The controversy surrounding the health effects of tofu is constantly shifting. One year it’s a heath food, the next, it’s a food to avoid.
It leaves you frustrated and confused about whether you should include tofu in your diet.
This article will remove the frustration by taking a science-based approach to the issue and guide you to understand all tofu benefits and disadvantages.
What is Tofu?
Tofu comes from soybean curds. It’s also naturally a gluten-free product that has no cholesterol.
It’s made by pressing condensed soy milk into tightly formed blocks, called tofu.
Over 2,000 years ago, it’s rumored that the Chinese discovered it after accidentally combining soy milk with nigari. A coagulant that is the after product of extracting salt from salt water.
Then, in the early 1900’s, most of the soy production moved to the Westernized world, where it dominates the market today.
Tofu Benefits and Disadvantages
Tofu has a vast number of positive health benefits. It’s been shown to help fight disease, increase bone health, and make your skin more elastic to name a few.
Not only that, it’s an excellent source of protein, calcium and iron.
With only a few controversial disadvantages, keep reading to discover why you should include more tofu into your diet.
1. It’s a Nutritional Powerhouse
Tofu is a high protein vegan and vegetarian protein source. It considered a complete protein because it has all nine essential amino acids.
Along with protein, tofu is also rich in vitamins and minerals.
One 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of tofu contains:
Protein: 8 grams
Carbs: 2 grams
Fiber: 1 gram
Fat: 4 grams
Manganese: 31% of the RDI
Calcium: 20% of the RDI
Selenium: 14% of the RDI
Phosphorus: 12% of the RDI
Copper: 11% of the RDI
Magnesium: 9% of the RDI
Iron: 9% of the RDI
Zinc: 6% of the RDI
Additionally, one serving is only 70 calories, making tofu a low-calorie nutritional powerhouse.
2. It’s Good For Your Heart
Research consistently shows that a diet rich in beans and legumes is great for heart health.
In fact, a 2001 study showed that eating beans four times per week lowered heart disease risk by 22% compared to those eating beans once per week.
Tofu also contains isoflavones. Think of them as scavengers for potentially cancerous cells in our body.
These isoflavones have an anti-inflammatory effect that street-sweep our arteries so that blood can flow freely to our tissues.
3. Tofu Fights Type II Diabetes
30 million people in the US have diabetes. Likewise, an extra eight million people may not even know they have it.
This is a scary statistic, but tofu can help you avoiding becoming one. A one-year study conducted in 2012 showed that patients taking 100mg of isoflavones per day improved their insulin sensitivity.
Insulin sensitivity gets measured by looking at how effective your body is at taking the sugar from your blood into your cells.
Better insulin sensitivity equates to better blood glucose control, which is essential to prevent type II diabetes.
4. It’s Protective Against Cancer
Phytoestrogens that tend to get a bad rap. Yet, it’s been confirmed in multiple studies that they help reduce the risk of certain cancers.
In short, Phytoestrogens block estrogen from attaching to our cells. Therefore, reducing the amount of total estrogen in the body.
Too much estrogen can lead to severe complications like cancer and other cardiac events.
Research conducted at University of Southern California suggests that women who consume just one serving of soy milk or tofu (3.5 oz) daily are 30 percent less likely to develop breast cancer.
Another study out of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that an increased intake of soy actually reduced the risk of prostate cancer by 25 percent.
Not only that, when ingesting non-fermented soy products like soy milk and tofu, the risk reduction increased by an additional 5 percent.
This may explain why Asian populations have low levels of cancer.
5. It Reduces Symptoms of Menopause
Menopause is a frustrating time for women due to many rapid hormonal changes within the body. Hot flashes being one of the hardest to cope with.
The good news is that tofu can help cut the severity and frequency of hot flashes in menopausal women.
A 2018 review concluded that consuming about 54g of isoflavones (½ serving of tofu) for six to twelve weeks significantly reduced the frequency and severity of hot flashes.
Additionally, the authors of this double-blind, placebo controlled study (the gold standard of studies) tested the main phytoestrogen in tofu, genistein, against estrogen-progestogen therapy (EPT).
Their conclusion stated “genistein might have positive effects on hot flashes without a negative impact” on the female body.
They even suggested genistein could be used as a “strategic therapeutic alternative” to EPT.
6. It Helps Build Muscle
Despite what you may read in the headlines, tofu is an excellent source of alternative protein.
One serving of tofu has eight grams of high-quality plant protein, as well as being considered a complete protein.
This means it has all nine essential amino acids that the body cannot produce on its own. Medical professionals recommend a safe upper limit for tofu consumption to five servings per day.
