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Can Soy Really Prevent Diabetes?

Written by
Brooke McKelvey
Team Nutrisense
Reviewed by
Cheri Bantilan
MS, RD, CD
a bowl of tofu

There’s a lot of talk about soy foods and your health. There are many potential benefits, from helping with blood pressure to lowering cholesterol and adding to your daily fiber intake. There may also be risks for some who cannot tolerate foods that contain it. And some research also suggests that it can reduce your risk of developing diabetes.

But what does all of this mean? Can adding soy foods to your diet prevent diabetes? What are the other health benefits and risks of soy? And what is a soybean? Read on to learn more about soy, soybeans, and the links between soy foods, blood glucose, and diabetes.

What Is Soy?

a plate of tofu and soy beans

The soybean plant, also known as Glycine max, is a legume species native to East Asia. It’s an integral part of the agricultural industry and has many uses. The plant is used in many different ways, including as an ingredient in your food.

Soybeans were first grown in Asia and are now grown worldwide. It is a legume, meaning that it fixes nitrogen in the soil and improves the quality of the soil. Soybeans are also high in protein, making them a valuable crop for human consumption and animal feed. You can consume soy in many forms, including tofu, tempeh, edamame, and soy milk. It's also used to produce biodiesel fuel. 

The versatile crop can have many benefits for farmers and consumers. Thanks to their versatility and health benefits, the soybean is one of the world's most important (and delicious, in our opinion!) crops. And as we’ll explain below, it also has various health benefits.

The Health Benefits of Soy

Although not everyone can tolerate soy, it’s a very nutritious food for those who can. It’s a plant-based protein that contains all nine essential amino acids. It’s also a good source of fiber, iron, magnesium, and potassium.

Soybeans are packed with protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, making them an excellent addition to any diet, including a diet focused on diabetes care. Research shows that soy foods can help improve heart health, reduce your risk of cancer, and even promote weight loss.

Soybeans also contain essential nutrients, such as magnesium, potassium, and vitamin B6. They are a natural source of polyphenols, which are antioxidants that help protect your body from harmful toxins.

Here are a few of the health benefits that have been linked to adding soy into your diet:

It May Lower Cholesterol Levels

In addition to being a healthy protein source, soy may reduce harmful cholesterol levels and improve heart health. Soy is also a good source of fiber, vitamin E, and other essential nutrients.

This report from Mount Sinai suggests that substituting 31 to 47 grams of soy protein for meat in a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol may lower blood cholesterol levels.

It Can Regulate Blood Pressure

Soy foods may be effective in helping to control blood pressure. Research suggests that consuming soy may have a favorable impact on blood pressure because it is a high-quality protein that contains all the essential amino acids.

In addition, soy is rich in phytochemicals, including soy isoflavones, with various health benefits.

Soy Foods May Help Prevent Heart Disease

Consuming soy-based foods could help prevent heart disease. Soybeans are a rich source of antioxidants, which protect the body from damage caused by free radicals. They also contain phytochemicals that can reduce inflammation and improve blood flow.

Additionally, soy proteins help lower LDL cholesterol levels and protect the heart from damage caused by plaque build-up. The numerous health benefits of soy make it an excellent choice for preventing heart disease.

Your Fertility Can Benefit

There is some evidence that suggests soybeans may improve fertility. Soybeans are a source of isoflavones, which are plant-based estrogens. These estrogens can mimic the effects of estrogen in the body.

Some research suggests that consuming soybeans or foods that contain soy may increase fertility in women and men. Soybeans are a great source of vitamins and minerals, including zinc and vitamin E, which are essential for fertility. 

It Reduces Your Cancer-Risk

Emerging research suggests that consuming soy may benefit overall health and could play a role in cancer prevention. While more research is needed to confirm these findings, this is yet another reason to include soy in your diet.

The Potential Risks Associated with Soy Foods

a jar of soy meat

As one of the most popular plant-based proteins, soy foods are often touted for their nutritional benefits. However, there is some controversy surrounding soy, with some people claiming that it can have adverse health effects. 

