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Hormone-Like Chemicals from Plants
Phytoestrogens are estrogen hormone-like chemicals found in plants. Although medical data remain inconclusive, recent epidemiological studies suggest many and varied benefits of phytoestrogens.
For example, Asian populations consuming diets high in the phytoestrogens found in soybeans have lower incidences of hormone-dependent cancers (including breast, ovarian, and endometrial cancers) compared to western populations. Also, the
prevalence of osteoporosis and menopausal symptoms are lower. In addition, the incidence of coronary heart disease is lower in Asian populations. However, when Asian populations immigrate to western countries and adopt western
diets and lifestyles, the risk for those diseases rises.
A survey of a variety of populations of women showed that urinary phytoestrogens (a measure of phytoestrogens in the diet) are highest among vegetarians, particularly macrobiotics, and lower among breast cancer patients, suggesting an association between low disease risk and high phytoestrogen intake.
Unfortunately, we Americans and our food industry have a bad habit of thinking, "If a little of a substance is good, then a lot will be even better."
If you remember, we did this with soy protein, as well as many other food fragmentations and other substances along the way. .
Phytoestrogens follow our same pattern.
When phytoestrogens are consumed in whole foods, their effect seems to be beneficial. When a particular phytoestrogen or group of phytoestrogens are concentrated and/or consumed in a fragmented state, they not only are not beneficial, but in some instances, they also seem to be harmful. The best advice is to stay away from concentrated or isolated forms of phytoestrogens, including genistein pills.
Also, remember that variety in foods is extremely important, something that many of us don't do. We would definitely increase the variety in our diet If we follow the healthy Japanese diet which incorporates three simple points:
1. Eat a variety of
30 foods per day in very small portions.
2. Eat a balance of different colors in these foods.
3. Do not repeat those same foods the next day.
Although we would eat at least 60 foods per week if we followed the Japanese, the average Japanese diet actually contains about 100 different foods per week. If we Americans eat about 30 different foods per week, not per day, we are among those with the most varied diets.
Nutrition scientists have identified about 12,000 phytochemicals that play some role in preventing disease. They know that some of these compounds work together for prevention. They also see that there is much more to food than protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Some foods are low in the nutrients many of us think are most important (examples: proteins or B vitamins) but are high in phytochemicals (example: tea).
Does it make sense to follow the Japanese and cast a wide food net? Would that cause us to ingest as many of these phytochemicals, including phytoestrogens, as possible?
Sources: U. S. Environmental Protection Agency; Environmental Health Perspectives Volume 104; American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
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