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Soy lattes, soy milk and tofu are all delicious treats, but they're also controversial when it comes to breast cancer. I can't tell you how many times my patients ask me if they can eat soy, recently I got a similar question from a viewer.
Hi Dr. Coomer,
I am a 56-year-old woman going through menopause. My only menopausal complaint is hot flashes, and I find that drinking half a cup of soy milk a day seems to help take the edge off the hot flashes. Can taking dietary soy increase my chances of breast cancer? Should I stop drinking soy milk on a daily basis?
Soy and Health Benefits
Americans have added soy to their diet lately because some studies have shown that it may lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of certain cancers. But according to the American Heart Association, soy cannot be directly linked to good heart health. Nonetheless, soy is high in protein and used as a healthy alternative to foods that contain animal products with cholesterol and saturated fat.
Soy and Breast Cancer
Soy contains a chemical called phytoestrogen, which acts just like the hormone estrogen in your body. Estrogen levels drop during menopause, which is what causes the hot flashes many women experience. The phytoestrogen you get from soy can help alleviate symptoms by acting as a hormone replacement for the decreased levels of estrogen in your body. But estrogen causes breast cancer, which is the reason I encourage my breast cancer patients to limit their intake of soy products.
However, some studies done in Asian women found that it may lower the risk of breast cancer development. The study found that women who ate more than 15 grams of soy protein a day had a 30 percent lower risk of cancer recurrence than women who ate less than five grams per day. One cup of soy milk has six to eight grams of soy protein in it. Asian women typically eat a diet rich in soy and studies have shown they have a lower rate of breast cancer than Americans.
But - there's a catch. Lifestyle differences between Asian and American women may make the playing field uneven. The women in the Shanghai Breast Cancer Survivor study ate soy from lightly-processed whole foods. We don't know if these whole foods in Asia have the same effect on the body as the soy supplements and soy proteins added to processed foods like we have here in the U.S. Also, women in Asia start eating soy at a very young age, so it's hard to know how the findings will affect their American counterparts.
It may seem confusing, but the bottom line is that we don't yet know if soy is harmful or beneficial for women. This is why you should speak with your doctor about what's best for you. If you were my patient, I would tell you to limit your soy intake to less than 25 grams per day. You don't have to completely give up soy, just be careful about how much you're eating. And if you want an alternative to soy for combating hot flashes, try avoiding triggers like: spicy and acidic foods, hot drinks, caffeine, alcohol, white sugar, saturated fats, tobacco and stress.
If you have a question you want me to answer, e-mail it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Cynara Coomer is the Chief of Breast Surgery & Director of The Comprehensive Breast Center at Staten Island University Hospital. She is also an assistant clinical professor of surgery specializing in breast health and breast cancer surgery at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. She is a FOX News Health contributor providing medical expertise on a variety of topics in cancer research with a focus on women's health, breast diseases and tips for healthy breasts at any age. If you have a question email her at DrCoomer@foxnews.com