These tofu benefits will inspire you to create more delicious, meat-free meals.
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Healthy Stir Fried Kale and Tofu
Credit: SKC / Stocksy

When you think about tofu, the first words that come to mind may be "bland" or "unappetizing." Admittedly, the plant-based protein is mild in flavor, which has earned it a bad rap, but there's a reason the food is a staple in so many different cultures.

Whether you're #TeamTofu or not, learning about the benefits of tofu might entice you to eat more of the food. So, keep reading to discover these perks — plus, how to prepare it in a way that'll have you begging for seconds, no matter your dietary preferences.

What Is Tofu?

Tofu is a plant-based protein derived from soybeans, explains Laura Iu, R.D., C.D.N., C.N.S.C., a New York-based registered dietitian. Soybeans are a legume that originated in China but have become popular in the United States and other parts of the world.

First, soybeans are soaked in water and pureed, then the liquid is strained out to achieve soy milk, Alex Caspero, M.A., R.D., a registered dietitian and plant-based chef in St. Louis, previously told Shape. The soymilk then goes through coagulation, which is the process of changing a liquid to a solid form by adding an acid such as lemon juice, and the resulting curds are pressed into blocks of tofu, explains Lauren Manaker, M.S., R.D.N., L.D.N., a registered dietitian nutritionist based in South Carolina.

Tofu Nutrition

You can attribute some of the health benefits of tofu to its vitamin and mineral content. For starters, it's filled with bone-strengthening calcium and mood-boosting magnesium. Tofu's also considered a complete protein, as it contains all nine essential amino acids, according to research published in Medicine. Quick refresher: Your body can make most of the necessary amino acids except for nine, which you have to get through food. The only problem? Most complete proteins are animal-based, making it a bit challenging for plant-based eaters to get enough protein. With all nine amino acids, however, tofu can help folks fuel up without forgoing their diet. (Fun fact: Pistachios are another vegan- and vegetarian-friendly complete protein.)

More specifically, the soy-based product contains nearly 22 grams of protein per 1/2-cup, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Why is this a big deal? Because protein is essential for keeping seemingly every system in your body running smoothly. It provides calories, transports compounds within cells, supports vital chemical reactions (e.g. producing energy), and more, according to National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). Eating an adequate amount of protein in your diet can also help keep you fuller for longer. "As is the case when any protein food is consumed, eating tofu may support weight management goals, as protein can help people feel satiated, possibly helping them eat fewer calories in the long run," says Manaker.

Here's the nutritional profile for 1/2 cup (126 grams) of raw tofu, according to the USDA:

  • 181 calories
  • 3.5 grams carbohydrate
  • 22 grams protein
  • 11 grams fat
  • 3 grams fiber

Health Benefits of Tofu

Supports Bone Health

You've likely heard about the importance of calcium and drinking milk for strong bones from every "Got Milk?" commercial you watched as a child. But news flash: You don't have to exclusively drink the beverage to score this essential micronutrient. Instead, try tofu, which has 861 milligrams of calcium per serving — which is pretty darn close to the recommended daily amount (RDA) of 1,000 milligrams of calcium, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). "Eating tofu may support bone health, thanks to the calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and other bone health-supporting nutrients it contains," says Manaker. Failing to consume enough calcium can contribute to low bone mass and osteoporosis, a condition that can result from having weak bones, according to the Mayo Clinic. What's more, studies report that consumption of soy foods (such as tofu!) can contribute to "optimal bone health."

Lowers Cholesterol Levels

While cholesterol is necessary for the production of healthy cells, the type of cholesterol you eat makes all of the difference. ICYDK, some protein sources, such as red meat, are high in LDL or "bad" cholesterol, which can lead to clogged arteries and an increased risk of heart attack, according to the Mayo Clinic. Tofu, on the other hand, is free of cholesterol, making it a particularly good option if you're trying to lower your cholesterol intake. But wait, there's more: The plant-based protein has also been shown to help reduce levels of LDL cholesterol thanks to its isoflavone content. Isoflao-what?

Isoflavones are plant compounds that behave like estrogen, says Manaker. They're naturally found in soy and thus, tofu. Several studies have found these powerful compounds to lower LDL levels, thereby helping to stave off cardiovascular conditions, such as stroke, which can be brought on by high amounts of this "bad" stuff, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And on that note...

Reduces Risk of Heart Disease

As just mentioned, the isoflavones in tofu may help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease due in part to the isoflavones' ability to lower LDL cholesterol. But that's only one way the compounds — and, again, tofu — are able to help keep your ticker ticking. The other? By inhibiting proinflammatory cytokines or proteins that can cause inflammation that can contribute to chronic conditions (see: cardiovascular disease), according to a study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The study, which involved a total of 200,000 participants, found that women who ate tofu more than once a week lowered their chances of heart disease by 18 percent — a result of the heart-friendly effects of the isoflavones in tofu. Pretty impressive, huh?

