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The New Low-Cholesterol Diet: Soy

Versatile soy protein may lower bad fats floating in your bloodstream.
By
WebMD Feature

Soy protein can be a meal, a side dish, a snack, or a drink. Made from the soybean, it's a staple of Asian diets. Yet it's largely been the butt of jokes about hippies and vegans -- until recently. Today, the buzz about soy is serious. Can it lower cholesterol naturally? Some studies say yes. But, unfortunately, research shows mixed results. We may not know the answer for years.

How Might Soy Protein Help?

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A number of studies over the past decade seemed to show soy protein could lower "bad" LDL cholesterol and triglycerides without lowering "good" HDL cholesterol. Researchers aren't exactly sure how soy protein might help. It could be a combination of the effect of the protein and natural chemicals in soy called isoflavones. But in January 2006, the American Heart Association announced some surprising news. A review of 22 clinical studies concluded that eating soy-based foods has only minimal impact on cholesterol and other heart-disease risk factors.

Until further research clears up the controversy, should you dump soy from your diet? Not at all, says Tufts University nutrition researcher Alice Lichtenstein, DSc, who helped write the AHA statement. "Soy is a great food. It is low in saturated fat and it is a good-quality protein," she says -- even if its heart benefits are less than expected.

Conflicting Evidence on Soy

There have been many studies of the effects of soy on cholesterol. One major article published in TheNew England Journal of Medicine found that replacing animal protein with soy protein could lower levels of total cholesterol, bad LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides. At the same time, it didn't significantly lower levels of "good" HDL cholesterol.

Some studies have shown that soy protein, when eaten along with other cholesterol-lowering foods, can have a big effect. In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2005, researchers tested cholesterol-lowering drugs against cholesterol-lowering foods in a group of 34 adults with high cholesterol. People ate 50 grams of soy protein daily along with other cholesterol-lowering foods. The results were striking: the diet lowered cholesterol levels about as well as cholesterol drugs.

However, not all studies agree. An analysis of various studies led by the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that soy had a modest effect on cholesterol levels. Researchers found that eating a high amount of soy -- equal to about a pound of tofu a day -- only added up to a 3% reduction in "bad" cholesterol levels.

Based on those more recent studies, the AHA Nutrition Committee no longer recommends eating soy specifically to lower cholesterol. However, the AHA does consider soy burgers and other soy foods a healthy replacement for high-fat meats.

Is This Normal? Get the Facts Fast!

Is Your Cholesterol Level Heart Healthy?
What is your LDL (low-density lipoprotein) level?

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Answer:
Desirable
0-199
Borderline
200-239
High
240+

Your level is currently

Congratulations! Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, and your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is optimal.

Congratulations! Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, and your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is near optimal.

Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is borderline high. If your LDL goes higher, your total cholesterol level could become Borderline High. Consider reducing the amount of foods you eat with saturated fats and increasing physical activity. If you get more exercise, your level of "good" HDL cholesterol may increase, which could also help to keep your levels of LDL and total cholesterol in check.

Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is High. This may mean that your level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good" cholesterol, is too low. It is best to have a high level of "good" HDL and a low level of "bad" LDL. The HDL helps keep your LDL level in check. Ask your doctor for your HDL level. If your HDL is low, increasing your physical activity can increase it, which may help reduce your LDL level.

Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Very High. This may mean that your level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good" cholesterol, is too low. It is best to have a high level of "good" HDL and a low level of "bad" LDL because the HDL helps keep your LDL level in check. Ask your doctor for your HDL level. If your HDL is low, increasing your physical activity can increase it, which may help reduce your LDL level.

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High, but fortunately your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have other non-measured increases in LDL-like particles that can increase heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High, but fortunately your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is near optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have other non-measured increases in LDL-like particles that can increase heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Borderline High, too. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High. But your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Very High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol is High, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have elevated secondary lipids, such as non-HDL particles that increase the risk of heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol is High, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is near optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have elevated secondary lipids, such as non-HDL particles that increase the risk of heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol level is High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Borderline High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol level is High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is High, too. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels! If you are struggling to bring down your total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels, your doctor may prescribe medication, such as statins. Following medication, dietary, and exercise instructions should result in improvements.

Your total cholesterol level is High, and your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Very High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels! If you are struggling to bring down your total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels, your doctor may prescribe statins or other cholesterol-lowering medications.

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