Phytoestrogens, a type of flavonoid, are plant compounds that happen to be molecularly similar to estrogen, the hormone primarily produced in a woman's ovaries. Other areas of the body, such as fat tissue and adrenal glands also produce estrogen, and both men and women have estrogen. Because of this structural kinship, phytoestrogens can do some of the same things that estrogen can do, just not as strongly.
In plants, phytoestrogens protect against insects or fungus. In humans, phytoestrogens may lower levels of bad cholesterol, reduce risk of heart disease and certain kinds of cancers, soothe menopausal hot flashes, and curb bone density loss. But all evidence is, as of yet, inconclusive.
Even without absolute scientific proof, foods loaded with phytoestrogens are worth eating. That's because they are usually high in other important nutrients, too. A lot of the phytoestrogens we eat are lignans, which can be found in lots of healthy plant-based foods, including broccoli, tofu, strawberries, whole grains, and several kinds of seeds. Flaxseeds sit atop the lignan pile, and they're also a super source of heart-supportive omega-3 fatty acids and fibre.
Soy isoflavones make up a large part of our phytoestrogen food sources. On average, people living in Asia get 11 mg to 47 mg of soy isoflavones each day, mostly from soy products like tofu, tempeh, or edamame. In Western countries, it's much lower – only 2 mg per day. Considering the lower rates of breast cancer in Asian countries, it makes sense that researchers have tried to find the link between soy isoflavone intake and risk.
What to eat to get more phytoestrogens:
- flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, poppy seeds
- whole grains (rye, oats, barley)
- curly kale
- Brussels sprouts
- tofu, tempeh, edamame, soy alternatives to dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese)
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