The link between soy and cholesterol has been a hot topic in recent years, as nutritionists have been comparing soy-based diets of Asian cultures with non soy-based diets of the West. Recent research suggests that it may play a role in the fact that the cardiovascular disease death rate in Americans is more than double that in Japan.
What is soy and how are soy and cholesterol related?
Soy comes from the soy bean, which is a member of the pea family. It is a legume, meaning it takes in nitrogen and converts this nitrogen into protein.
Soy protein contains all of the amino acids the body needs, and has become very popular in recent years as a substitute for animal protein. In 1999, the FDA boosted soy protein’s popularity by allowing manufacturers to indicate that these products may help reduce the risk of heart disease.
In terms of the link between soy and cholesterol, 27 clinical studies pointed to soy protein’s ability to lower LDL cholesterol levels. One of the studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that soy protein can significantly lower total and LDL (bad) cholesterol as well as triglycerides (fats), another leading risk factor of heart disease.
What are soy isoflavones?
Soy, like all plants, contains many different chemical components. One of these components is a class of phytoestrogens called isoflavones, which are a relatively weak form of estrogen. Isoflavones have been the topic of much recent debate, as evidence of their effect on the body is mostly inconclusive.
Many believe the benefits of soy isoflavones are as follows:
Some say soy isoflavones may help protect against cancer. They can suppress the production of stress proteins, which facilitate cancer cell survival. They also have antioxidant abilities, meaning they can help rid the body of toxic chemicals called free radicals, therefore warding off disease, illness, and premature aging.
For women, soy isoflavones have been shown to prevent estrogen-related bone loss and can reduce some of the symptoms of menopause.
However, much more research has to be conducted regarding their role in cancer prevention and menopause alleviation.
Fermented vs Unfermented…what’s the best choice?
Most nutritionists agree that the healthiest choice when it comes to soy is the fermented variety. Miso as found in the Japanese soup, tempeh and natto are a few of the more popular choices. Fermenting neutralizes the high concentration of phytic acid present in soy which can inhibit nutrient absorption. This is especially problematic for women and babies which is why soy infant formula has come under fire lately. Also, the phytoestrogens which mimic female hormones are also problematic for developing infants.
If you’re going to have soy, especially for its heart health and other benefits, go for the fermented variety. A little unfermented soy such as the tofu you might find in a Chinese restaurant or soy milk is probably OK in small amounts…but don’t make it a regular part of your diet.
Is soy the best way to lower cholesterol?
Adding soy protein and/or soy isoflavones to your diet may help lower your cholesterol in conjunction with a heart healthy diet. However, you might also want to consider nutrients that have undergone more rigorous testing.
The following natural nutrients have all been shown to significantly affect cholesterol levels in the body, as well as increase HDL (good) cholesterol and lower triglycerides (fats). The first two have actually been shown to outperform cholesterol lowering medications, without the potential side effects.
Policosanol – a natural extract from sugar cane which has been shown to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels as well as raise HDL (good) cholesterol. More importantly policosanol has been proven to be free of side effects, unlike the statins.
Guggulipid Extract – an ancient herb from India recently shown to lower cholesterol levels and can also reduce triglyceride levels, another risk factor for heart disease.
Tumeric Extract – much evidence points to the fact that tumeric may lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, in addition to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Green Tea Extract – green tea is widely used for many medicinal purposes, and has been shown to reduce triglycerides as well as LDL cholesterol, and increase HDL (good) cholesterol. Green tea also has antioxidants that can prevent heart disease, cancer and other illnesses.
Read more about natural cholesterol lowering nutrients here.
As with all health supplements, make sure you consult your physician or qualified medical professional before taking any soy products, or any cholesterol lowering nutrients.