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Here’s why you should be eating more of this powerhouse plant-based protein.

Jill Waldbieser
June 19, 2018

You definitely don’t have to be a vegan to eat like one. Roughly 43 million Americans have figured out the environmental and health benefits of choosing plant-based proteins over those derived from animal sources, and 86 percent of them don’t consider themselves to be vegetarian or vegan, according to data from The NPD Group. But while things like cashew milk and cricket protein powder flourish, a lot of us are overlooking the original plant-based protein: soy.

“Soy has always been good for you,” says Melissa Halas-Liang, R.D, a spokesperson for the California Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “But like a lot in the nutrition world, it’s gone back and forth in the public perception.”

Much of the criticism comes from a rodent-based study that found an association between a key compound in soy, genestein, and increased incidence of cancerous tumor growth. That study was later debunked.

In fact, more recent research shows overwhelmingly that soy has tons of body benefits. “Any time you’re substituting a plant-based protein for processed meat, you’re going to lower your risk of chronic diseases—including heart disease, some cancers, and even arthritis,” says Halas-Liang.

And soy is a particularly good choice, she says, because it’s a complete protein, which means it has all the amino acids your body needs, as well as fiber, potassium to help regulate blood pressure, magnesium to help protect against insulin resistance, copper for immunity, and even omega-6 and -3 fatty acids. Some studies show it can even help lower cholesterol.

It’s also a top source of isoflavones, a type of flavonoid that has estrogen-like effects and may help lower the risk of certain cancers. “In Asia,” says Halas-Liang, “they’re eating between 30 and 60 milligrams of isoflavones a day. Most Americans average between 1 and 3 milligrams a day.” Simply put, we’re not eating enough soy to reap its health benefits.

Time to fix that. Soy comes in so many forms, from whole green soybeans (aka edamame) to seitan, that you should be able to get in at least 2-3 servings a week of this underutilized protein hero. Here, a brief rundown of some soy products and ways to enjoy them. In general, remember that less processed sources tend to be better choices, as with any food.

Edamame

Immature soybeans still in the pod (also sold shelled)

Serving size: 1/2 cup shelled beans

Serving suggestion: Steam them, then mash into a vibrant hummus.

Soy nuts

Baked or roasted edamame; high in protein and fiber

Serving size: 1/4 cup

Serving suggestion: Use them in pesto with fresh herbs; toss them with popcorn and seasonings for a healthy, higher-protein snack.

Soy milk

A non-dairy drink made by soaking and grinding soybeans

Serving size: 1 cup (8 ounces)

Serving suggestion: Froth into lattes; use to make smoothies, oatmeal, or baked goods.

Tofu

Condensed soy milk pressed into blocks. You can buy it soft (silken) or firm

Serving size: 1/3 cup

Serving suggestion: Blend silken tofu with drained marinated artichoke hearts and thawed, drained frozen spinach, onion and garlic powder, and some Greek yogurt for a high-protein, low-calorie artichoke dip.

Tempeh

Fermented soybeans with a firm texture and mild to nutty flavor; higher in protein and fiber than tofu.

Serving size: 1 cup

Serving suggestion: Add it to tacos or gyros.

Miso

A fermented soybean paste containing gut friendly probiotics; can be high in sodium

Serving size: 1 tablespoon

Serving suggestion: Whisk into salad dressings and sauces; use a little to caramelize onions.