Some plant foods are high in compounds called phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens act in a similar way to estrogen and may benefit menopause and other conditions. However, research is inconclusive.

This article looks at nine foods high in phytoestrogens and offers tips for including them in the diet.

It also explains what the research says about the health benefits of phytoestrogens and advises when to be cautious about consuming too much.

A combination of foods high in phytoestrogens, including edamame beans and tofu.Share on Pinterest
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Certain plant foods contain phytoestrogens, which have an estrogen-like effect. This is because these compounds are structurally similar to estradiol, the primary female sex hormone.

The four most common types of phytoestrogens include:

  • isoflavones
  • lignans
  • coumestan
  • stilbene

Plant foods can contain various amounts of these compounds.

Learn more about phytoestrogens here.

Estrogen is responsible for essential processes in the body, including:

  • developing female sexual characteristics
  • regulating the menstrual cycle up until the menopause
  • mobilizing cholesterol
  • supporting bone density
  • ensuring healthy libido, sperm maturation, and erectile function in males
  • maintaining healthy brain function
  • controlling inflammation

Circulating estrogen must bind to receptors on cells before it can have any effect.

Animal and cell studies suggest that phytoestrogens can also bind to these receptors, causing estrogenic or anti-estrogenic effects.

However, more research is needed to determine whether phytoestrogens block or activate estrogen receptors in humans.

Plant foods, such as soy, seeds, and beans, contain phytoestrogens. While there is no recommended daily amount, some studies estimate how many phytoestrogens someone should eat for health effects.

For example, a 2019 review suggests the number of isoflavones a person needs to get any health benefits is around 40–70 milligrams (mg) per day or an average of 50 mg per day.

The following sections discuss foods high in phytoestrogens, the amounts they contain, and how to use them in recipes.

Natto is a traditional Japanese food made from fermented soybeans.

It contains 82.29 mg of isoflavones per 100g.

According to a 2020 study in Japan, there appears to be a link between consuming fermented soy products, such as natto and miso, and a reduced risk of death from a variety of different causes.

Additionally, the same study notes that natto contains nattokinase, an enzyme that may have cardiovascular benefits.

It is important to note that people should interpret these results with caution. This is because the researchers were unable to adjust their findings to account for other factors that might affect a person’s chance of mortality.

Eating natto may be an acquired taste as the beans have a strong flavor and a sticky, slippery texture.

Here are some recipes to try:

People can also try adding it to miso soup.

Learn more about probiotic foods here.

Soy protein isolate (powder) contains 91.05 mg of isoflavones per 100g.

To make a soy protein drink, a person can add a measure of soy protein powder to a smoothie containing blueberries, apple, and green leafy vegetables, such as spinach or kale.

They can also use unsweetened plant milk or coconut water to thin the drink to their preferred consistency.

Some people may prefer to choose an organic non-GMO soy protein powder.

Here are some smoothie recipes to try:

Learn about different types of soy here.

A 2015 review indicates that flaxseed contains about 75-800 times more lignans than cereal grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables.

Secoisolariciresinol diglycoside (SDG) is the major lignan in flaxseed.

The amount of SDG can vary:

  • defatted flaxseed flour contains between 11.7–24.1 milligrams per gram (mg/g)
  • whole flaxseed flour contains between 6.1–13.3mg/g

People can grind whole flaxseeds using a coffee grinder and store them in the refrigerator or freezer to keep them fresh.

They can add flaxseeds to breakfast cereals or smoothies. They can also use them in baking.

Here are some recipes to try:

Learn more about the health benefits of flaxseeds here.

Tempeh contains 60.61 mg of isoflavones per 100g.

Tempeh is made from whole fermented soybeans and is a healthful way to consume soy.

Someone can buy tempeh in a store, either plain or with added flavors.

There are different ways to prepare and cook tempeh, including marinating, steaming, or baking.

Here are some recipes to try:

Learn more about vegan probiotics here.

