When the topic of vegetarianism comes up, the most common complaint I hear is “does that mean I’ll have to eat tofu all day long?” Unfortunately, the idea that vegetarians and vegans live a 90% soy-filled lifestyle is a pretty outdated view of plant-based eating. But even if you do have a meat-friendly diet, should you incorporate soy into your diet for health reasons?
Tofu originally became synonymous with health, particularly for vegetarians, because of its high protein content (protein is always the first thing we’re worried about, isn’t it?!). Later, epidemiologic studies observed the low incidence of breast cancer and cardiovascular disease among Asian populations (especially among individuals eating mostly vegetarian diets and a substantial amount of soy foods), and attributed their increased health to the presence of soy in their diets.
Though soy products can be a healthy part of a balanced diet, when it comes to consuming or purposefully adding soy to your diet, this statement from PCC Natural Markets rings true: quality and quantity matter.
For example, raw soybeans have been known for ages to be esstentially inedible. They are incredibly difficult to digest, and they are so full of phytates, a chemical found in most plants that inhibits the absorption of vitamins and minerals from our food, that consuming too much raw soy can actually propagate nutrient deficiencies, rather than enhancing our health. Soybeans also have potent enzyme inhibitors and genestein, which can block the production of thyroid hormone.
Now, most of us don’t eat raw soy, and products like tofu or soy milk are much more digestible than simple soybeans, however, phytates remain present in these foods, and in the case of soy milks and cheeses, are often mixed with a number of other products like added sugars, MSG, casein (a protein found in milk), and stabilizers to keep them shelf-stable and more texturally similar to animal milks and cheeses.
Lastly, there’s the category of fermented soy products like miso and tempeh. These are the products that were traditionally consumed in Asian countries, and likely contribute to the positive health benefits of soy consumption found in those earlier studies I mentioned. The fermentation process breaks down the phytates, so the vitamins and minerals are more easily digestible, and fermentation introduces probiotics and good bacteria to the food. Plus, most fermented soy products are minimally processed, so there are less likely to be added sugars and other unnecessary ingredients in the products.
In sum, to get the most healthy soy for your diet, eat soy products that are minimally processed and preferably fermented.
There are certain caveats to keep in mind for all soy products:
Soy acts as a phytoestrogen, meaning that it mimics estrogen in the body. Therefore, if you know that you have already high estrogen levels or a disease like PCOS, omitting soy products from your diet could help to relive symptoms.
Also, 90% of soy products in the United States are genetically modified. There is no evidence to suggest that eating GMO soybeans is bad for your health, but if it is something you do not want in your diet, make sure to choose certified organic soy products.
Also, soy is EVERYWHERE. Seriously. Go into your cabinet and look at the ingredient labels on any packaged good. There is a chance that you will find soy in the form of soy protein isolate, soy lecithen, or soybean oil somewhere on the list. Now we could go into all the subsidies, policy issues, and chemistry to discuss why soy is added to most packaged foods, but what’s important is that because of these practices, we are actually getting small amounts of soy throughout our diets throughout the day, and unfortunately, not in a form that is shown to provide any health benefits.
So how can you consume a healthy amount of soy?
- If you have a condition such as a thyroid disorder or estrogen imbalance, talk to your doctor and consider reducing your soy consumption, particularly if you eat a lot of packaged foods.
- Be wary of fake meat products like veggie burgers that could pack a lot of soy protein into a single serving. Check the ingredient legend to determine if they’re using whole soybeans or processed soy (like soy protein isolate).
- Do say yes to fermented, high quality soy products like traditionally produced soy sauce or miso paste.
- Introduce variety. Particularly if you do find yourself drinking a soy latte in the morning, eating tofu for lunch, and veggie burgers for dinner, branch out! There is a world of almond or nut milks, delicious beans, and other protein sources that you can indulge in. Variety is the spice of life, and it also leads to a balanced vitamin and nutrient profile.
In sum, soy or tofu is not the end-all, be-all for health foods, but barring certain conditions, there’s no evidence to suggest that we should remove all soy products from our diets. The key is awareness about all the places that soy is found in our food supply, and ensuring that you’re eating soy in the best possible ways for you. As always, follow your body, and do whatever keeps you feeling excited and energized for life.
Thanks for following along on this soy adventure! Have a nutrition or health question you’d like to see answered? Contact me at samantha.attard[at]gmail.com!