Eating More Soy Early In Life May Reduce The Risk Of Breast Cancer

Posted Mon, 04/06/2009 - 4:49am by Fred Lee

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It turns out that it if you grew up eating lots of soy, it may help to protect you from breast cancer, according to a recent study out of the National Cancer Center. In the report, doctors spoke with some 1600 women of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino descent who were now living in this country. After accounting for family history, they found that when soy was a significant part of their childhood diet, they had a 58% reduced risk of developing breast cancer, which for women is the second most common form of cancer (second only to skin cancer) and the number one cause of cancer death.

One important consideration was the time at which soy was introduced into their diet, with the maximal benefit seen when it was eaten consistently from an early age, resulting in higher consumption over a lifetime. When soy was added during adolescence or adulthood, the benefits seemed to be less substantial, though they still saw a 20-25% reduction.

It has long been observed that in Asia there is a lower incidence of breast cancer than in the United States. In fact, in China and Japan, women have a five to seven times lower rate, though it is interesting to note that when they relocate to the United States, the breast cancer rates rise with subsequent generations.

For this reason, researchers have attributed the incidence of the disease to more than just genetics, and look to lifestyle choices, including diet. Soy happens to be an integral part of the Asian diet.

The way that soy might help reduce the chance of getting cancer is not completely clear, though certain things are known. Soy contains isoflavones, which belong to a class of compounds called phytoestrogens: natural plant chemicals that act like milder forms of estrogen, mimicking their action on the body.

Estrogen is a hormone that is responsible for the development of a woman’s sexual characteristics. It is known to stimulate cell growth, including the cells in breast tissue, and because of this, lifelong exposure to it has been implicated in the development of breast cancer. Since phytoestrogens are similar to estrogen, they can theoretically displace some of it by attaching to its binding sites and as a consequence, fool the body into producing less of the hormone.

On the other hand, since phytoestrogens are so similar to estrogen, they may in fact perform the same function, and because of this, have also been implicated in possibly increasing a woman’s chance of contracting breast cancer.

So what’s a person to do? Even the experts acknowledge that while the findings of the study are compelling, they are not conclusive, and more information needs to be gathered in order to obtain a greater understanding of what is going on. So before you go out and fill your refrigerator with tofu and soy milk, consult your doctor or dietician, or get more information on the official website of the National Institutes of Health.

In meantime, here’s some food for thought. Besides the claims to cancer prevention, there is a body of evidence that supports the health benefits of incorporating soy in your diet. It has been eaten for thousands of years in Asia, home to some of the longest living cultures in the world, and is an excellent source of protein that is low in saturated fats and cholesterol free. From an ecological perspective, soy is a sustainable crop that can be grown organically, and as a consequence, has a much smaller environmental impact than livestock. And in most cases, soy is less expensive.

With all of these good qualities, maybe it’s not a bad idea to put a little more soy in your diet. You’ll not only be helping the planet, but you might lose weight, broaden your culinary horizons, and maybe even improve your health.

What more incentive do you need?



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