Broccoli contains 98.51 mg of lignans per 100g.

It also includes a compound sulforaphane, which some studies indicate has anti-cancer properties.

An older study indicates that steaming broccoli is the best way to cook it as it preserves most of the nutrients.

People can try adding lightly steamed broccoli to salads or stir-frying it with garlic.

A simple way to eat a good portion of broccoli is in a soup.

Here are some broccoli soup recipes to try:

Learn more about the health benefits of broccoli here.

Miso contains 41.45 mg of isoflavones per 100g.

Miso is a fermented paste made from cooked soybeans, rice, or barley. Originating in Japan, miso gives an umami flavor to dishes. In Japanese, umami means a savory taste.

There are different miso varieties, including white, red, and brown, and each has a slightly different flavor.

Someone can add miso to soups or stews and use it to marinate meat.

Learn more about fermented foods here.

Cooked firm tofu contains 22.05 mg of isoflavones per 100g

Tofu is made from soybeans and is an important protein source for plant-based diets. People may prefer to choose organic, non-GMO tofu.

Someone can add tofu to a stir fry or marinate and bake it. People can also use tofu instead of eggs to make a scramble.

Here is a tofu scramble recipe to try.

Learn all about tofu here.

Boiled edamame beans contain 17.92 mg of isoflavones per 100g

Edamame beans are whole, immature soybeans. People can purchase them fresh, frozen, or as a dip or snack.

People can try adding frozen edamame beans to a stir fry with chicken, pak choi, green cabbage, and thinly sliced carrots.

They can flavor the stir fry with fresh ginger, garlic, and tamari for a healthful and tasty meal.

Learn more about edamame beans here.

Sesame seeds contain a lignan called sesamin, which some studies indicate may have protective effects against cancer and other diseases.

People can sprinkle sesame seeds on breakfast cereals, salads, or stir-fries.

Tahini is a paste made from sesame seeds and makes a creamy dressing for salads, vegetables, and falafel.

Here is a recipe for tahini dressing.

Learn about a sesame allergy here.

According to a 2017 article, phytoestrogens may lower the chance of developing:

  • menopausal symptoms
  • cardiovascular disease
  • some cancers
  • brain function disorders

However, the article states that the data that is currently available is not sufficient.

It also states that the current evidence on the beneficial health effects may not be substantial enough to outweigh the possible health risks.

Some studies indicate that phytoestrogens may have adverse health effects.

A 2019 review indicated that children are more sensitive than adults to estrogen compounds. Breastfeeding or soy milk might expose infants to phytoestrogens. The authors suggest this may affect their reproductive systems.

However, most of the studies looked at in the review are on animals, and other studies also offer conflicting results.

Some researchers highlight the effects of phytoestrogens as endocrine disruptors. A 2018 review suggested phytoestrogens could have adverse effects on the hormones and immune system.

Additionally, some people are intolerant to soy products, so they should avoid these as sources of phytoestrogens.

A wise approach might be including phytoestrogens in moderate amounts as part of a healthful diet for people who do not have a health condition.

A 2019 review suggested that phytoestrogens may be a safe alternative to hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for those going through menopause, and they may help with hot flushes.

However, more research is needed to confirm these findings.

A 2020 review suggested isoflavones benefit bone health and prevent osteoporosis in postmenopausal women. However, the authors point out the results are not conclusive.

The same review indicated isoflavones might reduce the risk of breast and endometrial cancer. Still, scientists need to do further studies to confirm these results.

Eating foods containing phytoestrogens, such as soy products and flaxseeds, may naturally help support someone’s hormones, particularly around menopause. However, there is not enough research to confirm these findings.

Those with soy intolerance should choose alternative sources of phytoestrogens.

Soy products can be an important protein source for people eating a plant-based diet, but they may prefer to eat unprocessed and non-GMO forms.

It is important to note that people should talk to a dietitian or doctor before consuming phytoestrogen supplements.