If you’re wondering whether tofu is good for weight loss then the answer is yes. Tofu is one of the best diet foods, and will help you stay healthy and fit. Tofu is a vegetarian staple, often used in a variety of dishes from breakfast through lunch to dinner. It’s made from soybeans and it’s low in calories and fat. So, it must be good for weight loss, right?
What is tofu and how is it made?
Tofu is a protein-rich food made by coagulating soy milk from liquid to solid and pressing it into blocks. It’s thought to have been invented in China some 2,000 years ago, when fresh soy milk was accidentally mixed with nigari salt—a bitter salt extracted from seawater.
Production is similar to homemade cottage cheese or paneer, Caspero says: Soybeans are soaked in water, ground, boiled, and strained to make soy milk. Calcium or magnesium salt is added to coagulate the milk; then it’s pressed and set into blocks, explains Vandanda Sheth, R.D., a dietitian who specializes in vegetarian nutrition. Tofu can be silken or soft, firm, or extra firm—each of which is used differently in cooking.
Some people are concerned that the soybeans used to make tofu are genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or foods with DNA that’s been altered by humans. While nutritionists say GMOs are safe to eat, they’re hesitant to weigh in on any health claims about GMOs. If you’re concerned, simply opt for organic.
“You’ll hear that most soy in America is genetically modified, but most of that goes to animal feed,” Caspero says. “Most of the soy used for soy milk and tofu is organic, and if it’s organic, it can’t be genetically modified. You’d actually be hard pressed to find tofu that’s not organic.”
Tofu nutrition facts
Soy is a rich source of minerals like calcium (or magnesium, depending on which salt is used as a coagulant), selenium, and iron. Ounce for ounce, tofu has a little more calcium than milk: 300 mg of calcium per 8-ounce glass of low-fat milk, compared to 150 mg in 3.5 ounces of tofu.
In one 3.5-ounce serving of tofu, you get about 70 to 80 calories along with:
- Protein: 8 to 9 grams
- Carbs: 2 grams
- Calcium: about 20% of your daily recommended intake (DRI)
- Manganese: about 30% DRI
- Selenium: about 14% DRI
- Iron: 9% DRI
- Small amounts of zinc, copper, and phosphorus
Tofu is an ideal food if you’re trying to keep your calories in check, since one 3.5-ounce serving has about 70 to 80 calories. That’s less than a third of the approximately 270 calories in a 4-ounce serving of tenderloin steak—and most of us tend to eat 6 ounces (or more) of steak per sitting, which adds up to over 400 calories.
If you’ve always associated tofu with vegetarianism, it’s for good reason: Soy is one of very few plant foods that’s a complete protein. In other words, unlike most other plant foods, tofu contains all nine essential amino acids that your body needs. Even if you’re not a full-on vegetarian, you can still benefit from adding tofu to your diet—especially if you trade it for red meat, which is significantly higher in calories and saturated fat.
While the benefits and risks of saturated fat have been debated in nutrition circles in recent years, the American Heart Association still recommends aiming for just 5 to 6% of your daily calories to come from saturated fats (about 13 grams per day if you’re on a 2,000-calorie diet) to reduce the risk of heart disease. One 3.5-ounce serving of firm tofu provides about 9 grams of protein and just 0.5 grams of saturated fat, compared to 22 grams of protein and 8 grams of saturated fat in a standard 4-ounce serving of tenderloin steak.
Is tofu “healthy”?
Like all plant proteins, tofu is cholesterol-free and low in fat. Tofu is a source of calcium, manganese, iron, selenium, copper, zinc, and phosphorous. Soy also stands out from other legumes because it has more heart-healthy unsaturated fat and more high-quality protein. As part of a plant-based diet, tofu may lower LDL cholesterol and reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Like all soy foods, tofu also contains isoflavones—which have a similar but weaker effect than the hormone estrogen. Researchers have looked into many different potential health benefits of isoflavones, including soy’s impact on breast and prostate cancer risk and menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes.
