Diet

What Is Tofu & Is It Good for You?
Looking at the Health Benefits

Is Tofu Worth The Trouble? Looking At The Health Facts
Written by Isaac

Everyone knows that protein is an important part of a healthy diet, but how many people have a real sense of all the natural ways where they can get some?

Sure, meat and other animal products are full of protein, but shouldn't there be a healthy, tasty protein option for vegans and vegetarians?

There is, and the answer is tofu.

For those that choose to restrict the amount of animal products they eat, tofu is an ideal alternative for getting the muscle-building benefits of protein.

As a wonder food that has been eaten throughout Asia for thousands of years, tofu is full of health benefits that make it a smart dining choice for just about everyone.

What Is Tofu?

Tofu (also called bean curd) is made from soy beans, water and a coagulation agent - more specifically, soy beans ground into soy milk. 

To make tofu, fresh soy milk is curdled so that the proteins become coagulated, pressed into solid blocks and then cooled down in a very similar process to how dairy cheese is made from curdled milk (see our guide on dairy health benefits here).

Though the vast majority of tofu produced in the United States isn't fermented, a large amount of international tofu is fermented before eating. Recent scientific research has shown that the free radical- scavenging activity in fermented tofu might be healthier to eat than regular coagulated varieties [1].

Today, the worldwide tofu industry has grown enormous, with over 200,000 tofu manufacturers worldwide. The biggest factories are located in Japan where they make over fifty tons of the bean curd every day.

Tofu Nutrition Facts

When it comes to looking at tofu as a natural health food, there is certainly a lot to like. In fact, it is one of the most perfectly balanced natural foods available, so long as you mind your portions - Here's our guide on portion control.

Coming in at just 94 calories per half cup serving, tofu will never wreck your diet, and the 10 grams of protein will keep you full for hours. With all that protein you get no cholesterol and only trace amounts of carbs (naturally gluten free!), meaning your low-carb diet won't be ruined.

But that's not all you get from this curdled bean. In fact, one serving of tofu will satisfy 44 percent of your daily calcium intake, 40 percent of your iron and 9 percent of your magnesium.

It also contains trace amounts of valuable nutrients like:

  • ​Vitamin K
  • ​Riboflavin
  • ​Thiamin
  • ​Vitamin B-6
  • ​Niacin
  • ​Choline
  • ​Foliate
  • ​Selenium
  • ​Manganese
  • ​Phosphorus
nutrition facts of tofu

Soy, the main component of tofu, is a natural source of a complete dietary protein, which means you don't have to combine it with any other substances in order to get the body-building benefits. Soybeans also have naturally high levels of polyunsaturated fats like omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid.

7 Health Benefits of Tofu

Woman serving tofu dish in restaurant

The health benefits have been celebrated for centuries.

Not only is it an excellent source of protein for vegetarians and vegans, there is also evidence that it has many other natural health benefits like preventing cancer and treating hair loss.

Some of the specific benefits of adding this soy product to your diet are explained below.

Studies have been showing for years that a diet filled with plant based foods will lower your risk of early death as well as your odds of developing heart disease and obesity while also helping you to have fuller hair, more energy and even a better complexion.

1. Reduce Your Risk of Diabetes 

​Tofu is a perfect food option for diabetics because of the low fat and low calorie content.

Eating at least 200 grams of tofu a day can help to significantly reduce your risk of developing diabetes, and eating a diet filled with a range of soy foods is a proven way to reduce the risk that your blood develops insulin resistance.

Best of all, the sky-high levels of protein and other essential nutrients in tofu means that the blood sugar levels in diabetics will be better controlled at safe levels.

2. Lower Your risk of Heart Disease

Eating tofu regularly helps your body reduce the risk of stroke and other dangerous diseases through the lowering of bad cholesterol (lipoprotein), triglycerides and LDL levels in your blood, while also helping your body to raise the levels of HDL or healthy cholesterol.

This works to improve your overall cardiovascular health as well.

Woman on a market selling tofu

Additionally, peptides-glycinin and conglycinin are bio-active anti-inflammatory agents found in tofu that work to reduce inflammation and blood vessel damage in your body, which makes it much easier to lower your blood pressure levels and keep it under control.

Reduced inflammation has plenty of other body benefits, including weight loss and ease maintaining a healthy weight.

