Ever since I was the #wellnesschat guest on Twitter to discuss soy and its implications for our health, I’ve been fielding a lot of questions. I’ve decided that it would be helpful to have one place to send everyone; instead of continuing to regurgitate the same answers and research over and over (I’m starting to feel like a mother bird). Soy seems to be one of those foods, like cilantro and little yapping dogs, that results in very divided responses—you love ’em or you hate ’em. Even more so, you think it is the healthiest thing since oxygen or the most dangerous substance since asbestos. We have been inundated with soy propaganda that has held it up as the holy grail of foods, because like corn, it is easy to grow and highly subsidized. Thus, like corn, it is in everything and anything that is used so abundantly must have pretty intense PR to keep the pubic happily munching down on their soy. In fact, soy is in two-thirds of all processed foods!
I rarely eat soy and put it in the category of “to be consumed very, very occasionally only” where other things like white processed sugar, agave, processed foods and foods stored in plastics reside. It is not in my personal “never-ever zone” where gluten (I have a food intolerance to), MSG (food intolerance), high fructose corn syrup, artificial food dyes or Cadbury Cream Eggs (ugh… disgusting) permanently live. It’s a food that I believe should only be consumed in moderation, regardless of what category of consumption it falls in for you.
Soy is Not a Health Food—The Dangers of Soy
There is a lot of conflicting research out there regarding cancer (does soy prevent or cause it), heart disease (prevent or cause) and brain damage (prevent or cause), which the verdict is still out on. There is plenty of research that goes both ways, but with enough research on the negative side that should give anyone pause. But there are some things that are certain and provide certain reasons to place soy in your own “to be consumed occasionally or in moderation only” list and I’ll give a brief review of the literature here for those and make suggested alternatives:
There is No Deficiency in Soy Induced Nutrient Deficiencies
Phytic acid blocks absorption of minerals, including calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc. Soy has the highest phytate level of any food and of all phytate-containing foods, is the most difficult to breakdown. The phytates in other grains, nuts, seeds and legumes can be largely eliminated by soaking and/or boiling them. In soy, the only way to eliminate most of the phytates is through fermentation. Fermented soy options include soy sauce, miso, nattokinase (aka natto) and tempeh. Soy milk and tofu are NOT fermented forms of soy and are therefore phytate full. Studies find the phytates of soy reduce iron absorption. Some soy proponents believe that the minerals in soy help make up for the phytates blocking their absorption. However, studies find calcium & zinc in soy are not very absorbable to begin with.
Some soy proponents have argued that although the phytic acid in non-fermented soy blocks absorption of minerals, you would have to eat soy in every meal for it to make any real difference and that the high mineral content of a vegetarian diet makes up for the phytic acid in soy. Sadly enough, many vegetarians do eat soy in every meal and have a low mineral diet! As someone that was vegan/vegetarian for over 15 years, I am very familiar with that culture. I have a preponderance of friends and clients that are grain addicts and “fake meat” junkies. I even had a vegan roommate that hated vegetables! These unhealthy vegetarians are not getting many nutrients in their diet, because they are not consuming that many vegetables and fruits in their natural state and are living (if you can call it that) on soy AND other processed food stuffs and refined carbohydrates. Sure, someone living on tofu may not die of malnutrition, but she isn’t going to be very healthy either!
Zinc and magnesium deficiencies are the two most common mineral deficiencies for everyone, so why add to those deficiencies even more? That said, someone that consumes a diet high in vegetables and fruits, only eats sprouted grains and legumes or limits grain or limits/eliminates their consumption and only consumes soaked (sprouted) nuts should not be harmed by non-fermented soy. But that said, personally, I like to retain as many of the nutrients as I consume as possible, which puts the non-fermented soy in a definite “very, very occasionally and oh so rarely only” category for me.
Non-fermented soy also contains enzyme inhibitors that hinder protein digestion and when soy is consumed as the predominant source of protein risk neurotransmitter deficiency and muscle wasting. These enzyme inhibitors include saponins, soyatoxin, protease inhibitors and oxalates.
Male Lactation, Estrogen Dosing and Menopause
Surata tofu used to (and possibly still does) offer all of its employees a life supply of soy (thankfully they offer health insurance too). Back in the day, I lived with one of their employees who faithfully stocked our fridge with tofu. Even with a household of ten or so people, there was always a fridge full of tofu. Even back then, I stayed away from soy, but one of my roommates did not. This roommate gorged on tofu. I was in herbalism school at the time when this roommate came pleading and appealing to me to help because of beginning to lactate while not pregnant. This roommate… was a guy… He gave up soy after that (and stopped lactating).