This may be because many soy products are highly processed and may contain unhealthy additives. Consuming too much soy, primarily processed foods, can lead to side effects. Here's what you need to know about soy:

  • Soy-based foods may affect thyroid functions in patients that have iodine deficiencies. 
  • Overeating soy can lead to digestive issues. Some of the most common signs of consuming too much soy are upset stomach, constipation, and diarrhea.

If you’re concerned about eating soy or curious about what risks or benefits soy and soybeans may have for you, speak with your healthcare provider.

Make sure that your doctor has all of your medical history and current condition of any health problems. They will be able to help you to determine if you can add more soy to your diet. 

So, Can Soy Foods Reduce the Risk of Diabetes?

a plate of tofu

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), diabetes is now one of the most common chronic diseases in the United States. More than 37 million people live with diabetes, and another 96 million have prediabetes.

Several lifestyle changes can help you manage the condition, and one of those may be adding soy foods to your diet. 

Soybeans are often recommended for people with diabetes. They are low in carbohydrates and calories, and they are a good source of protein and fiber. Your body digests them slowly, which helps sustain blood sugar levels. Soybeans are also a good source of fiber, which helps regulate blood sugar levels.

A takeaway here is that there are pros and cons like any foods that promise to help reduce risk factors for various health conditions from obesity to diabetes. At the end of the day, it will depend on your individual needs and specific medical history.

But as we’ve seen, the research so far does support the idea that soy foods have benefits for diabetic patients. For example, in this study, nutrition scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that the bioactive compounds called soy isoflavones in soy foods can lower your risk of diabetes. The compounds help reduce your risk of heart disease and cholesterol, decrease blood glucose levels, and improve glucose tolerance in those with diabetes.

Medical advice for diabetes care usually includes dietary changes, and adding dietary fiber in the form of soy foods is a good option. But it’s best to work with a credentialed dietitian or nutritionist before adding or eliminating any foods from your diet.

Some Soy Food-Based Recipes We Love

To get the most benefit from soy, choose whole soy foods such as tofu, tempeh, and edamame rather than processed soy products such as veggie burgers and soy cheese. Most of the adverse health effects come from processed soy foods, so try to integrate soy using unprocessed and organic soy products.

The purest and whole way to eat soy is edamame. These are whole soybeans typically served in their pod or salads. A great way to begin shopping for soy to integrate into your diet is by looking for organic edamame and tofu, tempeh, and miso.

If you want to add soy foods to your diet, here are some of our favorite ways to do so:

Easy Tofu Salad

a plate of Tofu Salad

This Tofu Salad recipe from Kathy’s Vegan Kitchen has healthy fats, vitamins, fiber, and minerals. It’s also easy to make and has an ingredient list filled with flavor.

You can adjust the quantities for each ingredient according to your preferences and dietary requirements; just keep the tofu in there to get all the benefits of the soy milk-based bean curd.

Ingredients

  • Baby bell peppers (in as many colors as you like)
  • Grape tomatoes (any variety)
  • Cucumber
  • Red Onion
  • Grilled corn (or canned corn without added sugars)
  • Avocado
  • Toasted almonds
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Dried cranberries
  • Parsley
  • Cilantro

Quick Soy Milk Pudding

bowls of Soy Milk Pudding

This three-ingredient Ginger Soy Milk Pudding is easy to make, delicious, and full of all of the benefits from the ginger root as well. This recipe uses fresh ginger juice, maximizing all of the health benefits of both foods.

Ingredients

  • A little over 3/4 cup homemade soy milk
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger juice
  • 2 to 3 teaspoons pure cane sugar (optional)

Comforting Miso Soup

bowls of Miso Soup

This recipe for Minute Miso Soup with Greens and Tofu from the Minimalist Baker integrates fermented soy (miso paste) and tofu. We recommend opting for organic tofu or tempeh for this recipe.

Stay tuned for more about the benefits of these ingredients in our next piece on the health benefits of fermented foods.

Ingredients

  • 4 cups vegetable broth 
  • 1 sheet nori 
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons white or yellow miso paste with or without bonito
  • 1/2 cup chopped green chard 
  • 1/2 cup chopped green onion
  • 1/4 cup firm tofu 
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