Woe to the one that is the poor soy bean. Never has one been so beloved and so demonized and all at once in such a short time span. Never has something been so misunderstood and for what? For nothing more than the mainstream media and the milk industry interchanging the words xenoestrogen and phytoestrogen (more on this coming up) coupled with the fact that Monsanto and all their incarnations have genetically modified more than 90% of all the soy produced in the US. On top of that, because of a really convoluted pipeline of farm subsidies and faulty reasoning that growing (genetically modified) soy is somehow cheaper and better for business AND the fact that soy isolates are cheap fillers for all kinds of food-like substances and those isolates such as soybean oil, texturized soy protein, tocopherol/ Vitamin E, Lecithin, and hydrolysed soy protein is fed to animals as well as humans.
So let’s separate the facts from fiction, shall we?
Myth #1- Soy is xenoestrogenic. Xenoestrogens are man-made chemicals that can enter the body and mimic the effects of the female hormone estrogen. Xenoestrogens fit in the same receptors in the body and do the same thing that the natural hormone does. In addition, they can also turn-on more receptors — sometimes synergistically — making the effect of the estrogen or xenoestrogen more profound. Estrogen is produced in the ovaries, adrenal glands and fatty tissue and is vital to sexual organ health, (breasts fertility and even maintaining the health of bone by working with calcium, Vitamin D and other minerals and hormones to prevent bone loss. In women, estrogen circulates in the bloodstream and binds to estrogen receptors on cells in targeted tissues, affecting not only the breasts and uterus, but also the brain, bone, liver, heart and other tissues. When in balance, used estrogen is metabolized in the liver and that used estrogen is excreted by the colon. Xenoestrogens are found in compounds such as birth control pills, beauty and personal care products, plastics, pesticides and many many other compounds. (More on this coming up.) When xenoestrogens are allowed to enter the body in the amount they do in our modern world it is equivalent to filling up a balloon to bursting. Eventually there are just so many xenoestrogens circulating they can’t all be utilized in the ways they were meant to be and toxicity builds up leading to estrogen dominance, cancers such as breast, uterine, ovarian and prostate, menstrual irregularities, infertility, a contributor to adrenal insufficiency and even autoimmune illness. Several studies have linked estrogen dominance to obesity which has dramatic health ramifications all its own.
Soy is a phytoestrogen which is a compound found in many plant foods such as lignans (flax seed), beans, seeds, some plants such as stevia, and even cereal grains. Phytoestrogens have both a weak estrogen-stimulating (estrogenic) and paradoxically, an estrogen-inhibiting (anti-estrogenic) activity. The estrogen-like activities may strengthen bones and prevent menopausal symptoms like hot flashes. Soy contains substances called isoflavones, in the form of genistein and daidzein, that are similar to estrogen.The estrogen activities from these isoflavones are much weaker than the actual hormone – in fact, they have only about 0.1% the activity.
Myth #2- Soy contains anti-nutrients which can interfere with the digestion of proteins and absorption of vital minerals. This is no more the case than for any other bean, lentil, pea, seed, or even nut which all contain phytic acid, basically an anti-nutrient meant to keep it from being eaten until it can sprout and reproduce. Properly preparing soy as a whole food, i.e. soaking, cooking, and/or fermenting usually releases these anti-nutrients and activates enzymes that make them highly digestible and assimilable by the body.
Myth #3- Soybeans cause the thyroid to shut down. Raw soybeans do contain some goitercentric compounds that can contribute to a malfunctioning thyroid, however, when are you really going to eat raw soy?? Cooking your soybeans renders those compounds harmless. Also, goiters and hypothyroidism have been found in some infants eating a steady diet of soy-based infant formula but these formulas are, more often than not, filled with soy isolates and other compounds, not properly prepared by the manufacturer (mass-produced) and given in large quantities.
