Legumes play an important role in the traditional diets of many regions throughout the world. In contrast in Western countries beans tend to play only a minor dietary role despite the fact that they are low in fat and are excellent sources of protein, dietary fiber, and a variety of micronutrients and phytochemicals. Soybeans are unique among the legumes because they are a concentrated source of isoflavones. Isoflavones have weak estrogenic properties and the isoflavone genistein influences signal transduction. Soyfoods and isoflavones have received considerable attention for their potential role in preventing and treating cancer and osteoporosis. The low breast cancer mortality rates in Asian countries and the putative antiestrogenic effects of isoflavones have fueled speculation that soyfood intake reduces breast cancer risk. The available epidemiologic data are limited and only weakly supportive of this hypothesis, however, particularly for postmenopausal breast cancer. The data suggesting that soy or isoflavones may reduce the risk of prostate cancer are more encouraging. The weak estrogenic effects of isoflavones and the similarity in chemical structure between soybean isoflavones and the synthetic isoflavone ipriflavone, which was shown to increase bone mineral density in postmenopausal women, suggest that soy or isoflavones may reduce the risk of osteoporosis. Rodent studies tend to support this hypothesis, as do the limited preliminary data from humans. Given the nutrient profile and phytochemical contribution of beans, nutritionists should make a concerted effort to encourage the public to consume more beans in general and more soyfoods in particular.