It’s very difficult to prove that a specific food is responsible for a particular health benefit in the long-term–randomized controlled nutrition studies are typically short (often a few months). Longer-term studies over many years don’t have a control group of people (those receiving a placebo), but they help scientists identify links between what people eat and their longer-term health. “The Asian diet is very high in soy foods, and across the board there’s a lower incidence of hormonal cancers, like breast and prostate cancer, and heart disease,” Caspero says. This, however, doesn’t prove that soy alone is the factor responsible for this protection–other things that scientists didn’t measure may also be contributing. What scientists do agree on? “Eating more plant-based protein is better for overall health, and the data seem to bear that out over and over again,” Caspero says.
Best of all? You don’t have to go vegan or vegetarian to reap the benefits of tofu, Caspero says. Swapping in more plant protein, such as tofu, for animal protein like beef, pork, and chicken is beneficial to health.
Regularly eating tofu may:
- Boost heart health
Adding more tofu to your daily meal plans is an easy way to take care of your heart. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes that eating 25 grams of soy protein a day (about two 100-gram servings of tofu) is linked to a lower heart disease risk.
This heart-protective benefit might be because soy foods like tofu are also a great source of polyunsaturated fats and fiber, and may be replacing the saturated fat in red or processed meats, which improves overall diet quality. What’s more, a number of studies have found that eating soy protein may help lower levels of “bad” (LDL) cholesterol in your blood, which lowers your heart disease risk.
- Protect breast health
Increased estrogen levels have been linked to breast cancer, and the isoflavones in soy have an estrogen-like effect in the body. That led to some concerns that soy could increase the risk of breast cancer. The isoflavones in whole soy foods, however, are much weaker than the estrogen made by our bodies. In fact, soy is linked to a decreased risk of breast cancer, particularly in Asian women, according to the American Cancer Society.
“You hear the word estrogen and get nervous, because you know too much can fuel cancer cells. But phytoestrogens can have the opposite effect,” Caspero says. “The vast majority of research shows it’s not only safe but probably protective.”
That said, experts at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) suggest that women with a family or personal history of cancer opt for whole soy foods like tofu (along with tempeh, edamame, miso, and soy milk) over soy supplements. Animal studies indicate that the higher concentration of isoflavones in supplements might trigger breast tumor growth, particularly in higher-risk women.
- Reduce prostate cancer risk
Prostate cancer is the second most-diagnosed type of cancer in men in the U.S. Men in Asian countries have a significantly lower risk of prostate cancer, possibly because they eat a lot more soy foods like tofu.
One 2018 review of 30 studies found that men who ate more soy foods had a reduced risk of developing prostate cancer. The isoflavones in soy collect in the prostate, where their weak estrogen-like effect may protect against cancer. A number of studies continue to look into the potential effects of isoflavones on prostate cancer risk.
- Support bone health
Estrogen helps keep women’s bones strong, and estrogen levels decrease during menopause—which is why women’s osteoporosis risk increases later in life. Since isoflavones act like estrogen in the body, some women eat more soy foods or take supplements hoping to make their bones stronger.
So far, the research hasn’t backed the theory that soy isoflavones slow bone loss after menopause. But since soy is also a good source of calcium and protein, both of which are important for strong bones, regularly eating tofu can help support bone health.
- Reduce diabetes risk
Lower estrogen levels during menopause affect blood sugar control. A six-month study in post-menopausal Taiwanese women found that soy isoflavones lowered fasting blood sugar and insulin. Other research found neither soy protein nor soy isoflavone supplementation had a favorable effect on blood sugar control or insulin sensitivity in post-menopausal Chinese women.
A large study of more than 60,000 American men and women did not find a link between eating soy foods and a reduced type 2 diabetes risk—this same study found that intake of isoflavones from a range of foods and drinks was associated with a “modestly” lower risk of type 2 diabetes.
- Protect kidney function
People with diabetes are more likely to eventually develop kidney disease, Sheth says; one 2014 review of nine studies suggested that people with kidney disease who consumed soy protein had lower serum creatinine (an indication of better kidney function) than people with kidney disease who ate more animal protein.
- Ease hot flashes during menopause
Hot flashes are perhaps the most well-known symptom of menopause, and they’re also linked to dropping estrogen levels. There is actually some evidence that the estrogen-like isoflavones in soy foods like tofu may slightly help reduce the severity and frequency of hot flashes—although the effect is small in comparison to hormone replacement therapy, and it may take up to a year to achieve maximum benefit.
