Since I was 14, I’ve been eating an 85% vegetarian diet. About 12 years ago, I was a very strict vegan, and this year I have been going back to a mostly vegan, and often raw, lifestyle. As a result, I eat a good deal of soy in the form of soy milk, tempeh, tofu, etc.
Over the last couple of years, I keep hearing people express fear and concern over the consumption of any soy products. They say that soy contains “plant estrogens” that can mess with your body, giving men boobs (hey! maybe some of them would LIKE that) and women breast cancer. Typically, when I ask for some substantive evidence or science behind this, the response is “I heard about it from so-and-so, and HE’S a real authority on these things…” In other words, it’s something that most people have heard some surface information about, but haven’t dug much deeper to find out more.
To explain a little more, here is the main concern with soy: people keep saying it “has estrogen”. Soy does NOT actually contain estrogen. It contains ISOFLAVONES. Isoflavones have been called PHYTOESTROGENS or PLANT ESTROGENS because they have a very similar chemical makeup to estrogen. However, they behave much differently. Turns out that the cells in our bodies have a couple different types of estrogen receptors on them…kinda like magnets for estrogen. Actual estrogen will quickly bind to either type, however, isoflavones are more selective and typically only bind to the second type of receptor. Estrogen always acts like estrogen—but isoflavones may have estrogen-like effects or anti-estrogenic effects, or no effects at all. For this reason, isoflavones are considered to be SERMs, or selective estrogen receptor modulators. Most medical studies show that a SERM is a very powerful and helpful tool that can have the desired estrogen-like effects to help osteoporosis or menopause, but anti-estrogenic effects on breast tissue. Translation: it helps protect bone without raising breast cancer risk.
I don’t want to turn this post into a long, rambling piece of investigative journalism. However, I will say I’m 90% FOR eating just a LITTLE bit of soy. Here are some points to consider:
- Asian population has lower incidence of breast cancer. The global Asian population eats a considerably higher amount of soy than Americans. Their incidence of breast cancer is considerably lower than ours. This might actually be due to the soy (some controlled studies indicate this), but more than anything, it’s probably due to the fact that the Asian diet is much healthier, diverse and lower in fat.
- More benefits documented than risks. More studies show that soy does a body good — can lower risk of breast cancer, prostate cancer and cardiovascular disease.
- Suspect the source. Who paid for the article or study condemning soy? The Westin A. Price Foundation, primarily interested in promoting/selling dairy milk (totally unbiased, of course!) is behind most of the “articles” about the dangers of soy. There’s a good series of articles about WAPF at vegsource.com and energygrid.com.
- Many foods contain phytoestrogens, such as flax seed and multigrain bread. I don’t really see people running away screaming from multigrain bread as of late.
- Moderation is the key. I read a story in Men’s Health about a poor dude who grew painful little man-boobs, and found himself crying at movies all the time. Because, you know, that’s what being a woman is all about, crying all the time and fondling our sore boobs. Turns out when he stopped drinking soy milk, the problems went away. Should we all throw out our soy milk? Maybe…if we were all drinking THREE QUARTS of it every day like he was! More realistic: a couple servings per week.
- It’s better for the environment and your overall health to eat plant foods. Period. What is there to explain here? I say this, though, with the qualification that we should be growing more diverse crops than just corn, wheat and soy. And I support humanely-raised, organic grass-fed meat in moderation.
Still…. I’m not 100% confident about eating soy. I minimize it in my diet and make sure I consume the pure sources of tofu or edamame. No fake “soy chicken” or even soy milk for me. This is because studies are still continuing on this subject. And it is a little scary to contemplate those little green “estrogen fakers” doing something to my body. And some people may have a special sensitivity to isoflavones (which I would equate to someone with a peanut allergy, etc. Avoid ’em!)
At the end of the day, you need to do what you feel is right for you, for your body, your lifestyle. If you have ANY doubt or worry about soy, or a history of breast cancer in your family, by all means, limit your soy or eliminate completely if it makes you feel better. But like so many things in the wellness world, we can project too negatively or too positively on something by virtue of our thoughts. I talk about this with Kombucha. There’s not any satisfying scientific evidence to its benefits that I can find, but many people I know swear by it. Its benefits are largely perceived. Harm can be largely perceived as well, especially after a couple of articles appear before our eyes in print….so seductive, the written word! I have a male yogi friend who swears that after spending time on a veg diet that included soy, he began feeling very “weepy” and sensitive. He therefore saw it as a full green light to go back to eating steaks. (At the time of the conversation we had, he had gained a lot of weight, so now he was going on that maple syrup/cayenne pepper fast to “cleanse”. Oy! I’ll rant about the Master Cleanse in another post soon.)
What has been your experience with soy and where do you stand on the issue?
Update: read Dr Matt Von Benschoten’s extensive research on soy, concluding that studies show soy greatly reduces the risk or recurrence of breast cancer in women…