3. Prevention and treatment of Obesity

measuring fat tummy

When eaten as part of a reduced-calorie diet, tofu is an easy way to lose weight.

Because tofu is often eaten as a substitute for calorie-rich meats, it can help you weigh 3 to 20 percent less than people that eat meat [2].

The high amount of protein in tofu means you'll manage to feel full eating fewer calories which can make a huge difference in weight loss - read this page about the science behind weight loss here.

In fact, there is evidence that soy protein can make a bigger difference in weight loss than other types of protein, as some studies have shown that people that got their protein from soy lost more body fat than those that relied on animal-based source [3]. Here are some of our favorite soy protein powders.

​A diet that contains a variety of plant-based foods such as tofu appears to contribute to overall health and wellbeing, and a lower risk of conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

​Natalie Olsen, RD, LD, Medical News Today

4. Breast and prostate cancer

Tofu contains lots of selenium, which is a mineral that the body needs to run its antioxidant-processing system and help prevent colon cancer.

In fact, studies have shown that men can reduce their risk of prostate cancer by eating tofu and women that eat plenty of it every week are over 60% less likely to develop the kinds of risky breast tissue that often cause breast cancer [4].

Genistein, a phytonutrient found in soy, has been studied extensively to try to understand the role it places in cancer prevention. The evidence shows that increases the quantities of a protein called p53 that is responsible for suppressing tumor growth, especially in the breasts and prostate.

Once it becomes activated, this protein compound can trigger pre-programmed cell death, called apoptosis, in cancer cells, which prevents the cancer from spreading throughout your body. To get the best benefits from genistein, it's important to eat many forms of fermented soy, as the protein compound is much more prevalent there.

5. Relieve symptoms of Menopause

When women hit menopause, their daily calcium requirements go up. Tofu can provide the high doses of calcium needed to keep women healthy, while also helping them to reduce the prevalence of hot flashes, prevent rheumatoid arthritis and help prevent the risk of losing bone mass.

Likewise, menopause and pre-menopause can wreck havoc on a woman's estrogen levels, meaning that she might experience severe mood swings, headaches, trouble sleeping, and dizziness due to hot flashes.

Young and old woman smiling

However, the flavanoids and isoflavonoids in tofu can help to restore the estrogen levels to the proper amounts, which can provide great relief for these symptoms and cause them to go away.

6. Enhance Your Skin

blonde girl

It may sound too good to be true, but there is plenty of evidence that tofu can make a big difference in how youthful you look by actively slowing down the aging process.

A diet full of tofu helps your skin to retain its elasticity and keeps your facial muscles toned, which prevents sagging and leaves your skin looking youthful.

Though eating regular servings can make a big difference, an even better way to keep your skin looking youthful is to make a paste out of silken tofu and apply it to your face in order to nourish your skin from the outside in. With regular application, crow lines and fine wrinkles will start to disappear! [5]

7. Promote Hair Growth

​Human hair is made out of protein, and the primary protein used in the process is called keratin. Thankfully, this soy product is a natural way to provide it for your body.

By eating tofu regularly, you'll be providing the required keratin levels to your body which will help your body produce more hair while the selenium levels in tofu are useful by helping your scalp hold on to the hairs you already have.

It might seem like a small diet change to switch out some meat in your daily diet in exchange for tofu, but this little behavior change can make a big difference for the overall health of your body.

Whether you suffer from diabetes, heart disease or a simply struggling through the first signs of menopause, a diet filled with tofu might be part of the natural health solution for you.

5 Risks you should be aware of

tofu-banner

Though there is ample evidence of the health benefits that tofu can provide for you, unfortunately other studies have criticized this bean curd for its soy content and estrogen mimickers.

However, it's important to be clear that much of the controversy comes from confusion about the health effects of highly processed forms of soy, like soy milk or soy protein concentrate.

Because tofu is considered a form of soy that's closer to its natural form than these creations, it tends to have a better health reputation.

Nonetheless, let's look at some of the healthy claims about soy that have come out in recent years.

1. Cancer

cancer cells

Yes, cancer is also in the 'health positives' column, but some scientific evidence reveals that eating tofu might actually cause the development of breast cancer in some women [6].

The study that caused this controversy looked at a specific type of break cancer that's based on estrogen receptors, and early studies found an increase in tumor growth in rats fed soy.