Soy contains a large amount of phytoestrogens which mimic and sometimes block the hormone estrogen. Unfortunately, fermenting the soy makes the estrogen even more bioavailable. That said, the fermentation process produces high amounts of folate, which might have a protective effect against phytoestrogens. Drinking just two glasses of soy milk a day for one month provides enough phytoestrogens to alter a woman’s menstrual cycle! There is research going both ways regarding soy and cancers, but until a more conclusive determination is made, people with estrogen dominant cancers may want to steer very clear of soy.
Because of its estrogenic qualities, some women choose to increase their soy consumption during menopause when their estrogen is often decreasing. They are basing their decision on the belief that soy’s estrogenic qualities will prevent osteoporosis. Although phytoestrogens may offer some protection against osteoporosis, given that soy foods block calcium and cause vitamin D deficiencies, it does not make sense to consume soy for these properties. If Asians indeed have lower rates of osteoporosis than Westerners, it is because their diet provides plenty of vitamin D from shrimp, lard and seafood, and plenty of calcium from bone broths. Indeed, a 2011 study found soy ineffective at stopping hot flashes or bone loss.
There are many herbs and foods supportive of menopause, contact a nutritionist or herbalist to help create a formula and diet right for your needs in your body’s time of hormonal transition. Limonene (highest in the white pithy part of lemons and limes, second highest in the zest and third highest in the juice) may help the body detoxify itself of excess soy, which may prove beneficial in ridding the body of excess soy phyotestrogens.
Soy and Kids
In 1998, the New Zealand Government issued a health warning about soy infant formula, but given corporate interests, the US has not followed suit. Infants fed soy formula have up to 20,000 times the amount of estrogen in circulation versus those fed non-soy formulas! This is the estrogenic equivalent (based on body weight) of an infant consuming at least five birth control pills per day! What’s worse is this dosing of phytoestrogens may have an even more dangerous effect on kids than adults. With adults, about half of the phytoestrogens bind to estrogen receptors; whereas, with infants, less than five percent are available to bind to receptors. The excess amount of circulating phytoestrogens could drastically effect the sexual development of infants and children.
Breast is best. Many cities have breast milk banks where women can donate their breast milk to other women that have adopted or do not produce enough milk themselves.
Food Allergies and Intolerance
Soy is underestimated as a cause of anaphylaxis and increases risk for asthma. Soy, along with gluten and dairy, are the three most common food intolerances. All three, can mimic opiates in the body, like morphine and heroin, and attach to opiate receptor sites when food intolerance is combined with poor intestinal integrity (leaky gut and leaky brain). This makes removing them from the diet very difficult and perhaps is the reason why pro-soy proponents are so adamant about the benefits and refuse to give up soy (they are addicted). Soy opiate-like peptides can result in autism and ADHD symptoms when they reach the brain.
To test if soy is a food intolerance for you or your child, either do a food intolerance test or remove it from your diet completely for one month. Keep a record of your symptoms and then add it back in to each meal for two days and note any changes of symptoms. Symptoms can be digestive (e.g. bloating, gassiness, cramping, constipation, diarrhea, or alternating constipation and diarrhea), neurological (e.g. depression, anxiety, mood swings, problems concentrating, bad dreams), skin problems (e.g. eczema, psoriasis, rashes, acne), muscle/joint stiffness or pain, or ANYTHING else. If you have any reactions to soy, no matter how small, the symptom is merely the side-effect of inflammation in the body and soy should be removed. Removing other common allergens and inflammatory foods at the same time and testing each of them separately will illicit the best results.
Soy interferes with thyroid function. Soy contains goitrogens which block synthesis of thyroid hormones and interfere with iodine metabolism. Goitrogens are a phytoestrogen and as such, become even more bioavailable when fermented. Anyone with thyroid concerns, especially hypothyroidism needs to avoid soy and limit its consumption to very rarely.
If your diet is high in soy, consider increasing your iodine consumption (unless you have TPO/TPA antibodies or Hashimoto’s) to offset the effect of the soy goitrogens.
But Soy is so High in Protein…And I’m a Vegan…
Yes, it is true that soy, on paper, is the highest vegetarian form of protein. The problem is that non-fermented soy contains enzyme Inhibitors that actually hinder protein digestion! These enzyme inhibitors include saponins, soyatoxin, protease inhibitors and oxalates. This makes most other forms of protein a better choice, even if they are lower in protein than soy.
A close second in vegetarian protein sources to soy is hemp seeds. Hemp seeds have 16 grams of protein per just 3 tablespoons and contain a high amount of omega 3 essential fatty acids, providing a healthy form of fat to accompany the protein. All nuts and seeds are a good source of vegetarian protein and a healthy protein source for people on a low-carbohydrate, paleo or primal diet type. One ounce of almonds contains 6 grams of protein, as much calcium as a quarter cup of milk and is high in Vitamin E, magnesium, zinc and folic acid.
