Need more plant protein in your life? Tofu is a versatile vegan food that can take on basically any flavor while also offering a bunch of health benefits despite the controversy around eating soy.
Here’s why you’ll want to start cooking with tofu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Tofu is made out of soybeans in a process similar to cheese making. Legend has it that tofu was created by accident about 2,000 years ago in China, but it’s now produced all over the world.
So how the heck do soybeans turn into those tofu blocks? Basically, soybeans are made into soy milk, which is curdled using a coagulant called nigari. This is salt extracted from seawater, which provides minerals and helps the tofu hold its shape. After it’s curdled, the soy milk is pressed into blocks to make tofu’s classic shape.
You can likely find both plain and seasoned tofu in most grocery stores.
Adding tofu to your diet may offer a bunch of health benefits. Here’s what research has to say about how these potential benefits stack up.
1. It’s nutritious
Tofu is an extremely nutrient-dense food full of essential vitamins and minerals.
Eating one-quarter of a block of hard tofu (122 grams) will give you:
- Calories: 177
- Protein: 15.5 grams
- Carbs: 5 grams
- Fat: 12 grams
- Fiber: 0.7 grams
- Calcium: 421 milligrams
- Magnesium: 65 milligrams
- Iron: 3.4 milligrams
- Phosphorus: 282 milligrams
- Potassium: 178 milligrams
- Zinc: 2 milligrams
- Folate: 27 micrograms
2. May help with heart health
While research is still lacking in this area, a few studies have linked soy to reduced risk of heart disease and benefits for overall heart health. One 2017 review found that eating soy-based foods may reduce risk factors for heart issues by lowering blood pressure, blood sugar, and inflammation.
This could be because tofu contains isoflavones, which are a type of plant estrogen (aka phytoestrogen).
3. May keep bones healthy
A 2011 review found that bone mineral density increased when women consumed 39 grams of soybeans and 8 milligrams of isoflavones every day. But the author notes that it’s unclear whether soy foods alone help bone health or whether those foods are simply part of overall eating patterns that contribute to bone health.
4. May reduce symptoms of menopause
Eating tofu may also help with other menopause side effects, such as hot flashes.
A 2021 study found that when postmenopausal women ate 1/2 cup of cooked soybeans every day for 12 weeks, their total hot flashes and moderate-to-severe hot flashes decreased. By the end of the study period, some women reported no hot flashes.
But we still need more studies to find out more clearly whether eating soy products like tofu can help with this menopause symptom.
5. May support your immune system
You may think upping your vitamin C intake will help your immune system, but don’t forget about the mineral zinc. Research suggests that zinc deficiencies are linked to prolonged illness and a lack of immune response.
Throw tofu in the mix and you’ll get about 2 milligrams of zinc in one-quarter of a block of tofu — that’s about 18 percent of the recommended daily intake for adult males and 22 percent for adult females.
6. May reduce risk of certain cancers
No, tofu isn’t the cure for cancer. But, it might help reduce your risk certain types of cancer. We still need more research on this, but here’s what some studies have to say.
Studies suggest that Asian women who eat a lot of soy-based foods on the reg have about a 30 percent lower risk of developing breast cancer. But researchers theorize that these benefits are more likely to occur in people who have been eating soy since childhood.
Eating tofu is also linked to decreased risk of digestive cancers like stomach cancer. One 2016 review notes that high soy intake may reduce the risk of digestive system cancer by 7 percent. And a 2013 study found a 61 percent decrease in stomach cancer in men with high intakes of tofu.
7. May reduce type 2 diabetes risk
While there isn’t super strong evidence that tofu can help prevent type 2 diabetes, research has found an association between isoflavones (which are in tofu) and decreased risk of diabetes.
One 2017 review noted that postmenopausal women with metabolic syndrome (a condition that increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes) had improvements in fasting blood sugar levels, insulin levels, and insulin sensitivity after taking daily isoflavone supplements.
8. May help with skin health
Your skin takes a hit every day from bacteria and UV radiation, but eating more tofu might help reduce the damage.
A 2015 review noted that soybeans may help reduce inflammation, boost collagen production, and protect against UV radiation. But we still need more studies to find out whether these effects are legit.
