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January 13, 2022 10 min read
Also known as the female sex hormone, estrogen is most well known for regulating things like growing breasts, menstrual cycles, and female sexual and reproductive health in general.
However, that doesn’t mean this important hormone is only found in women.
While everyone has estrogen in their bodies, there are different ways of approaching estrogen depending on one’s perspective. While some women may have either low or high estrogen levels that need to be regulated to healthy levels, men may want to avoid things that increase estrogen because it’s the opposite of the male sex hormone, testosterone.
As with all things in the human body, the truth is more complicated than we have been led to believe.
Regardless, knowing which foods are high in estrogen can help us make choices for a well-rounded diet that’s balanced and diverse— factors that are important if you’re looking for a healthy and fit body.
Largely known as the female sex hormone, estrogen is produced in the ovaries, fat cells, and adrenal glands. Its key role is in reproductive health, brain health, and musculoskeletal function.
Estrogen also plays a part in the health of bones, skin, and hair.
When it comes to athletic performance, estrogen is necessary for the production of collagen which plays an important role in the health of our connective tissues.
However, there is a sweet spot of estrogen levels in both men and women.
For example, high estrogen levels in women can get in the way of athletic performance while also raising the risk of obesity, anxiety, fatigue, depression, and fibroids. High levels of estrogen in men can result in sexual problems such as infertility, erectile dysfunction, and increases in breast size.
That also doesn’t mean estrogen should be completely eliminated.
If there’s too little of the hormone in men, there are decreases in libido and increases in abdominal fat accumulation. These are the most superficial effects since estrogen is still needed for overall health. When low estrogen levels affect women, there are increased chances of dry skin, hot flashes, menstruation problems, and difficulties sleeping.
Maintaining good estrogen levels is very important for staying healthy—but how do we stay within these healthy levels?
The best way to manage good hormonal levels is to exercise and get enough sleep. There are also many foods that contain estrogen-like compounds, called phytoestrogens.
The natural estrogens found in food, also known as phytoestrogens, have had their share of controversy in recent years. Phytoestrogens have a similar structure to estrogen, and so they’re able to bind themselves to the estrogen receptors in our bodies.
At a basic level, this may influence how estrogen affects our bodies and estrogen levels themselves. Because of this, some researchers believe that having a phytoestrogen-heavy diet can lead to hormonal imbalances and the related health issues that we looked at above.
But things are far from cut and dry.
While some fear that phytoestrogens can lead to “feminizing” men, research has found that certain phytoestrogens may even have anti-estrogenic effects on the body.
The science is far from conclusive, with the only thing being certain is that a healthy balance is necessary for a healthy body. However, it’s still important to know which foods may be high in phytoestrogens in order to build a well-rounded diet. To further complicate matters, not all phytoestrogens have the same effects on the human body, so overarching conclusions can’t be made.
Flax seeds are a particularly rich food in one type of phytoestrogen, called lignan. Some research has linked high lignan levels in the body with cancers that are linked to hormone levels, such as endometrial, prostate, and breast cancer. But as with most studies done in this area, there’s other research showing the complete opposite.
For example, lignan also apparently has anti-inflammatory properties which help to reduce the risk of breast cancer.
Lignan might also benefit women with menopausal symptoms—hot flashes, for example. Other than lignan, flax seeds are an amazing source of omega-3 essential fatty acids, which have been connected to better heart health. Fiber is also a big part of flax seeds, helping digestion and overall gut health. Many of the compounds found in this seed may also reduce the risk of developing cancer, strokes, and diabetes.
Probably the most infamous estrogen-rich foods, there’s a lot to say about soya and its derivatives. Soy products include things like soy milk, tofu, edamame, and tempeh which we’ll all look at here. Edamame is simply immature tofu beans, while both tofu and tempeh use soybean as the main ingredient. When it comes to phytoestrogen levels, soybeans and edamame come out on top followed by soy-derived products, such as tofu and tempeh.
Soybeans contain the phytoestrogen called isoflavone, that binds to estrogen receptors in the body and cause weak estrogenic or anti-estrogenic activity.
Whether this is a harmful or a helpful substance depends on what research you want to look at, but most of it is conflicting.
