Pass the tofu, please. Plant-based proteins, including proteins from soybeans, are good choices for people with diabetes because they have healthy fats and fiber, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA). Quality proteins from soybeans include edamame, soy nuts and tofu.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for people with diabetes, the American Heart Association (AHA) says. The AHA recommends eating soy food proteins to replace animal proteins for heart health. Soy proteins are free from cholesterol and low in saturated fat, the Cleveland Clinic notes.
Although you might think about sugars (carbohydrates) as the main thing to track in a diabetes diet, proteins are also important.
"People living with diabetes have found that attention to lean proteins combined with other nutrients at mealtimes can lead to more sustained glucose ranges. Reasons include reduction in quantity of carbohydrate consumed at the same meal and improvement in satiety — feelings of fullness or satisfaction," says Joy Ashby Cornthwaite, RD, CDE, certified diabetes care and education specialist at UT Physicians, University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.
Hearty Benefits of Soy
Cleveland Clinic lists these benefits of soy foods for heart health:
- Replacing animal protein with soy protein may help lower your blood pressure.
- Unsaturated fats in soy foods may help lower your cholesterol.
- Soy fats are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to lower heart disease risk.
- Soy foods boost dietary fiber, which may reduce cholesterol and improve heart health.
The best soy foods for fiber are:
- Black soybeans.
- Soy nuts.
- Soy flour.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) lists another benefit for soy: isoflavones. These natural antioxidants found in soy foods may help reduce hot flashes in women going through menopause.
Soybean Food Risks
It might seem like soybean foods would be the perfect protein for diabetes because of all the heart health benefits, but there are also some cautions. "There are no singular food items that can be considered magic bullets for glucose control. In the context of soy protein foods, a person should discuss conditions which may support minimizing or limiting soy in the diet, such as certain cancers, thyroid conditions or food allergies," Ashby Cornthwaite says.
The NCCIH says that soy is generally safe in normal dietary amounts. However, some people are allergic to soy, and soy may have side effects that include stomach pain and diarrhea. Because isoflavones have an estrogen-like effect, long-term use of soy supplements may increase the risk of uterine cancer or breast cancer.
The ADA says that plant proteins, including soy proteins, do have carbohydrates. The amount of carbohydrates varies between types of soy foods. So, if you are counting carbs for blood sugar control, make sure to read your food labels when shopping. The Cleveland Clinic warns that soy protein supplements show no health benefits. The best way to get soy benefits is with whole foods.
The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health adds that fermented soy foods like miso, natto, tempeh and soy sauce have both sugar and protein broken down during fermentation. Soy sauce has no protein, so there would be none of the benefits seen with whole food proteins.
According to the American Cancer Society, the benefits of eating soy outweigh the risks. Whole soy foods like edamame, tofu and soy milk may lower the risk of heart disease when these proteins replace animal fats and processed meats.
"Barring any medically indicated harm, people with diabetes should be focused on choosing whole food soy items, like edamame and minimally processed tofu. Soy whole-food products can function as plant-based protein sources," Ashby Cornthwaite says.
- American Diabetes Association: “Protein”
- American Heart Association: “Living Healthy With Diabetes”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Soy Foods”
- Joy Ashby Cornthwaite, MS, RD, LD, CDE, registered dietitian/nutritionist, certified diabetes educator, University of Texas Health Science Center, UT Physicians, Houston
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Soy”
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: “Straight Talk About Soy”
- American Cancer Society: “Soy and Cancer Risk: Our Expert’s Advice”