Soy: The Good, the Bad and the Balanced

Soy products isolated on whiteThere has recently been a lot of debate when it comes to soy and whether or not it is healthy for you. While some nutritionists believe that increasing your intake of soy products can be nothing but beneficial, others say some soy products can be harmful to our health if eaten too often. Another part of the discussion is that we often consume soy in products without even knowing it. Hopefully after reading both sides of the debate you will be able to make a more informed decision about your food choices for yourself and your family.

Ling Wong, a Certified Holistic Health Counselor and AADP Nutrition and Wellness Coach, says her opinion is that the problem comes from the way soy is consumed today. The soy products that have been used in Asian culture for centuries were generally in a fermented form that allows the toxins to be neutralized. Today, Wong says, many of the commercially available soy products have been genetically modified, processed and extracted into forms that are not natural. Because the soy in many of these products is concentrated, the effects of the anti-nutrients and estrogenic properties are potentially magnified.

“These products have not been around long enough for us to know the impact on human health,” Wong points out. “They are also added to many packaged foods, so we may be eating soy without even knowing it - and therefore eating more than what people would have eaten in the past when soy products came in more ‘recognizable’ forms.”

Amy Hendel, a registered physician's assistant, health coach, and author of the book, "The 4 Habits of Healthy Families", agrees that many of us eat soy components without knowing it as we often don’t read food labels closely enough. However, she believes that soy products can be incorporated into a balanced diet as an excellent source of protein.

Food label

“Soy may be similar to unprocessed forms of most other foods in that they are a bit healthier and may impart more clear health benefits than their processed counterpart,” Hendel said. ”Soy is a complete protein and therefore is an excellent way to get the vitamins, calcium, iron and phytonutrients that soy offers.” Hendel recommends that people consume two to three servings of soy food products each day, or around 25 grams of unprocessed soy.

She also suggests that soy supplements may have the ability to help women find relief from hot flashes during menopause and certain compounds found in soy may have heart health benefits, specifically for patients with diabetes. “Soy consumption is also associated with a decreased risk of certain cancers, heart disease and may offer protective benefits in certain breast cancer patients and survivors,” Hendel said. Soy is often fortified with calcium and vitamin D, and is also a good source of iron and omega-3 fatty acids. Like many nutritionists, Hendel believes that Americans are eating far too many proteins that are accompanied by saturated, artery-clogging fat. As a way to cut back on these unhealthy ingredients, Hendel suggests including soybeans, tempeh, tofu and soymilk in a balanced daily diet as a way to boost protein without all the saturated fat.

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Susan Schenck, author of the books, "The Live Food Factor" and "Beyond Broccoli", sees soy and soy based products in a much darker light. She says it is all too often being used as just a highly over-processed filler. This over-processing in soy takes out the positive benefits of it and replaces them with negative effects.

Schenck says some of the negative effects seen with the consumption of over-processed soy products include:

  • Damage to the thyroid caused by goitrogens in soy products
  • Lectins in soy cause red blood cells to clump together and may damage immune system reactions.
  • The sugars in soy, oligosaccharides, cause bloating and flatulence.
  • Protease inhibitors, such as trypsin inhibitors, interfere with digestive enzymes and lead to gastric distress, poor digestion, gas, bloating, diarrhea, and an overworked pancreas.
  • The heating of soy during processing creates heterocyclicamines (HCAs), toxic carcinogenic byproductsalso found in cooked meat. These can lead to liver, lung, and stomach tumors, as well as lymphoma and leukemia.
  • The chemical process that breaks down the soybean’s protein structure into free amino acids also releases the excitotoxins glutamate (MSG) and aspartate.

“Americans have been brainwashed into eating all kinds of processed soy ice cream, soy hot dogs, etc. We were convinced it was healthful to eat, because that was the goal of the soy maker's marketing strategy!” Schenck added. She suggests that we instead, view soy products like we do cholesterol, as there are good forms and bad. The good forms of soy would include raw, unprocessed forms like edamame or fermented soy as a condiment, not a main dish. Examples of this might be tofu, miso or tempeh.

So be sure to take caution when adding soy to your daily diet. Always read your food labels to know what you're ingesting, and stick to natural, unprocessed forms for the healthiest option.