information at www.cancer.org.

Special note about supplements:

Supplementing your diet with soy isoflavone supplements shows no health benefit and should be avoided. Only whole soy foods are recommended at this time.

Although adding soy to your diet may not have a large impact on your cholesterol levels, when combined with other healthy lifestyle strategies, the total impact can be profound. Here is a list of other cholesterol-lowering strategies and the combined potential influence this can have on your risk of cardiovascular disease.

Dietary Change Approximate LDL Reduction
Reducing saturated fat to less than 7% of calories 8 - 10%
Reducing dietary cholesterol to less than 200 mg/day 3 - 5%
Losing weight (such as 10 pounds) 5 - 8%
Increasing soluble fiber (10 or more grams per day) 3 - 5%
Increasing plant sterols (such as Benecol or Take Control spreads, 2 grams/day) 6 - 15%
Substituting soy protein for animal protein 3%
Potential LDL-lowering estimate greater than 20 - 30%

Savory Soy Protein Substitutions

Here are a just a few tips on how you can reap the nutritional benefits of soy protein. Bon Appetit!

Instead of... Choose...
Hamburger or turkey burger Soy burger
Chicken with skin Marinated baked firm tofu
Hot dog Soy dog
High-fat cheese Soy cheese
Ground beef crumbles Textured soy protein
Butter on toast Soy nut butter on toast
Salted, oil roasted nuts Unsalted, dry roasted soy nuts
Chili made with black beans Chili made with black soy beans
Smoothie made with milk Smoothie made with silken tofu or soymilk
Yogurt Soy yogurt
Cow's milk Soy milk - unsweetened, plain, vanilla or chocolate flavors available
High-fat appetizers like chicken wings Steamed and seasoned edamame or miso (fermented soy) soup
Ice cream Soy frozen dessert

Sample diet

The following sample diet shows you just how easy it is to incorporate more soy into your diet. Give soy a try and enjoy not only its taste, but also the many health benefits that you will receive!

Breakfast:

1 cup cooked oatmeal
8 ounces calcium-fortified plain soy milk (8g soy protein)
1 cup strawberries
Decaffeinated coffee

Snack:

1 medium apple with 1 tablespoon soy nut butter (4g soy protein)
Water

Lunch:

1 soybean burger (10g soy protein) with spinach leaves, tomato and mustard on multigrain bun
1 cup raw vegetables
8 ounces nonfat yogurt

Snack:

¼ cup dry roasted soy beans “soy nuts” (12g soy protein) mixed with 2 tablespoons dried cranberries

Dinner:

3 ounces grilled salmon
1 medium baked potato (with skin)
2 tsp trans-fat-free tub margarine
2 cups cooked carrots, broccoli and cauliflower medley

Nutritional Analysis:

Total calories: 1,650
Total fat: 50g (27% of calories)
Saturated fat: 7g (4% of total calories)
Cholesterol: 70mg
Total soy protein: 34g (remember minimum needed is 25 grams daily)
Dietary fiber: 40g

Some additional soy tips:

  • Toss firm or extra firm tofu into your favorite stir-fry
  • Try soy yogurt or soy puddings for a healthy snack
  • Mix together ice cubes, soy milk and fresh fruit for a tasty smoothie treat
  • Make a healthy trail mix with roasted soybeans (soy “nuts”) and dried fruit
  • Spread some soy nut butter on whole grain toast instead of peanut butter
  • Use textured vegetable protein instead of ground beef in recipes like chili or spaghetti sauce
  • Replace silken tofu for ricotta cheese in stuffed shells or lasagna
  • Substitute soy-based sausage for high-fat pork or beef sausage at breakfast
  • Enjoy edamame (green soy beans in the pods) as a refreshing appetizer

For more information on soy, visit:

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The inclusion of links to other websites does not imply any endorsement of the material on those websites nor any association with their operators.

Reviewed: 12/13

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This information is provided by Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition.

© Copyright 2014 Cleveland Clinic. All rights reserved.

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