9. May help with brain function
Is tofu the key to a healthy noggin? Probably not, but it might help.
According to a 2014 review, phytoestrogens found in soy-based foods may help prevent diseases that affect memory and cognitive function, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
While the research is a bit conflicting, a 2020 review also linked soy isoflavones with cognitive function improvement.
10. May aid weight loss
Adding a soy-based protein like tofu to your plate may help you lose weight and build muscle 💪🏻.
According to a 2020 review, soy foods contain branched-chain amino acids, which help regulate weight, build muscle (and prevent muscle loss), and improve athletic performance.
The researchers also noted that soy protein can help reduce body weight and body mass index in postmenopausal women.
11. May help with kidney health
Your kidneys help filter your blood and remove waste from your body. And without healthy kidneys, you’re at risk of a bunch of health probs. While eating tofu isn’t going to magically cure kidney problems, it may help with side effects.
One 2014 review found that soy protein intake reduced serum creatinine, phosphorus, and triglyceride levels in people with chronic kidney disease. Lowering these levels may help increase kidney function.
12. May lower cholesterol levels
Not all cholesterol is bad — it’s the type and amount that matter.
The “bad” type of cholesterol (LDL) sticks to the inside of your arteries and blocks blood flow. And when high LDL is combined with high triglycerides (the most common type of fat in your body), it can put you at risk for health complications such as heart disease and high blood pressure.
Tofu to the rescue! A 2019 review of more than 40 trials noted that people who consumed 25 grams of soy protein per day saw a 4.76-mg/dL decrease in LDL cholesterol and a 6.41-mg/dL decrease in triglycerides after 6 weeks.
13. May help prevent anemia
A 2019 study found that adolescent girls with anemia experienced a significant decrease in rates of anemia and iron deficiency after they drank 100 milliliters of sprouted or regular soy milk daily for 6 months.
14. Provides all essential amino acids
The molecules that bind together to form protein are called amino acids. Our bodies can produce many of them but can’t produce the nine essential amino acids. So, it’s essential that we get these nine from the food we eat.
Most plant-based protein sources don’t contain all nine essential amino acids, but soy-based foods do. Tofu meets the essential amino acid requirements recommended by the World Health Organization, meaning it’s a high quality plant protein.
15. Contains omega-3 fatty acids
Another important nutrient we need is omega-3 fatty acids. While there are many types of omega-3s, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is the only omega-3 that we must get from food.
The good news is that certain plant-based foods, such as tofu, are good options to help you reach your recommended intake of ALA. Cooked soybeans contain about 0.4 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per 100 grams, which is 25 percent of the daily requirement for adult males and 36 percent for females.
Sprouted tofu is made the same way as regular tofu, except that the soybeans are germinated and grow little sprouts.
According to research from 2014, sprouted tofu can provide more protein and less fat while also reducing antinutrients (plant compounds that can affect our ability to absorb certain nutrients).
While tofu is generally safe to eat, it may come with some risks in certain circumstances:
- Breast tumors. Since tofu phytoestrogens can mimic human estrogen, some docs recommend that people with estrogen-sensitive breast tumors eat soy only in moderation. This may be because soy has the potential to encourage cancer cell growth, according to a 2014 study.
- Thyroid issues. Some people have raised concerns that soy can affect thyroid function and thyroid hormone levels, although a 2019 review concluded that these effects are minimal.
Fortunately, the evidence for these outcomes is pretty weak. If you’re concerned about adding tofu to your diet, talk with a healthcare professional first.
Want to give tofu a try but unsure how to cook it? Another benefit of tofu is that it has a neutral flavor and can take on any spice or marinade you combine it with.
If you’re ready to get more advanced with your tofu, try one (or more!) of these 41 tofu recipes that range from burgers to pizza and even breakfast.
Eating tofu will give you essential nutrients and potentially reduce your risk of serious health conditions, including anemia, heart disease, and diabetes. It’s also super easy to cook, since it absorbs flavors that work for almost any meal.
Eating tofu is considered safe for most people, and there’s no solid evidence that the phytoestrogens found in tofu can harm your body.
But if you have estrogen-sensitive breast tumors or thyroid issues and are worried about eating tofu, check in with a healthcare pro before chowing down.