For example, isoflavone can potentially lower bad cholesterol which is good for reducing the risk of heart disease.
But the question of whether isoflavones increase the amount of estrogen in the body is still up in the air. While isoflavones may act similarly to estrogen in the body, they can potentially either increase or decrease the amount of estrogen production.
It goes without saying that this area is very complex, and more research needs to be done. In the meantime, these products offer a wide range of nutrients where the positives outweigh the potential minor drawbacks.
For example, tempeh is a fermented food and so the fermentation process adds a myriad of important nutrients that go far beyond, and are more scientifically certain, than anything linked to estrogen.
Sesame seeds contain a form of lignan that’s similar to flaxseeds, with slight differences. However, both seeds are a major source of this phytoestrogen. One study found that the lignan found in sesame decreased tumor size in mice by 23% more than the lignans found in flaxseeds.
Sesame seeds have been used in folk medicine for thousands of years for a variety of reasons.
Not only are they a good source of fiber, but they’re also a good source of plant protein. These seeds have also been shown to lower cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation, and help keep blood sugar levels within healthy limits.
Garlic is another food that’s not only tasty but also a source of phytoestrogens. In terms of its phytoestrogens, most research has focused on the bone loss that’s related to estrogen deficiency in postmenopausal women. Garlic tablets have also been shown to reduce oxidative stress in postmenopausal women, suggesting that it not only prevents estrogen deficiency but also calcium absorption.
Going beyond estrogen, garlic has tons of health benefits.
These include reducing the risk of lung, brain, and prostate cancers, protecting against high cholesterol and high blood pressure, and may even help to ward off the common cold.
Although the name might sound strange at first, cruciferous vegetables encompass a ton of healthy and well-known vegetables.
But while they all belong to the same family, they don’t all contain the same type of phytoestrogen.
For example, while cauliflower and broccoli contain lignan, cabbage and brussels sprouts are sources of coumestrol.
One study found that eating this family of vegetables resulted in a lowered risk of breast cancer in premenopausal women.
This is one of the healthiest groups of vegetables you can get your hands on.
Not to mention the lowered cancer risk, but cruciferous vegetables have also been shown to lower oxidative stress and protect against cardiovascular diseases. They’re also packed full of vitamins and minerals that are essential for a smoothly functioning body.
While berries and estrogen haven’t been studied widely, it is known that certain varieties such as strawberries, raspberries, cranberries, and blueberries contain higher amounts of phytoestrogens. But again, berries are an amazing source of fiber and micronutrients, much like the vegetables we looked at above.
In particular, berries have been touted for their antioxidant properties.
One antioxidant especially, called resveratrol, may potentially help to prevent and treat conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and cardiovascular diseases. Berries may also help to boost your immune system and reduce the risk of obesity by strengthening the metabolism and preventing any sorts of metabolic syndromes or deficiencies.
This is another more general category, but almost all dried fruits will contain some phytoestrogens. The ones with the highest concentration are prunes, dates, raisins, and apricots. Dried fruits will have a combination of both lignans and isoflavones, depending on the exact fruit. A study from 2020 found that having anywhere from 3 to 5 servings of dried fruit per week could potentially reduce the risk of developing prostate cancer and even dying from pancreatic cancer.
The main difference between fresh fruits and dried fruits is that dried fruits contain more sugar, more fiber, and more antioxidants (called phenols).
While added sugar isn’t necessarily what we want, those who have a diet rich in phenols are known to have lower rates of diabetes, heart disease, different types of cancer, and degenerative brain diseases. One thing to remember is that dried fruits are going to be a lot more calorie-dense than the fresher version, so implement them into your diet accordingly.
Chickpeas are joined with a variety of other legumes to offer significant levels of the phytoestrogen, isoflavone. Of special interest is one of the isoflavones named biochanin A. Biochanin A has been linked to effects which boost the body’s ability to fight off cancer.
Chickpeas are both a good source of fiber and protein.
In fact, one cup of chickpeas contains a third of an adult’s daily recommended protein needs.
The many different nutrients in chickpeas have also been linked to warding off diabetes, promoting bone health and healthy blood pressure, and controlling cholesterol within healthy limits.