That equates to up to 40g of protein daily from tofu or other soy products. Considering the average daily protein needs for women (46g) and men (56g), it’s a fantastic addition to your diet.
7. It Helps You Sleep Better
If you want to get better sleep, increase your magnesium intake.
Eating more tofu can help you sleep better that because one serving has 14% of the recommended daily intake (RDI) for magnesium.
Magnesium helps with sleep by maintaining adequate levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that’s involved in deep, restful sleep. On the contrary, low levels of GABA contribute to insomnia and poor sleep.
So it’s important to maintain adequate levels of GABA throughout the day so that by nighttime, sleep comes easy. Eating tofu, along with other high magnesium plant foods like dark leafy greens, nuts, and legumes can help you support adequate levels.
Likewise, high magnesium consumption, specifically through diet, also plays a role in preventing disease. This 2014 analysis of over almost 25,000 people showed that high levels of magnesium are inversely associated with metabolic syndrome.
Considering metabolic syndrome is a global epidemic and a precursor to diabetes, it’s imperative to eat more magnesium in your diet.
8. It Helps Strengthen Your Bones
Tofu helps strengthen your bones and maintain your bone mineral density. For years, nutrition professionals praised cow’s milk as the leader for strong bones, but recent research has disproved that old thinking.
Obtaining calcium through plant foods, like tofu is much safer. Unlike animal products that actually leach calcium from your bones, tofu seems to have the opposite effect.
As an example, one serving of calcium-fortified tofu provides whopping 300mg of calcium. Over one-third of the recommended 1,000 -1,200mg calcium daily.
Dietitians recommend tofu not only for strong bones, but also because to prevent bone loss. Menopausal women in particular because bone loss accelerates during the late stages of menopause and continues through the early post-menopausal stages.
9. It Can Lower Your LDL Cholesterol
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a review of 11 studies and concluded that soy isoflavones reduced LDL cholesterol by 3 to 5 percent.
Although the reduction is minimal, the study noted that subjects that were already hypercholesterolemic (diagnosed with high cholesterol) saw the most benefit.
Experts attribute this to the proteins and isoflavones found in tofu. They seem work synergistically to lower levels of LDL cholesterol.
Consuming three servings of tofu or other soy products (like miso) daily, yields the best cholesterol-lowering results.
10. It Promotes Kidney Health
Tofu is low in saturated fat and has no cholesterol. These two attributes make tofu a great option to protect the health of your kidneys.
Why? Heart disease is a risk factor for kidney disease.
Research has shown that high saturated fat intake (particularly from animal protein) puts you at a higher risk of heart disease. Therefore, by replacing animal protein with tofu, you improve the health of both your kidneys and your heart.
11. It Helps You Eat Less
You now know that one serving of tofu has eight grams of protein. Similarly, you know that protein helps make us feel full, but a new study helps us understand why.
We have a major vein that runs through our gut called the portal vein. Inside the walls of that vein, there are mu-opioid receptors (MORs) that communicate to our brain about when we should eat more or eat less.
Those MORs get suppressed when we digest proteins. That is why protein-rich tofu can help you eat less, yet still feel full.
Moreover, at just 70 calories per serving, tofu is an ideal food to help shed those unwanted pounds.
12. It Helps Prevent Anemia
Anemia is a condition that stems from an iron deficiency. It’s characterized by low levels of red blood cells and hemoglobin in the bloodstream.
Tofu is an excellent source of iron that will help prevent anemia. Since it’s more common in athletes, endurance enthusiasts who eat plant-based need to test their iron levels regularly, as they tend to lose it faster than the general population.
Additionally, plant-based iron does not absorb as well as animal protein, so vegans and vegetarians should eat more. With a well-planned diet and using a couple of iron absorption hacks, anemia can easily be avoided.
13. It Fends Off Osteoporosis
Osteoporosis is linked to several deficiencies, low calcium being one of them. It’s been secretly dubbed the “silent killer” because many people diagnosed don’t recognize the symptoms in the first place.
One serving of tofu contains 20 percent of the RDI for calcium.
14. It Smooths Out Wrinkles
Yes, tofu can help you get smooth skin. A specific isoflavone in tofu called aglycone reduces wrinkles in middle-aged women.
One 12-week research study found that women consuming aglycone significantly improved wrinkles compared to the control group.
It’s hypothesized that like estrogen, phytoestrogens (also considered isoflavones) can help increase the thickness of skin.
This is also why you may see soy products in your favorite cruelty-free skin creams.
