Anybody who lifts weights or consistently exercises and tries to eat healthy is aware that soy has been one of the most controversial foods of this past decade. Becoming extremely popular in the vegetarian and vegan diet, soy seems like the best high protein alternative to meat and milk. But of course every food comes with conflicting opinions and supposed side effects. Red meat is accused of causing cancer, dairy will give your kids a high dose of hormones affecting them for life, and any food high in saturated fats will give you high cholesterol as well as an increased possibility of having a heart attack.
In recent years all these accusations have been questioned, but it seems most these myths are ingrained within our culture. In the wake of these myths a number of concerned parents replaced their children’s hamburgers with tofu, and their dairy milk with soy milk. Until recently not many side effects were known about soy, making it (at the time) a safe and healthy alternative to animal products. It wasn’t until recently that many studies came out claiming a soy heavy diet can cause many negative side effects in men such as increased estrogen, increased risk of prostate cancer and even lifelong debilitating neurological diseases in infants.
What Should You to Believe?
In this time of seemingly infinite views and opinions on the internet, it’s not surprising many misconceptions and myths exist on this crop. Unfortunately, a lot of the answers we are seeking are still yet to be discovered. When researching whether soy is healthy it seemed like everything I read was titled along the lines of “Why soy is so dangerous for men”, or “Why soy is the best food alternative for everybody on Earth”. It seems most people who have written an article about soy stick to the research that benefits their opinion more than anything. With that being said, I am going to do my best to stay unbiased and completely factual till the end when I will put forth my opinion.
Being used for hundreds of years, primarily by Asian countries, soy comprises a good portion of their diet in forms such as tempeh, natto and soy sauce. Most dietitians agree that fermented soy products like the ones I just listed are much healthier than the unfermented, genetically modified (GMO) products we consume in the west such as soy milk, burgers and soybean oil.
These types of unfermented soy products contain toxins known as anti-nutrients in the form of saponins, soyatoxin and phytates. These anti-nutrients do the opposite of what your body wants, they inhibit the digestion of protein and other vital nutrients we need to stay healthy. This causes less of the macronutrient to break down into amino acids to help muscle protein synthesis as well as many other important functions in the body. An important mineral that is also effectively not absorbed by these anti-nutrients is iron, which women especially need in larger amounts than men. Although soy protein is known as a “complete protein”, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids, this type of protein shouldn’t be your go-to for muscle building as its levels of BCAA’s (or branch chain amino acids, the ones vital to muscle protein synthesis) are significantly lower than meat or a powder such as whey.
Another issue with soy is the presence of isoflavones known as genistein and daidzein, which are both a type of phytoestrogen. Phytoestrogens are a plant compound which mimic human estrogen, something neither men nor women want to consume in excess. In men the list of unwanted side effects from increased estrogen range from:
✗ Impaired fertility
✗ Decreased athletic performance
✗ Decreased libido
✗ Development of breasts
In women the side effects are more than just frustrating, as increased levels of estrogen can increase a woman’s risk of life threatening breast cancer.
Among these negatives, the controversy of GMO’s exist with soy more than any other farmed plant. More than 80% of soy grown in the United States are genetically modified. The other concern is the amount of pesticides used when growing soy crops. This along with how they are processed (called acid washing) can potentially leach a toxic amount of aluminum into the final product we consume. So far it’s not looking very good for soy, but luckily there are some positives.
Are There Any Good Types of Soy?
With all the negatives associated with it, you might be asking why soy is touted as being so healthy. As it turns out now all types of soy contain pesticides or GMO’s, as well as much lower levels of the negative compounds found in most soy we eat. Like always, our eastern ancestors have been doing it right for thousands of years. The soy produced in most Asian countries are completely pesticide and GMO free, making them safe to eat from a heavy metal standpoint. The other thing Asian cultures do which makes their soy healthier includes fermenting the soy. After a fermenting process the anti-nutrients and phytoestrogens are decreased, allowing the nutrients to be better absorbed in your body.
The main types of fermented soy which are considered to be okay to eat consistently include tempeh, a type of soybean cake with a firm, nutty texture. Miso, a type of soybean paste with a salty taste/texture. Natto, soybeans with a sticky almost cheese like texture. And soy sauce, which is traditionally made from fermented soybeans, salt and enzymes. Be careful though as many common soy sauces sold in the US are made artificially using the same chemicals as unfermented soy.
All the above fermented soy products, especially natto are rich in vitamin K2. Vitamin K is known as the “forgotten vitamin”, even with health benefits such as preventing osteoporosis, heart disease, neuro-diseases, and certain types of cancers including prostate, lung, and liver. Named after Koaguation, this vitamin is more powerful than aspirin for dissolving life threatening blood clots. Unfortunately fermented soy products aren’t as appetizing as artificial soy products making them less popular outside of Asian culture.
Take Home Message
So what’s the final take on soy? Not the super healthy meat alternative we once thought, but it also has its place in our diets. At the end of the day you need to make your own decisions on soy, if you feel the negatives outweigh the positives then you might want to start cutting it out. But if you enjoy some of the fermented types of soy it can actually improve your health in various ways.
In this writer’s opinion, I don’t believe a serving of soy here and there will have much of a negative effect on our health, and in moderation can actually be beneficial to our health. Its only when the majority of your diet revolves around tofu, soy protein and soy milk that you might need to slow down and take a look at how much soy is in your daily diet. If you aren’t a vegan or vegetarian, there’s no reason why soy should be your main protein source, a high quality meat product or whey protein is proven to be superior in effectiveness (and don’t worry whey isolate is safe for individuals that suffer from lactose intolerance). And for those who don’t enjoy cow’s milk or are afraid of added growth hormone, more alternatives exist than just soy, including almond, cashew, coconut and rice.
Furthermore, vegans and vegetarians don’t need to rely on soy to get their daily protein requirements in. It is quite easy to get enough protein through sources such as nuts, beans, quinoa, hemp, seeds, and a type of wheat gluten called seitan which contains more protein than an equivalent amount of steak. So as you see, it’s not a necessity to eat soy in greater amounts than needed. But I’m not telling you how to shape your diet, I’m only giving you the information you need to help fuel your ambitions!