Chickpeas are particularly useful for managing weight.
Not only does their protein content help keep you feeling fuller for longer, but the dietary fiber will also increase the feeling of fullness after eating. And, as we know, the management of body fat is one very important way to keep your estrogen levels within healthy limits.
Wheat bran consists of the part of the wheat kernel that’s found on the outside. It’s mainly known as a good source of insoluble fiber, and of the phytoestrogen lignan.
Not a lot of research has been done on wheat bran and its effects on the body and estrogen levels.
However, there is some evidence that suggests that insoluble fiber has an important effect on estrogen levels since this type of fiber actually stops the absorption of estrogen in your intestines.
Instead, the estrogen is passed through you and your estrogen levels drop.
Wheat bran is also a great source of micronutrients such as copper, zinc, selenium, and manganese. And even though it’s a decent source of micronutrients, protein, and fiber, it’s still low in calories, fat, and cholesterol. But where wheat bran will shine in the most is definitely in the digestive health department, due to its fiber content and prebiotics.
Alfalfa mainly contains the phytoestrogen coumestrol, but that’s not all: there are also smaller amounts of different phytoestrogens that can potentially increase estrogen levels in the body. While alfalfa and its estrogen effects aren’t well studied, these sprouts contain plenty of other micronutrients and compounds to maintain your body’s wellness.
For example, alfalfa has been shown to help manage blood sugar levels, lower cholesterol, and relieve symptoms of menopause.
These sprouts are also very rich sources of antioxidants, along with nutrients such as copper, magnesium, and vitamin K.
This is a unique addition to the list because not only is it not plant-based, but it also doesn’t contain phytoestrogen.
Instead, dairy products contain real estrogen from cows or other animals.
While this has raised concerns and prompted research to be done in this area, there aren’t any strong conclusions that can yet be drawn. As an example, one study done on mice found that the estrogen found in cow’s milk didn’t have any hormonal effects on the mice. And to really test things, the researchers even used estrogen levels 100 times larger than those normally found in cow’s milk.
Because it’s usually derived from grapes, red wine is another source that’s rich in different phytoestrogens. However, its effect on estrogen levels is only one, small part of the problem, because drinking alcohol is one quick way to tank your testosterone levels, bringing along all the health issues that arise along with low testosterone.
While red wine is often touted as having many beneficial compounds, it’s necessary to drink it (and any alcohol) in moderation—at least if you’re looking to maintain healthy levels of both testosterone and estrogen.
If you’re concerned about your estrogen levels—whether you’re a man or woman—the only way to be properly diagnosed is by a doctor. The best way to ensure that you have a healthy balance of estrogen is by eating a diet filled with nutrient-dense foods, staying physically active and fit, and having a regular sleeping schedule.
And when it comes to diet, the last thing you should be doing is avoiding foods high in phytoestrogens (at least with our current scientific knowledge).
While some have raised concerns around hormonal imbalances (particularly on their effects on testosterone), studies have been anything but conclusive.
In fact, research points to some phytoestrogens actually protecting against low sperm counts and low sperm mobility. As is often the case, optimal health will be achieved with a balanced diet that has variety—focusing on a single compound or nutrient, whatever it may be, is rarely the way to go.
It’s good to be aware of phytoestrogen content, but it shouldn’t make or break your dietary decisions.
But to achieve a healthy hormonal balance, it takes more than just a well-rounded diet consisting of whole foods. Exercise, for example, is essential for balancing out estrogen levels. Several studies have shown how consistent physical activity (and especially high-intensity workouts) is able to balance out high estrogen levels.
Things like strength training also support testosterone production, which further limits the amount of estrogen being produced.
As we saw by looking at diet, the most important factor when making lifestyle changes is to keep things balanced. Doing your best to maximize testosterone while limiting estrogen for the extra gains is likely going to lead to health problems down the road—the body needs variety and it needs balance.
Rather than trying to avoid foods that are both high in estrogen and a ton of other nutrients, you can instead consider balancing things out with regular resistance training and foods that help produce testosterone.
If you’re really looking for that extra edge and low testosterone is a problem you want to avoid, a T booster supplement can help you in optimizing your testosterone profile.