Myth #4- Soy causes breast cancer. Soy does have mild estrogenic qualities that may trigger tumor growth in estrogen sensitive cancers (breast and prostate), however, the fact remains, this generally only is because ANY estrogenic activity caused by estrogen dominance would be enhanced by any kind of estrogen production. In my practice, I tell my clients that are recovering from breast cancer to avoid products with soy in the ingredients and to limit their whole soy (tofu, natto, miso, edamame) intake to 1-2 3 oz. servings per week and, preferably from sprouted soybeans to further minimize any stray anti-nutrients. It bears saying that in Asian countries breast and prostate cancer rates are four to six times lower than in Western countries.
So why is the poor soybean so vilified of late? And why the conflicting evidence of its efficacy and hazards? This is, in part, due to pseudo science and emotional reactions dredged up by both the hard-core meat and dairy industries and soy-loving vegetarians and vegans alike- by big agribusiness and soy manufacturers.
The real problem is the proliferation of “fake foods” created with the isolated parts of the soybean instead of small amounts of traditional soy foods. All those food-like products, fake meats, soy milks, concentrated soy protein bars, created by separating the life giving essential vitamins (such as A,C, and E) and minerals, fiber, ALAs (Alpha Linoleic Acids), Omega-3, phytochemicals, fiber, and protein and mixed with toxic amounts of sugars and artificial sweeteners, wheat extracts, starches, dairy and eggs are often toxic “lab created” food substitutes fit for no human to consume and do not remotely resemble nature’s creation and the effects on your health communicate this loud and clear!
Bottom line, the whole is always better than the part. Soy, provided you aren’t severely estrogen dominant (in which case avoiding as many phytoestogrens as well as xenoestrogens is advisable until after a thorough detox), in its whole form, properly prepared, and even then, in reasonable quantities can be a beneficial part of a healthy diet. As always, balance is the key and tossing out all those packaged foods with more than 5 ingredients is a key step in avoiding the toxicity of soy isolates and concentrates.
If you think about the words “isolate” and “concentrate” , they really say it all. Anything isolated from the whole or concentrated into an extreme form (especially if isolated first!) should be avoided at all cost.
Think about balance and portions too, as well as using the whole soy food. A tofu based dessert vs. a soy isolate containing “protein bar”. A little soy-milk in a smoothie vs. a soy latte. A small amount of tofu in a stir-fry vs. a texturized soy protein “hot dog”. (I never got that, by the way, the whole soy burgers, soy hot dogs, even tofurkey thing! What is the point of going vegetarian if you are just eating things that look like meat? I’m just saying…..)
By the way, many studies have been done on the benefits of soy for perimenopausal, menopausal, and menstrual symptoms, effects on breast and prostate tumors, and even as an anti-aging fountain of youth. If I say this a thousand times I haven’t said it enough. Soy is meant to be a PART of a healthy eating plan. It is NOT the elixir of life. It is NOT a wonder-drug or miracle cure. It is not meant to be downed in infinite proportions just as it was never meant to be a cheap replacement for real food! Stop looking at it as either a villain or a Godsend. It is what it is. It is a nutrient rich bean when whole and properly prepared (oh and NOT GMO) and a devil on the digestive, reproductive and endocrine systems when ingested in large quantities ESPECIALLY when isolated and concentrated or improperly prepared. It is meant to be a part of a balanced diet if you enjoy it. If you don’t like it, don’t eat it simply because you think it will prevent hot flashes. You can just as easily eat a lot of beans and plants that will give you the same effect and love what you are eating. If you like it, use it in its whole forms, preferably sprouted and/or fermented, in reasonable quantities NOT as a “Power Bar” before or after a workout.
Repeat after me. A Power Bar is NOT a meal. A Power Bar is NOT a meal.
Pity the poor soybean and pass the edamame!
Note:: I no longer recommend soy ( a little edamame usually doesn’t hurt as long as it is organic or non-gmo) as I do see more and more patients with severe intolerances and the phytoestrogens do tend to affect both women and men in our society where we are bombarded with soy!