May Boost Your Immune System

Vitamin C is great and all but have you heard about zinc? Well, there's no better time to get to know the trace mineral than when talking about the health benefits of tofu, as the soy product has 2 micrograms of zinc per serving. And while that number might not sound like a lot, it's actually 1/4 of the RDA. That's pretty noteworthy because zinc "supports the immune system by regulating the function of several key components [in the body], such as macrophages, neutrophils, natural killer cells, and T-lymphocytes," Sandy Younan Brikho, M.D.A., R.D.N., founder of The Dish on Nutrition, previously told Shape. Neutrophils find, trap, and kill harmful germs, says Brikho, while T-lymphocytes destroy other cells that have become cancerous or attacked by viruses. Meaning, zinc (and, in turn, tofu) can play a key role in fending off pathogens and defending your body from sickness. Meat products, such as beef, poultry, and seafood, are typically high in zinc, making it difficult for vegetarians and vegans to get the mineral in their diets. Luckily, studies have shown that tofu is a great source of the mineral.

Potential Risks of Tofu

There is a lot of controversy surrounding eating soy-based food products, including tofu. Some people believe that eating too much soy can increase the risk of breast cancer, disrupt thyroid function, or "feminize" men (who naturally have lower estrogen levels than women) due to the estrogen-like isoflavones. However, the research is "mixed and inconclusive," according to Iu.

For instance, while some studies have raised concerns that consuming soy could negatively impact males' hormone levels, other studies have shown that soy is unlikely to affect testosterone or estrogen levels in men. While initial studies performed on rats found a link between consuming soy and breast cancer, a meta-analysis of 35 human studies found no correlation between the two. Meanwhile, studies dating back to the 50s have linked isoflavones with thyroid disruption, while others report that food containing isoflavones doesn't increase the risk of thyroid or breast cancers. Some people believe that soy can worsen thyroid disorders such as hypothyroidism because it may interfere body's ability to absorb the medication used for the condition. But, again, there is no evidence that supports that people with hypothyroidism should avoid soy foods, according to the Mayo Clinic.

"Instead of zooming in on a single food, it's more important to look at the bigger picture and try to eat a variety of protein sources," says Iu. "Too much of anything can be harmful (even water!), and ultimately adding soy foods like tofu and edamame do provide nutrition and can be healthy."

If you have any concerns about whether tofu is a good addition to your diet, reach out to a doctor or a nutritionist for guidance. As a general rule of thumb, though, it's okay to eat tofu every day. "The Food and Drug Administration has recognized that 25 grams of soy protein per day may help reduce cholesterol levels," says Manaker. "Some experts recommend eating four soy servings a day for heart health, which can include tofu. Eating soy foods, like tofu, every day appears to be safe and may offer some health benefits too."

How to Eat Tofu

The health benefits of tofu alone make it worth trying, and the food is also super versatile. "Tofu can range from soft to extra firm, and the difference is the water content," says Iu. "What you buy will depend on what you'd like to cook."

Here's how to determine which to choose, according to Iu.

  • Silken tofu contains the most water and is soft in texture. It's perfect for making desserts, such as puddings, and adding to smoothies; it can also be used as an egg substitute thanks to its soft feel.
  • Medium-firm tofu contains a moderate amount of water, so it doesn't hold up as well in dishes, such as stir-fries. But it is great for dishes such as mapo tofu, a popular Chinese dish, where the tofu can break up into the sauce and really soak up its flavor.
  • Extra-firm tofu contains the least amount of water and its chewier texture resembles that of some animal protein products making it great for stir-fries.

Tofu Recipe Ideas

Once you've picked your type tofu, you can enjoy it in a wide variety of meals. And since tofu is mild in flavor, it easily takes on the flavors of other seasonings. Just make sure you're draining the excess liquid that's found in most tofu packaging so that it can get crisp and better absorbs any seasoning. "Place your tofu in-between paper towels and top it with a heavy book or block," recommends Manaker. "In no time, your tofu will be ready to be sliced and enjoyed." Once that's out of the way, here are a few creative ways to enjoy the health benefits of tofu.

In a salad. If you're looking for different ways to use your air fryer, try crisping up your tofu and throwing it on top of a salad to make it more filling and delicious.

As taco filling. Cook extra firm tofu with a little oil and you've got yourself a golden, crispy creation that'll take your tortilla to the next level, trust.

In a stir fry. Replace any chicken or meat in your rice or noodle stir fry with tofu on your next meatless Monday. "For beginners, I recommend extra-firm tofu, which is great for stir fry and grilling," says Iu.

In desserts. You can make a protein-packed dessert that you'd never guess contains tofu thanks to the food's mild flavor. For instance, pudding or chocolate mousses are a great way to incorporate the food, says Iu.