In the US, heart disease is the leading cause of death in women. In 2009, the condition accounted for 1 in 4 female deaths. But a new study suggests that if women adopt a diet rich in soy – particularly before going through menopause – it could benefit heart health.

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Researchers say a soy-rich diet – particularly if adopted before menopause – could benefit heart health for women.

Past research has hailed the health benefits of soy. A 2011 study reported by Medical News Today, for example, claimed a soy-rich diet could protect against prostate cancer.

In this latest study, published in the journal Menopause, researchers at the Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, NC, wanted to see whether a soy-rich diet could protect against atherosclerosis – a risk factor for heart disease whereby the arteries become blocked by fatty substances (plaques), restricting blood flow.

To reach their findings, the team fed premenopausal monkeys with either a diet high in animal protein, or a diet rich in protein from high-isoflavone soybeans.

The team then induced menopause in the monkeys by removing their ovaries, before assigning the animals to one of four groups. Two groups carried on eating either a soy-rich or an animal protein-rich diet, while another two groups swapped to diets opposite to what they were following before menopause.

At the end of the 34-month follow-up, the researchers found that the monkeys that ate the soy-rich diet before and after menopause had good cholesterol levels, while cholesterol levels significantly improved for those that swapped to a soy-rich diet after menopause.

The team found, however, that when it came to monitoring plaque progression in the monkeys, no statistically significant differences were found between any of the groups.

But they note that monkeys that ate a lifelong diet rich in soy had much lower levels of complicated plaque in their arteries, compared with the other groups. Furthermore, the monkeys that had small plaques in their arteries prior to moving to the soy-rich diet after menopause demonstrated reduce plaque progression.

Overall, the researchers say their findings indicate that following a soy-rich diet prior to or very early after menopause could benefit heart health.

Commenting on the findings, Dr. Margery Gass, executive director of the North American Menopause Society, says:

This study underscores how important it is for women to get into the best cardiovascular shape they can before menopause. The healthy habits they start then will carry them through the years to come.”

In May of this year, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that a vegan, low-carbohydrate diet labeled “Eco-Atkins” could reduce heart disease risk.