Old thinking: Tofu is a lackluster source of protein that, in extreme cases, can give you man boobs.
New thinking: More recent research shows that not is tofu an excellent source of protein, but the phytoestrogens-gynemastia connection was completely overblown.
A healthy diet can include tofu and, actually, should.
"Eating various foods is one of the best things you can do for your health," says Brittany Lubeck, M.S., R.D., consultant for Oh So Spotless. "Eating different sources of nutrients regularly ensures you're getting all the vitamins, minerals, protein, fat, and carbs your body needs."
And, Lubeck adds, tofu, which comes from soy, can be a great addition to anyone’s diet. Along with being a good source of protein, tofu has vitamins and minerals, such as calcium, selenium, iron, and zinc.
But seriously, what about those phytoestrogens?
"Tofu has received a bad rap for years, mostly because it contains phytoestrogens, compounds that are similar to the hormone estrogen," says Lubeck. "Because of this, many people falsely believe that tofu and other soy products would cause estrogen activity and levels to rise in their bodies," says Lubeck.
"In fact, the thought that soy products like tofu can lead to cancer has been debunked, and soy may even help prevent cancers like prostate and breast," she says. Lubeck elaborates that much of the negative research on soy products has been performed on animals or other subjects other than humans. "Human studies on soy tend to show positive results."
"Tofu is an extremely healthy source of protein for anyone, including men," echos Dana Ellis Hunnes Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., senior clinical dietitian at UCLA medical center, assistant professor at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, and author of the book Recipe For Survival.
"Tofu is a very high-quality protein that has all the amino acids in it and can be incorporated into many types of meals," Ellis Hunnes says.
If you want to learn more about this nutrient-dense "blank canvas" of a protein—from its nutrition stats to how it’s made—we got you.
What is the nutritional profile of tofu?
One-half cup of firm tofu contains 181 calories, 22 grams of protein, 4 grams of carbohydrates, 3 grams of which are fiber, no added sugar, and 11 grams of fat.
In terms of micronutrients (if you're into that kind of thing), tofu has 861 milligrams calcium, 3 grams iron, and 299 milligrams potassium, among others.
Let’s take an extra moment to appreciate that protein content: Just half a cup of tofu has just as much protein in it as a serving of most meats. “In fact, three ounces of beef also contains 22 grams of protein," Lubeck says.
One more thing to note: The nutrition stats of tofu “depend on whether it is soft/silkened tofu, which has more water in it, or super-firm tofu, which has less water in it,” says Ellis Hunnes. “Firm tofus with less water have higher amounts of protein, and are a little higher in calories and fat ounce-for-ounce compared to silkened/soft tofus,” she says, noting that all types of tofus contain all the amino acids.
How is tofu made?
Tofu is made from soybeans which are soaked with water and then ground down to a cooked pulp. The soy milk is separated from the mixture before calcium or magnesium salts are added as a coagulant, which gives tofu its solid form. While you can make tofu at home, it’s a labor-intensive endeavor, so you likely want to buy it in pre-made blocks at the grocery store.
Will tofu cause man boobs?
Short answer? Nope.
Longer answer: "Although a case study has been published noting that soy-eating resulted in gynecomastia (man boobs) and decreased libido, it was determined that this man eats a huge amount of soy daily that most people would not come close to consuming," says Lubeck. "In other studies, it has been proven that eating soy foods will not increase estrogen or decrease testosterone. Estrogen is a hormone primarily present in women, and testosterone is a hormone mostly present in men, although all genders have a bit of each."
It has been proven that eating soy foods will not increase estrogen or decrease testosterone.
While estrogen was found to be increased in the previously mentioned case study, says Lubeck, other reports using much larger participant fields found that estrogen levels did not increase after people consumed soy. "In short, eating normal, recommended amounts of tofu and other soy products won't cause hormone changes in men."
Ellis Hunnes says some major health benefits of tofu include “lowering the risk of heart disease because of its fatty acid profile, lowering inflammation because it is a plant-based protein, and lowering the risk of cancers because it is a healthy plant-based protein that can help lower the risk of cancers."
In terms of micronutrients, Lubeck reiterates that “tofu is an excellent source of calcium, selenium, and manganese,” sharing that people can get more than half their daily needs for calcium and manganese in just half a cup of tofu. “It's also a great source of magnesium, iron, and zinc,” she says.
Lubeck also appreciates that tofu is low in carbs and contains no added sugar, making it a healthy choice for people with diabetes. “And the fact that tofu has a bit of fiber in it as well makes it even better, as fiber will help slow the digestion process and reduce the blood sugar response.”
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