Soy once was relegated to an obscure corner of most supermarkets, if it was there at all. In most communities, if you really wanted to take a taste of tofu or other soy products, you had to venture instead into a health-food store, searching for soy somewhere between the bean sprouts and the herbal remedies.
But these days, the soy fad has gone mainstream. Faster than you can say tempeh or edamame, more Americans than ever have become convinced that there might be some substance to the 5,000 years of Asian reliance on the simple soybean and the foods derived from it. Moreover, particularly as many menopausal women have become concerned about the safety of using prescription estrogen only (sleep difficulties. But in another study in 2002 at Tufts University, researchers found that after three months of soy supplementation, women had no more relief from hot flashes than another group taking a placebo (dummy) pill.
In the heat of the debate, doctors like Machelle Seibel, MD, remain persuaded by the positive findings, and urge women to give soy a try. “There is some good data that soy can reduce both the frequency and the intensity of hot flashes by about 50%,” says Seibel, professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. “A lot of doctors feel that somehow that’s not significant enough, and would prefer that it eliminate all hot flashes. But if it can reduce hot flashes sufficiently enough so a woman can get a good night’s Integrative Medicine Program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, believes that even the positive findings for soy in some studies have shown only a modest impact on menopausal symptoms. At the same time, she says, “some individual women say that soy has had a tremendous effect on managing their hot flashes. However, I wonder if it’s the soy per se, or did these women also reduce the fat in their diet, or restrict their heart benefits and the possible bone-strengthening benefits of soy foods are more important reasons.” For example, the evidence indicating that soy can reduce cholesterol levels is so strong that the FDA permits this claim on food labels.
If you want to give soy a try, most experts suggest consuming one to two servings per day, which translates to an intake of about 25 to 50 mg. of isoflavones. “If you don’t experience any benefit from two servings of soy,” advises Messina, “then you can try adding another one.”
You’ll find soy in foods such as tofu, soy milk, whole soybeans (like edamame), miso, soy yogurt, and tempeh — although some women report that it takes a little time to develop a taste for soy.
“There are still people who are in the ‘I-won’t-eat-soy-and-you-can’t-make-me’ crowd,” says Hardy. But many might be agreeable to eating soybeans, she says, even as a snack food, or drinking a shake prepared with soy powder, or adding “soy crumble” to sauces.
Soy supplements — most containing 25 mg. of isoflavones per pill — are available at health-food stores. “As a general rule, you’re better off getting what you’re looking for from foods rather than from tablets,” says Seibel, author of The Soy Solution for Menopause: The Estrogen Alternative. “Even so, some of the studies showing benefits from soy in reducing hot flashes were conducted with pills containing isoflavones.”
Messina agrees, noting that as a nutritionist, he always prefers food rather than pills. But he adds, “this is a country where most people don’t eat any soy, so consuming even two servings can be a challenge for them. For that reason, I don’t have a problem with someone saying, ‘On the days that I don’t eat two servings per day, I’ll take a pill to bring my level up to the recommended amount.’ But food is still best because hopefully the soy servings will take the place of less healthy foods in your diet. If you were eating soy nuts instead of potato chips, for example, that would be wonderful.”