Many years ago, I used to have a lady who helped with my cleaning. She was from China. At the time I had her helping me, I was pregnant. Every week she would turn up with a litre bottle of soy milk. When I explained to her that I didn’t like the taste and preferred cow’s milk, she wagged her finger at me and said in a scolding voice, ‘Dairy milk not good for you in pregnancy. You need soy milk like we have in China.” I remember her to this day trying to bridge the cultural divide between our tastes in calcium-rich ‘milk’.
Why are Soy Products Promoted to Women During their Menopause Transition?:
The main components of soy are proteins, soybean oil and carbohydrates but soy-foods also contain a type of oestrogen, called Phyto-oestrogens (PE). Known as isoflavones they are responsible for many health benefits, including their effects on oestrogen receptors in breast cells and for reducing hot flushes as women transition through menopause. Isoflavones are most closely related to the bean family of the Fabaceae (i.e., Leguminosae, or bean) family. Legumes, and especially soybeans, have been determined to be among the richest sources of Isoflavonesin the human diet. A number of epidemiological studies indicate that the high intake of soy-based products in Asian women, including tofu, may have a protective effect on women’s health as they move into their post-menopause years. Isoflavones occur in many types of legumes but soybeans typically contain the highest concentrations of isoflavones. A number of studies have reported that one of these isoflavones, called Genistein, has a positive effect on reducing hot flushes and improving cardiac health. This is why isoflavones have increasingly appeared on the shelves of pharmacies and health supplement shops targeting menopausal women.
Phyto-estrogens (plant oestrogens) are substances that occur naturally in plants. They have a similar chemical structure to female oestrogen (one of the main female hormones), and are able to bind to the same receptors that the oestrogen that we produce naturally does. But that’s as far as the similarity goes. They behave differently to female oestrogen and this depends on the oestrogen’s environment (e.g. whether a woman is in her reproductive years and has higher oestrogen, or is postmenopausal with lower oestrogen), how they bind to the oestrogen receptor and particularly to which oestrogen receptor they bind to. Like many supplements and targeted strategies for menopause, it’s a case of ‘different strokes for different folks‘ and it really is up to women to discover how and if isoflavones work for them. As I say to many women on the MyMT programmes, “there is no harm in trying“.
Soybean is called ‘Shu’ in ancient Chinese. It is one of the five main plant foods in China along with rice, wheat, barley and millet. The interest in soybeans in women’s health has emerged because in China and throughout parts of Asia, breast cancer incidence is the lowest in the world (although according to Fin-Jen He and Chen (, this is now rising with the tendency towards more western ways of eating in China). * The low incidence of breast cancer in Asian women compares to Caucasian women living in Western countries, who have the highest incidence of breast cancer. This has lead researchers to explore the role of soy foods in the diet of women, especially middle age women transitioning through menopause.
Soy production has never been so prolific. Soy Products include Edamame (immature soybeans), soybean oils, soybean milk, soybean, soy nuts and also flours and of course tofu, soy sauce, Tempeh and Miso. Tofu is a curd made by coagulating soy protein by mineral salts or acid. It is similar to the cottage cheese in Western cultures, which is coagulated cow’s milk. Tofu, like other soy products is high in protein and this is a major source of protein in the Chinese diet, where meat supply was not so abundant until recent years. It is also a great source of Calcium which has typically been deficient in the diet of Asian women. Hence, part of the reason my Chinese house-keeper was bringing me a litre of soy milk. She knew in my heavily pregnant state, that my body needed this essential mineral as well as the protein. Soy milk does contain compounds that are structurally similar to oestrogen, but they do not function exactly the same as oestrogen so for many women, soy products and soy milk can be part of a nutritious, balanced diet during menopause and may actually have beneficial symptom reduction effects for some women.
But soy products aren’t for everyone and for my bigger breasted women, I suggest that they keep their soy-latte intake to a minimum. Not because the phyto-oestrogens in soy may or may not be helpful to their symptoms, but because large commercial farms dominant the soy-bean industry so many soy-based products may have unhelpful sprays and pesticide residues that are not so great for our ageing liver – often already over-worked with a lifetime of toxins to clear.
Should I have Soy Milk or Cow’s Milk?
There’s a big difference between soy or soya milk and cow’s milk, not only in the protein content but type as well. The types of oestrogen differ too. Soy milk has been part of Asian diets for centuries. It’s simply an emulsion of water, protein and oil (the latter two provided by the soybeans). It’s made by soaking dried soybeans for a minimum of three hours, and then grinding the beans with enough water to achieve a desired consistency. Boiling follows and then filtering. One of the things we have to be careful of during menopause is the addition of sugar to soy-milk in many commercial products. This is done to bring the energy content up to par with cow’s milk.
Soy milk and dairy milk also differ in the type of proteins they contain. Soy obviously has soy proteins and cow’s milk has casein and whey protein. Many gym goers understand the benefits of whey and casein proteins to muscle development, whereas Soy protein has been found to have a positive impact on heart health due to the naturally-occuring phyto-oestrogens present, and there are benefits for many women who find that hot flush management improves too.
Tofu is a key ingredient of some of the recipes in the MyMT Food Guide which is available for women who join the MyMT programmes. Part of the reason is that tofu is a popular food in many of the Blue Zone countries which are geographical locatins around the world, where women liver long, healthy lives free of symptoms of menopause. I love learning the research on offer from women’s health studies around the world. As I often say in my live-seminars, we might all live in different geographical locations and enjoy differences culturally, but as women in menopause, we are all connected through our changing biology, no matter where we are in the world.
Dr Wendy Sweet (PhD), Women’s Healthy Ageing Researcher & MyMT Founder & Coach.
Fin-Jen, He & Chen, H. (2013). Consumption of soybean, soy foods, soy isoflavones and breast cancer incidence: Differences between Chinese women and women in Western countries and possible mechanisms. Food Science and Human Wellness, 2(3-4), 146-161.