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Are Phytoestrogens in Foods Good or Bad?

by
author image Betty Holt
Betty Holt began writing professionally in 1966 as co-editor of a summer mimeographed newspaper, "The Galax News." She has written for "Grit," "Mountain Living," "Atlanta Weekly" and others. Holt received a Bachelor of Arts in psychology and Master of Education from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Her articles specialize in health, fitness, nutrition and mental health.
Are Phytoestrogens in Foods Good or Bad?
Soybeans are a good source of phytoestrogens. Photo Credit Jupiterimages/liquidlibrary/Getty Images

Phytoestrogens are often associated with menopause, as a natural way to relieve some of the discomforts associated with that passage. The word phytoestrogen comes from "phyto," which stands for plant, and "estrogen" because of their effects on estrogen activity in the body. Whether they are good or bad depends on how you use them, whether you have any existing health conditions and to what extent you use them.

Phytoestrogens

Phytoestrogens consist of a group of compounds found in plants that influence estrogen activity in the body. Several types are found in plants, and while most are non-steroidal, some plants have tiny amounts of steroidal estrogens like those produced in the body. The following plants contain steroidal estrogens, either estradiol, estrone or estriol: French beans, pomegranate seed, apple seed, date palm, licorice and rice. Most non-steroidal estrogens are called phenolics, which include flavones, flavanones, flavanols, isoflavones, lignans and coumestans. Isoflavones are found in soybeans and plants such as red clover. Lignans occur in flaxseed, whole grains and some fruits and vegetables.

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Foods Containing Phytoestrogens

According to Ann Louise Gittleman, author of "Before the Change," the following foods are sources of phytoestrogens: alfalfa, apples, asparagus, barley, beans, carrots, cereals, cherries, corn, fennel garlic, green pepper, hops, legumes, licorice and linseed. Phytoestrogens are also found in milk, oats, olive oil, onions, pears, peas, pomegranate, rice ran, rye, dried sea vegetables, sunflower seeds, sweet potatoes, soy products, squash and wheat germ. Though many menopausal women have found relief from hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms by taking phytoestrogens, either in natural form or in dietary supplements, the Mayo Clinic says most studies have found them ineffective.

Cancer

It has always been assumed that Asian women, who have a lower incidence of hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms, and a lower rate of breast cancer, do so because of a high concentration of phytoestrogens in their diet. In recent years, some physicians have become more cautious about the estrogen activity in phytoestrogens in women who have had breast, uterine or ovarian cancer, or who are at risk for those diseases. The prevailing view of most physicians, stated by Cyndi Thomson, Ph.D., R.D., at Breastcancer.org, is to avoid high intakes of soy products if you have or have had cancer that is estrogen-receptor positive. This is even truer of soy concentrates and supplements. However, according to Thomson, you do not need to become fanatical about avoiding soy. If you would like to eat some fresh soybeans occasionally, feel free to do so.

The Future

Part of the interest in phytoestrogens has come about as women have sought to find options to conventional hormone replacement therapy, which is harmful for some women. Though the Power Surge website reports on positive findings in the reduction of bone loss as well as a reduction of cardiovascular disease risk with soy phytoestrogen supplements, it admits that more research is needed to more accurately determine the benefits and risks.

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