That is the question!
And the answer continues to remain controversial. There is a wealth of conflicting information online regarding this subject.
As a cancer survivor, British asian, fitness professional and someone who does not consume animal meat or poultry, the subject of soy in food continues to come up. So let me break it down into as short a piece as I can to give you a general sense of it all in plain English from my perspective.
Some studies promote its health benefits with statements like: Soy’s anti-estrogen properties prevent breast cancer, its fiber content can lower colorectal cancer, and in various stages of prostate cancer soy lowered PSA levels. Here’s one such study: MDAndersonorg
Other pluses for soy include its low fat content and high protein content, making it an efficient nutrient, especially in a vegetarian diet.
Many western articles point to asians having lower occurrences of certain types of cancer, reasoning that asians eat a high amount of soy. They use statistics to prove that the two facts are related. Here’s a WebMD article detailing an example of this theory.
Books like the China Study link an asian diet heavy in soy with health benefits.
Some studies show that soy consumption switches on cancer-forming genes, increasing the rate of cancer cell growth; like this one on breastcancer.org
Others provide studies linking soy to miscarriages, hormonal disruptions, infertility, loss of libido and erectile dysfunction; like this one from Dr. Mercola.
Some studies claim too much soy causes dementia and other brain issues, as well as hair loss.
The Middle Ground:
What’s clear is that the jury is out. This information sounds all too familiar: Wine is good for you, then it’s bad. Fat causes heart attacks, so we must eat nothing but carbs. Oh wait, oops, carbs are bad, now fat is back in fashion! Heard this before?
There are easy guidelines to follow here that can also be mirrored when deciding on your fat, sugar, carbs or alcohol consumption too. The rules are quite simple. In fact, there’s really only one:
DON’T EAT TOO MUCH OF IT!
I knew a middle aged woman in Oklahoma some years ago who was overweight and tried every fad diet possible to lose a few pounds. The only thing she didn’t try was sensible portions and moderation. She ended up doing crazy things like downing an entire bottle of olive oil because she read it was “good for your heart”. True story. Not long after this, she had a heart attack.
As with everything, too much of something is bad. But with soy, this statement rings even more profoundly. In an attempt to give us westerners a miracle low fat, non-meat protein substitute that’s easy to produce, the soy industry has given us a soy mutant monster. Soy protein isolate is a component of soy, literally isolated and multiplied to hulk like levels.
Enthusiastic believers in the asian diet ignore the fact that asians also eat a lot of meats, vegetables, fungi, legumes, fruits……. The point really is to look at the amounts and the ratios. They aren’t knocking back pints of soy milk like it’s going out of fashion.
Additionally, if that soy isn’t organic it may be genetically modified for hardiness to be sprayed with Round Up. This means it has probably also been sprayed with said toxic chemicals you’d never want to set foot near, much less consume.
Even if it’s organic, if it isn’t fermented, it contains high levels of phytic acid, an anti-nutrient that leaches vital nutrients from your body, and blocks the uptake of others. Dr. Mercola’s article details this well, but you can find this information in many forms if you google it. Here’s an article from foodforbreastcancer.com that suggests eliminating soy protein isolate from your diet if you are fighting breast cancer.
With all the back and forth, what is one supposed to believe? Conclusive findings don’t appear to be anywhere near in sight. So for myself, I choose to logic my way around the situation. Here is my deductive reasoning:
- Soy clearly doesn’t actually cure cancer. If it did, we’d all be miraculously cured by now. So there’s no need to start consuming it heavily for its proclaimed health benefits, when I can get my protein from many sources, even if I’m a vegan.
- Asians traditionally don’t eat unfermented soy products without also consuming some form of seafood or seaweed, which neutralized the phytic acid in the soy, making it safe to eat. So probably eating soy protein isolates and other unfermented soy products doesn’t mimic the Asian miracle diet anyway.
- If numerous studies tell you something causes cancer, perhaps it is worth listening to that information and investigating it before jumping under the bus and regretting it later.
I choose to eat organic soy and fermented soy products in moderation. I avoid any foods containing soy protein isolates like the plague; like soy milk and soy burgers. I don’t go near soy beans aka Edamame either. This crop was originally used in between usable crop seasons on fallow land to re-nourish the soil and wasn’t consumed in its bean form. Asians knew it to be poisonous to consume as is. Hence, they developed a way to ferment the bean and make it edible. Here’s an article that I quickly googled referencing this at authorityNutrition.com. Edemame is not fermented! It doesn’t make the cut!
Here is a list of soy based products I personally deem safe:
- Organic Tofu – but I try to make sure I consume some form of seaweed or seafood along with it. It doesn’t have to be much. And I don’t eat it very often, perhaps once a month as my source of protein. I happen to LOVE tofu, so it’s hard not to eat too much of it to be honest!
- Organic Miso – fermented soy paste soup, sometimes with seaweed and tofu.
- Organic Tempeh – Health food stores have a lot of Tempeh burgers/patties to choose from, in various flavors.
- Organic Soy Sauce – a fermented sauce.
- Natto is also a fermented soy product that makes the cut, but I don’t personally like it.
Moderation, moderation, moderation!
Be sensible, read articles, make your own decisions based on more than one source.