Most vegans need to eat a variety of grains and/or legumes to reach optimal protein levels, if they are very active and a combination of beans and grains, nuts, or seeds to create complete proteins (all the amino acids). Consuming a variety of beans (other than soy) will provide 12-15 grams of protein per cup. Thirty percent of lentil’s calories are from protein, making it the third highest vegetarian protein source, after soy and hemp. Lentils are deficient in amino acids, methionine and cysteine, but once they are sprouted, provide a complete protein with 18 grams of protein, per cup. High protein grains also provide a potential vegetarian protein source. Quinoa (technically a seed, not a grain) has a whopping 11 grams of protein per cup. You can use quinoa in place of rice to pack more protein into stir fries so there is no need to add tofu.
Soy Milk has become big business, being the most common dairy replacement for vegans and people that are lactose intolerant or have a dairy allergy. Luckily there are so many other, better options. Try experimenting with all the different dairy alternatives out there, until you find one that you like. My favorite “milks” are coconut, almond, hazelnut and hemp. I don’t suggest clients consume rice milk, because other dairy alternatives tend to be higher in protein.
Best of all, nut and seed milks couldn’t be easier to make yourself—saving you gobs of money and avoiding gnarly ingredients and preservatives. Combine one part nuts or seeds to four parts water, blend completely and strain. That’s it! Increase water to make it thinner or decrease water to make it thicker. Add vanilla and/or a natural sweetener to change the taste. Remember that without the preservatives, it won’t last as long as the commercially prepared milks, so consume it within a few days and then just make more. Preferably use raw, organic and soaked nuts and seeds to make your milks to get rid of their enzyme inhibitors.
Most non-organic veggie burgers use hexane, a neurotoxin, in processing the soy. Veggie burgers that contain hexane when last checked include: Amy’s Kitchen, Boca Burger (conventional), Franklin Farms, Garden Burger, It’s All Good Lightlife, Morningstar Farms, President’s Choice, Taste Above, Trader Joe’s and Yves Veggie Cuisine. You can make your own veggie burgers by blending cooked beans and/or grains with vegetables and a nut or seed butter as the binder. Shape into patties and eat as is or cook on a grill or in a pan.
Many vegans and non-vegan athletes alike rely on soy protein powder to add to their smoothies for a performance protein boost. Isolated soy protein powder is very processed and usually contains aluminum from acid washing and sometimes MSG! There are many great protein powders including rice, egg whites, whey and hemp. All of them should be sourced in their least processed form, organic and preferably raw. Spirulina, a blue-green algae, has an impressive 6 grams of protein per 10 grams and is a great green protein addition to smoothies! If you are drinking a smoothie as a meal or snack replacer, add a healthy fat as protein powders usually have the fat processed out of them. Good fat sources for smoothies include fish oil, flax oil, cod liver oil, nut butters, seed butters, avocado and coconut.
Lecithin, a neurotransmitter precursor, can now be sourced from sunflower seeds instead of soy.
But…But…But… Ahh Screw It… I’m Gonna Eat Soy Anyway…aka… “La La La… I Can’t Hear You…”
Ninety-one percent of US soy crops are genetically modified! This makes it essential that the soy you choose to consume be only organic forms. Remember that two-thirds of processed foods contain soy, making it pretty darn important to avoid processed foods altogether, if possible or limit your consumption of them. Eat real food (period). When you eat soy, eat it in its most natural and unprocessed form. Sure, the Japanese culture does consume soy and is quite healthy, but they only consume it in small amounts, usually as a condiment, usually fermented or as the whole bean and not processed. Also, they eat a healthy, whole foods diet. Adding soy, to an already highly processed, low fiber, low nutrient diet is just going to inflame the fire of inflammation in your body.
Fermented forms, such as tempeh, miso, natto and soy sauce do not contain the high level of phytates but have more bioavailable phytoestrogens. Edamame is the least processed form of soy, but still contain phytoestrogens, phytates, haemaggluttin, goitrogens and an abundance of omega 6 essential fatty acids (without omega 3 EFAs to provide balance).
For Additional Soy Reading:
A comprehensive discussion of research on soy: Tragedy and Hype. Nexus Magazine, Volume 7, Number 3, April-May, 2000. © 2000 Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig, PhD.
Dr. Kaayla Daniel, author of The Whole Soy Story, points out thousands of studies linking soy to health concerns
A discussion of the studies on the effects of the phytoestrogens in soy: “Risks & benefits of soy phytoestrogens in cardiovascular diseases, cancer, climacteric symptoms & osteoporosis.” Sirtori CR. Institute of Pharmacological Sciences, University of Milan, Italy
Mercola has compiled a variety of articles, videos and discussion surrounding the health concerns of soy
A compilation and discussion of studies on infants and soy, soy formulas and recipes for non-soy formulas: Soybean Products? A Recipe for Disaster. Nexus Magazine, Volume 4, #3 (April-May 1997). © by Joseph G. Hattersley