Is Soy Healthy?

Is Soy Healthy?
May 30, 2011 Heather Nicholds, C.H.N.

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Since I focus on a vegetarian and vegan diet plan, a lot of people ask me, “Is soy healthy?”

First of all, tofu is a much better choice than meat and soy milk is a much better choice than dairy milk.

The trouble is, vegans and vegetarians often rely on tofu to replace meat and soy milk to replace dairy milk, and don’t change anything else about their diet.

What happens is that they eat too much soy, and don’t get enough variety in the foods they eat. They’re fixated on this idea that meat and dairy have to be replaced with perfect ‘protein’ foods and perfect ‘calcium’ foods.

But the truth is, we should be focusing on getting a balanced diet with a variety of healthy whole foods, and all of it combined together will give us enough protein and enough calcium.

Soy isn’t necessary for vegans or vegetarians to get a balanced diet. We shouldn’t be scared if we don’t get a whole block of tofu in every day.

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I rarely eat soy, and the main benefit I see is that it has a lot of protein. Well, all other plant foods eaten with variety and balance will give you enough protein so there’s no need to get extra for most people.

If we give up the fear of protein deficiency, soy isn’t essential. But is soy healthy? On paper, it has some benefits – nutrients, enzymes, cancer-fighting compounds. A lot of foods have these things, so again variety is more important than a single perfect superfood.

Looking at soy a little closer, you can see that it can cause some problems.

Digestion and Allergies

Soy has a carbohydrate in it that human digestive systems can’t break down, so it causes a lot of indigestion in various forms. It also has phytic acid, which blocks your body’s absorption of minerals – particularly calcium.

Soy is a very common allergen because our bodies don’t digest it very well, and it can create allergies in young children. It has phytoestrogens, which can cause issues particularly in men and boys.

Soy vs. Iodine

Soy has compounds called goitrogens, which deplete iodine in your body. Iodine is essential to thyroid function. In Japan, where soy has been eaten for a long time, they also eat a lot of seaweeds – which are very rich in iodine.

Modern cultures adopting soy as part of their diet aren’t usually going for the seaweeds that would balance this problem with iodine.

Genetic Modification

Because soy is used in so many processed foods and as animal feed, it’s one of the three main crops grown in North America. The other two are corn and wheat. Being grown in massive monocultures means that soy is susceptible to pests and is a major focus for genetic modification.

Although organic standards require non-GMO seeds, having lots of GM soy out there leaves the potential for organic plants to be contaminated through pollination.

The question ‘is soy healthy?’ doesn’t have a clear yes or no answer. It’s healthy compared to a steak or a glass of cow’s milk.

Like any food, though, when eaten in excess it won’t be healthy. Soy gets overemphasized so often in vegan and vegetarian diet plans, but if it was kept to a more minimal part of the diet it could be fine.

I eat organic fermented soy (tempeh, miso, tamari), and it doesn’t cause issues for me. Fermentation breaks down the indigestible carbohydrate and the phytic acid, so it’s often a better way to eat soy.

I also try to eat seaweeds, so that my iodine levels should stay balanced.

One soy food I just can’t do, though, is soy milk. It gives me so much gas, and it hits me within about 20 minutes. It’s crazy.

Luckily, there are so many other non-dairy milk options now! I like rice milk, almond milk or hemp milk. Look for ones that use brown rice to make their milks, and have an unsweetened version. Hemp milk is my favorite, but I’m not sure if they sell it outside of Canada.

You can even make your own milk, from any type of grain or nut you like – much cheaper and healthier than buying it from a store. Check out my recipe for rice milk – it’s a lot easier than you might think! You can make almond milk at home too, although almonds cost a lot more than rice.

What’s your favorite kind of vegan milk? Have you ever tried making it yourself? Let me know by leaving a comment below.

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