15. It Contains Heart Healthy Omega-3s
Omega-3 fatty acids are extremely important for our health. For vegans and vegetarians, it’s crucial to get these fatty acids from plant foods, tofu being one choice.
Eating a diet that contains high amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids lowers inflammation and triglycerides. Two effects that can improve heart health.
There are two types of Omega-3s that we need: ALA and EPA/DHA. Tofu contains ALA fatty acids.
In fact, one serving of tofu contains 20 percent of our daily ALA needs. When shopping for tofu that is high in Omegas, choose organic extra firm tofu.
16. It May Increase Your Flatulence
Fact: beans contain a sugar called oligosaccharides that we cannot break down in our bodies. This sugar (also found in tofu) can cause flatulence, especially if you are new to a plant-based diet.
Tofu comes from soybeans, and while those soybeans get broken down during to form a brick of tofu, it’s not always enough to prevent gas.
However, there is hope. Chewing your food adequately and eating slowly can help prevent excess flatulence from tofu.
Not only that, but tofu’s close cousins’ tempeh and natto are also great alternatives too. These fermented soy products make it easier for your body to digest.
17. It May Cause Problems With Hypothyroidism
Current evidence surrounding tofu and the thyroid gland draw mixed conclusions. As it stands, tofu contains goitrogens.
This term comes from goiter, which is an enlarged thyroid gland. Goitrogens can sometimes interfere with the normal function of the thyroid gland.
Yet, evidence from research studies concludes that those with a healthy thyroid should not worry. It’s those already diagnosed with hypothyroidism and have an iodine deficiency who are at the highest risk.
When diagnosed with hypothyroidism, make sure you get enough iodine in your diet. To avoid a deficiency, add one-half teaspoon of iodized salt per day.
Equally effective, you could take a vegan kelp supplement that has iodine too.
Lastly, my simply cooking tofu, you inactive many goitrogens, thus avoiding any intake issues in the first place.
18. It Contains Antinutrients
You’ve probably heard that phytates are not good for your health. But why exactly?
A phytate is a phytic acid that is bound to a mineral. Sometimes these phytates can block mineral absorption, particularly with a plant-based diet.
However, phytate dangers are widely misstated and are largely based on theory, and not conclusive evidence. By simply heating tofu, you can destroy many of the common antinutrients.
Unless you are eating a nutritionally inadequate diet or if tofu is your sole source of iron on a plant-based diet, there is no reason to fear antinutrients.
19. It Can Cause Digestive Difficulty
Eating tofu may cause issues around digestion. The reason is that tofu contains enzymes that are difficult for our intestines to breakdown, specifically a pancreatic enzyme called trypsin inhibitor.
When trypsin inhibitor gets blocked, tofu travels through the gut without being fully digested. This may cause intestinal discomfort in some people.
Yet, similar to antinutrients, heat plays a significant role in digestion. During the process of creating tofu into a block, the moisture from the heat deactivates most trypsin inhibitors.
This deactivation decreases the amount of other residual inhibitors to as low as 5%-20%. For most people, this will not affect digestion.
20. It Can Increase Your Exposure to GMOs
Eating tofu can increase your exposure to GMOs. However, that is only if you choose non-GMO tofu.
GMO foods have also been overhyped as dangerous voids throughout the last decade.
A recent 2014 review that combed through the last 10 years of research concluded that no significant hazards were detected from genetically engineered crops. Many claims you read that demonize GMOs are opinions, not based on research.
The good news is that if you want to eat non-GMO tofu, options are plentiful. When shopping for tofu, look on the packaging for a label that states the tofu is “NON GMO VERIFIED”.
21. It Can Cause an Allergy Flare
Soy is one of the most common allergies.
Common symptoms include:
- Abdominal Pain
Symptoms tend appear immediately. So if you experience these shortly after eating tofu, you may have an allergy.
Young children in particular are also more susceptible to a soy allergy than adults. Thankfully, most of them outgrow the allergy by age 10.
However, if your child has an allergic reaction, contact a doctor immediately.
Finally, unless a child gets diagnosed with a soy allergy, one-half cup of tofu daily is perfectly safe for them to eat.
Is Tofu Healthy?
Tofu is safe to consume for both adults and children without allergies or another diagnosed condition that calls for avoiding soy products. A safe upper limit of intake is five servings per day for adults and one serving per day for children.
Among many other benefits, tofu can help protect your heart, your kidney, and lower your risk for cancer.
If you’re new to tofu and or confused about how to eat it, try this recipe. It’s delicious, easy to make and requires minimal ingredients.