Use Tofu to Save Calories
A 3.5-ounce serving of firm tofu has just 78 calories. The same amount of silken tofu has 55 calories, and a 3.5-ounce serving of soft tofu has 61 calories. All of these types of tofu have fewer calories than many of the typical animal-based protein foods eaten by people on a diet.
For example, 3 ounces of chunk light tuna canned in water has 73 calories, and the same amount of grilled boneless, skinless chicken breast has 128 calories. A 3-ounce serving of grilled beef tenderloin with the fat trimmed off has 168 calories, or more than twice the calories in tofu.
Increase Satiety With Protein
Eating a protein-rich food, such as tofu, instead of one that’s higher in carbohydrates or fat, will help you feel full for longer and may make it easier to stick with a reduced-calorie diet. A study published in the journal Obesity found that people who got 25 percent of their calories from protein felt fuller. They were also less likely to be preoccupied with thinking about food than people who got a more typical 14 percent of their calories from protein.
Soy Versus Other Protein Sources
The evidence is mixed on whether soy protein has a greater effect on weight loss versus chicken and other types of protein. A study published in the journal Nutrition suggests that people who eat solely soy-based protein may lose more body fat and lower their cholesterol more than people who consume mostly animal-based protein.
However, one 2018 study published in Obesity Science & Practice compared the weight-loss effects among two groups that consumed either soy protein or nonsoy protein. Researchers found no significant difference between the groups in weight loss or body fat loss.
Any Protein Is Beneficial
According to Healthline, most evidence supports an increase in protein of any type, including tofu, chicken and other sources, for anyone attempting weight loss. Whether you choose soy protein or animal-based protein largely depends on your dietary preferences.
For weight loss or for the sake of convenience, protein powders, bars and snacks can be a good option in your diet. However, to experience the greatest nutritional benefits, opt for more whole foods over highly processed protein supplements.
Incorporating Tofu Into Your Diet
A diet that includes tofu can be a bit intimidating for people who aren’t used to cooking with it. To experience weight loss with tofu, try blending silken tofu into smoothies or creamy soups. You can also add cubes of extra-firm tofu to a stir-fry recipe, or marinate and grill or saute firm tofu to add to salads or main dishes.
You’ll get more flavor if you press the water out of your tofu before marinating it. Also, avoid using marinades that contain oil, which doesn’t mix well with the watery texture of tofu. Instead, replace the oil with vinegar, soy sauce, citrus juice or stock, all of which the tofu will readily absorb.
Is Tofu Good For Weight Loss?
“People who eat plant-based diets tend to have lower BMIs (weight for height) and less risk of obesity,” said registered dietitian nutritionist and NASM-certified personal trainer Whitney English Tabaie, MS, RDN. And tofu can be a great option in your plant-based diet.
“Tofu is an excellent food for managing weight as it’s high in belly filling plant protein, which can help you stay fuller longer,” Whitney said. It’s also low in calories and carbs (which makes it a great option if you’re vegan keto), and has no saturated fat, added registered dietitian Rachel Stahl, MS, CDN, CDE, of Rachel Stahl Nutrition. A three-ounce serving of Trader Joe’s High-Protein Organic Tofu (my personal fave) offers a whopping 14 grams of protein for just 130 calories and three grams of carbs.
What Serving Size of Tofu Should a Person Eat For Weight Loss?
A typical serving of firm tofu is about one-fifth of a package or about three ounces, but Whitney said, “I encourage clients to just listen to their body and eat an amount that feels satisfying.” Rachel agreed and said some people may have one serving as part of their meal, while others may have three.
How Much Tofu Should a Person Eat Per Week?
“I recommend one to two servings of soy foods, including tofu, per day,” Whitney said. For example, you can have soy milk for breakfast and tofu for lunch. If you’re plant-based, you may rely on soy foods for protein. As with anything, moderation is key, Rachel said, and tofu should be eaten as part of a well-balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and lean protein.
Note that not all tofu offers the same nutrition profile. Firmer tofu offers more protein for more calories, while softer tofu, such as silken, will be lower in calories and lower in protein (40 calories and four grams of protein).