A high dietary intake of soy products (eg, as in Japan and Singapore) has been associated with a reduction in the incidence of breast cancer in premenopausal women. Phytoestrogens present in soybeans inhibit human breast cancer cell proliferation in vitro and breast cancer development in animal models, but no data exist on the effects of phytoestrogens on histologically normal human breasts. This study examines the effects of dietary soy supplementation on the proliferation rate of premenopausal, histologically normal breast epithelium and the expression of progesterone receptor. Women (n = 48) with benign or malignant breast disease were randomly assigned to receive their normal diet either alone or with a 60-g soy supplement (containing 45 mg isoflavones) taken daily for 14 d. Biopsy samples of normal breasts were labeled with [3H]thymidine to detect the number of cells in S phase and were immunocytochemically stained for the proliferation antigen Ki67. The phytoestrogens genistein, daidzein, equol, enterolactone, and enterodiol were measured in serum samples obtained before and after supplementation. Serum concentrations of the isoflavones genistein and daidzein increased in the soy group at 14 d. Results showed a strong correlation between Ki67 and the thymidine labeling index (r = 0.868, P < or = 0.001). The proliferation rate of breast lobular epithelium significantly increased after 14 d of soy supplementation when both the day of menstrual cycle and the age of patient were accounted for. Progesterone receptor expression increased significantly in the soy group. Short-term dietary soy stimulates breast proliferation; further studies are required to determine whether this is due to estrogen agonist activity and to examine the long-term effects of soy supplementation on the pituitary gland and breast.