Soy: The Super Food?

Soy is a super food, right? It's supposed to lower cholesterol, take away my hot flashes, create stronger bones, increase prostate function, and produce great protection against cancer. And, I hear there's a lot of soy protein powder pushing going on at the gym. Let's take a look.

Whole soy foods include tofu, edamame, miso, soy milk, soy nuts, soy cheese, and tempeh. The truth is...

Soy is a very healthy food in its unprocessed state:
  • Complete protein. Even as a veggie, soy provides all the amino acids (the building blocks of protein) your body needs, just like fish, chicken, eggs, pork, and beef.
  • Low in total fat, saturated fat (the evil kind), and cholesterol.
  • High in fiber.
  • Lactose-free. Soy milk usually has added vitamin D and calcium, so it's a wonderful choice for those of you who are lactose intolerant.
  • Naturally low in B vitamins and calcium (oops...not so good.)
The Soy Facts:
  • Isoflavones are found in soy, and they are a big part of the "soy magic." They are a class of phytoestrogen, which can act like estrogen in our body--think "fake" estrogen:) The soy hype suggests that soy helps with menopausal hot flashes. (You can buy some really expensive soy bars especially targeted for this.) Studies have shown inconclusive results, which means, so far they really don't know if it helps or not. If it helps your hot flashes, great, if not, and they still bother you, chat with your doc.
  • Breast cancer survivors are almost always advised by their doc to avoid soy and soy containing foods. You don't need any more estrogen encouraging breast cell growth. Always check with your doc to be sure.
  • Lowers cholesterol and LDL? As the studies come in, some of them show a slight decrease in risk of cardiovascular disease, but the majority of newer results show no overall benefit to soy as its tested.
  • Thyroid patients. Soy definitely interferes with the absorption of your thyroid replacement medication, so you should never take those meds with a soy protein shake in the morning. Most experts recommend not consuming soy within 1-3 or some say 12 hours of taking your meds. Some health professionals even recommend avoiding soy altogether for thyroid patients. Every patient is unique: how your thyroid is functioning or not, how much soy you want to eat, etc. comes into play, so you need to be carefully managed by your doc here.

One key point: There is a difference in the soy sources we are consuming. When we eat whole soy, such as tofu, soy nuts, or soy milk, we are getting all the good things that soy has to offer, including the fiber and the natural nutrients and isoflavones. Many of the soy products people are reaching for today are processed soy products.

Processed soy is listed as concentrated soy, soy protein products and soy isolates. Huh? This is the typical processing: you take the healthy whole grain-- the soybean--break it apart, often chucking out the wonderful fiber, some nutrients and sometimes even the isoflavones. What's left, the protein powder stuff, is added to pills, bars, shakes, supplements, breads, cereals, and more. The manufacturer can proclaim the health benefits of soy, but it is missing some really great stuff. It's like saying white bread is just as good for you as whole wheat...

And this is one of the confusing elements in the studies: the type of soy being consumed varies. Processes soy isolates vs. whole soy in tofu. Would there be more of a heart health benefit by eating whole soy foods? As studies proceed, we'll find out more.

Soy is a wonderfully healthy, complete and relatively inexpensive protein. Cultures that consume lots of soy tend to have lower incidences of heart disease, it's true. But, the studies so far have not shown us that soy will prevent heart disease, cancer, or reduce menopausal symptoms. There's no magic in soy, but it's a good whole food anyway.

If you enjoy it, Just tofu it!