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Estrogen foods are foods that contain substances called phytoestrogens. Estrogen has effects on certain tissues in your body. The plant substances are called phytoestrogens because they act on these same tissues.
Some websites will claim that these foods contain estrogen or that there is estrogen in soy foods or products: not true. What they contain is substances that act on the same tissues.
Other sites will say that eating estrogen foods will increase the estrogen in your body: the truth is, some will and some won't. Some studies have found that certain phytoestrogens in the diet act as estrogen inhibitors. This is natural. Progesterone and estrogen act as balancing agents for each other. Healthy amounts of progesterone keep estrogen in balance, and vice versa.
Estrogen foods are now highly touted for many benefits, from reducing hot flashes and other menopause symptoms to reducing the risk of heart disease and certain cancers.
The truth is that many studies have been conducted with different types of phytoestrogens and their effects on different tissues, and many of them conclude that the study was inconclusive and requires more research.
Some studies do have positive outcomes, but there are also studies with negative outcomes (some studies show increased risk of some cancers with some phytoestrogens, for example).
Even so, foods containing phytoestrogens are generally healthy foods, and may have many other benefits, such as antioxidant properties. (For more on antioxidants, see antioxidant
Olives, garlic, onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes and carrots are all good sources of phytoestrogens, along with many fruits, beans, and whole grains.
Two major groups of phytoestrogens are flavonoids and lignans. You may have heard of the flavonoid quercetin, which is a type of phytoestrogen. Another well-known group of flavonoids is the isoflavones.
Quercetin is also a powerful antioxidant. Blueberries and other berries are a good source of quercetin. Apples, red grapes, black grapes and cherries are also contain quercetin. Quercetin has anti-infllammatory qualities as well as being a phytoestrogen and an antioxidant. Inflammation is a factor in heart disease, autoimmune and other immune-related diseases and chronic diseases.
Vegetables with high amounts of quercetin include broccoli, kale and other leafy greens. Green tea is another source of quercetin.
Isoflavones are found in soy products. Tempeh, miso, tamari and other fermented soy foods in small amounts are healthy. Soy milk and tofu are not. Soy needs to be fermented in order to neutralize it's natural toxins and antinutrients (protease inhibitors, phytates). Eating unfermented soy foods will put a huge strain on your digestive system and block absorption of some nutrients.
Because the baby-boomer women are now going through menopause, businesses (including very large businesses) want to get in on the huge market opportunity. Isoflavones have been isolated and put into supplement form because they may help reduce hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms.
For example, Archer Daniels Midland, an agricultural processor, was rated number 27 on the Fortune 500 list in 2010 – a list of America's largest companies.
According to the Weston A. Price Foundation website, “Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) recently withdrew its application to the FDA for GRAS [Generally Recognized As Safe] status for soy isoflavones following an outpouring of protest from the scientific community. The FDA never approved GRAS status for soy protein isolate because of concern regarding the presence of toxins and carcinogens in processed soy.”
So even the Food and Drug Association will not recognize these isoflavone supplements as safe, and yet everywhere you look on the internet, you will find someone promoting the health benefits of these supplements.
As with so many of these experiments, we find that you can't improve upon nature.
Plants in their natural form have so many synergistic substances and such a complex design that we cannot even determine all the actions they have in our bodies. What we do know is that people have been eating these foods for thousands of years with healthy outcomes. Not so with isolated compounds in supplement form.
Estrogen foods, however, may reduce the risk of osteoporosis and breast cancer. See the studies mentioned below.
There are many studies on phytoestrogens, some of which are conflicting or inconclusive. Here are a couple of examples with more positive outcomes.
Drinking tea May Reduce the Risk of Osteoporosis
One study of 1256 women aged 65-76 in Britain concluded that drinking tea may reduce the risk of osteoporosis. (AJCN, April 2000 71: 1003-1007)
Phytoestrogens and Breast Cancer Risk
Buck, Zaineddin, Vrieling, Linseisen, and Chang-Claude (2010) conducted a meta-analysis of 21 epidemiologic studies published between 1997 and August 2009 to determine the associations between lignans and breast cancer risk.
Their conclusion: “High lignan exposure may be associated with a reduced breast cancer risk in postmenopausal women. Additional work is warranted to clarify the association between lignan exposure and breast cancer risk. ”
Foods high in lignans include flaxseeds, sesame seeds, cashews, whole grains such as oats and barley, and many vegetables and fruits, especially berries.
In summary, phytoestrogenic foods are health-promoting, isolated phytoestrogens in supplement form may not be. Eat these foods for many health benefits. Just don't believe all the hype.
Buck, K., Zaineddin, A.K., Vrieling, A.,Linseisen, J., and Chang-Claude, J. (2010) Meta-analyses of lignans and enterolignans in relation to breast cancer risk. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 92, 141-153. Retrieved August 13, 2011 from http://www.ajcn.org/search?submit=yes&y=0&fulltext=phytoestrogens&x=0&FIRSTINDEX=10
Hegarty, V., May, H., Khaw, K. (2000). Tea Drinking and Bone Mineral Density in Older Women. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 71, 1003-1007. Retrieved August 14, 2011 from http://www.ajcn.org/search?submit=yes&y=0&fulltext=phytoestrogens&x=0&FIRSTINDEX=120
Weston A. Price Foundation. Soy Alert! Retrieved August 13, 2011 from http://westonaprice.org/soy-alert/soy-alert-brochure
Natural Approaches to Menopause > Menopause Diets > Estrogen Foods