However, farther research revealed that rats metabolize soy differently than humans, so the overall impacts aren't known.


It does seem clear that there is a correlation between the level of processing in soy and the risk of tumor development, so to be safe you should stick to minimally processed soy foods like tofu.

2. Food Allergies

For reasons not well understood, soybeans are one of the eight most common forms of allergen in the United States, and for some people even a little exposure can be fatal [7].

3. Thyroid Health

thyroid gland

The role that tofu plays in thyroid health has been debated endlessly, and there is evidence on both sides for its benefits and negative effects on your thyroid.

At this point there are still more questions than answers, but if you have thyroid problems already it might be smart to limit your tofu intake.

4. Genetically Modified Soybeans

At this point, about 93% of the soybeans grown in the US are GMOs, which is one of the reasons why soy is so cheap. However, this lower price point might come at a high cost [8].

There is lots of controversy about the effects of eating GMO foods because not enough research has been conducted to prove that they are completely safe. At this point it's been noted that soy allergies increase with GMO soy and that there are potential negative impacts to the liver (at least in mice and rats).

For this reason, many people prefer to avoid soy products completely unless they can be sure that they have been grown organically.

5. Feminization in Men

There are long held beliefs and plenty of anecdotal evidence that consuming soy can cause men to 'feminize' through the loss of a sex drive and the growth of breasts due to the increased estrogen activity in the body.

However, the medical literature on this topic doesn't seem to reach this conclusion and instead regulates the feminizing qualities of soy products to myth status. 

Chinese man eating tofu

The research that HAS shown feminization in men due to soy only occurred when men drank soy milk every day.

There seems to be little risk of feminization through eating tofu, possibly because of the fermentation properties that the soybeans go through [9].

Though there are reasons that men suffering from erectile dysfunction should avoid all soy products, for the vast majority of men the healthy benefits of occasionally eating tofu far outweigh any negative health impacts.

The Bottom Line On Tofu

tofu in the kitchen

Clearly, there's a lot to like about tofu.

Rich in protein and low in calories, tofu is a healthy food option for any occasion and its versatility means that it can be cooked in a wide variety of ways for optimal flavor.

Whether you are trying to eat less meat or are simply trying out some new, lower calorie cooking options, adding tofu to your diet is a smart way to stay healthy and try new flavors.

Whether you're a man or woman, tofu can be a healthy part of your diet, so long as you eat it in moderation.


References

1) WiseGEEK, What is a Free Radical Scavenger? Retrieved from https://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-a-free-radical-scavenger.htm

2) Kenan Onel, MD, Cancer Management and Research Retrieved from https://www.dovepress.com/cancer-management-and-research-journal

3) Manuel T. Velasquez, Role of Dietary Soy Protein in Obesity. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1838825/

4) Abraham M.Y. Nomura, Cohort Study of Tofu Intake and Prostate Cancer: No Apparent Association, Retrieved from http://cebp.aacrjournals.org/content/13/12/2277

5) Sein Lee, A fermented barley and soybean formula enhances skin hydration. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4566027/

6) breastcancer.org, Eating Soy May Turn on Genes Linked to Cancer Growth. Retrieved from https://www.breastcancer.org/research-news/soy-may-turn-on-genes-linked-to-cancer

7) Food Allergies: What You Need to Know. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/ucm079311.htm

8) Seth J. Wechsler, Recent Trends in GE Adoption. Retrieved from https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/adoption-of-genetically-engineered-crops-in-the-us/recent-trends-in-ge-adoption.aspx

9) Mark Messina, Soybean isoflavone exposure does not have feminizing effects on men: a critical examination of the clinical evidence. Retrieved from https://www.fertstert.org/article/S0015-0282%2810%2900368-7/abstract

About the author

Isaac

I’m a personal fitness trainer and nutritionist living in sunny Indianapolis, IN. I’ve spent the last 8 years staying at the forefront of the health and fitness industry. In that time, I’ve helped hundreds of people shed the excess weight and get into shape, maintaining their healthy new lifestyle through proper training and eating habits.

  • Thanks for another excellent post. Where else could anyone get that kind of information in such a perfect way of writing?I’ve a presentation next week, and I am on the look for such information.

  • I like how you explain both the health benefits and side effects of tofu. I’m really not into soy foods because I know tofu is genetically modified (I avoid these). Gotta be more strict with my soy consumption.

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