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The Great Soy Controversy: Health Food Or Health Risk?
by Kendra Wiseman
TheSyndicatedNews columnist

Kendra Wiseman's articles have appeared in numerous print and web media outlets, including the Sacramento News & Review and Her personal blog, Deflated Lantern, has been syndicated in the San Diego reader. Kendra specializes in humor, travel, and East Asian pieces, but can be persuaded to yammer about practically anything.

Since soy first entered the mainstream consumer consciousness, there's been a whole lot of hype surrounding this innocuous little legume. Vegetarians swear by it and health writers have heralded soy as the next miracle food. However, in recent years, the media and the blogosphere have seen a steady increase in articles condemning soy as unhealthy and lambasting the soy industry for misleading the public.

Articles on the topic tend to be either solidly for or against, and with the constant bombardment of advertising, medical jargon, and opposing opinions, it's not easy to sort out fact from fiction.

The bottom line is that soy is a relative newcomer to the scene, and most of the research is still inconclusive. So what do we really know – and what don't we know - about soy?

The Good News

Low-calorie, nutrition-rich – There's no doubt about it: soy is packed to the brim with vitamins, minerals and nutrients. A quarter block (2.9oz) of raw, firm tofu contains about 13g of protein, a mere 117 calories, 1g of saturated fats, and a negligible 3.9g of carbohydrates. Compare that with the 240 calories and nearly 7g of saturated fat found in 3 ounces of ground beef (about the size of a hamburger patty), and you can see why many dieters have made the soy switch.

Tofu products are also bursting with iron and B-vitamins. Because of this, tofu, tempeh, edamame and other soy products are easy to work into almost any diet plan, no matter how restrictive.

Cancer prevention – It's not yet certain whether or not soy plays an active role in cancer prevention, but the studies look quite promising. Soy's natural isoflavones, strong antioxidants in the phytoestrogen family, are believed to have anti-cancer effects.

A significant body of research shows that soy may be particularly effective in suppressing the development of breast cancer in women by blocking the estrogen receptors in breast tumor cells. The issue is muddled by a smattering of studies asserting that certain elements of soy actually stimulate tumor growth in post-menopausal women; but most scientists agree that overall, the benefits of soy far outweigh the potential dangers.

Strong, healthy bones – Soy-rich diets are often recommended for those with a high risk of osteoporosis. Seven separate studies conducted in the mid-1990s found that the high levels of calcium, boron and magnesium found in soy, coupled with soy isoflavones, were effective in treating and preventing bone density loss.

Menopause symptom relief – A 1992 study entitled "Soy Product Intake and Hot Flashes in Japanese Women" was among the first pieces of evidence that point to soy as a having the potential to reduce hot flashes in menopausal women. Since the study was conducted, numerous other research groups have reported similarly positive findings.
Hot flashes are primarily caused by dramatically decreasing estrogen levels in the female body. The phytoestrogens in soy can give you a natural hormone boost that lessens the severity of hot flashes and night sweats. However, soy is just one component in the quest for reproductive health, and may not be an adequate replacement for hormone therapy.

The Bad News

Thyroid function and metabolism – Remember those cancer-inhibiting isoflavones? Unfortunately, the pendulum swings both ways. Soy also contains a significant amount of goitrogens, a type of isoflavone known to suppress hormone production in the thyroid, which regulates your metabolism. Too much soy can slow down your body's natural metabolic processes, resulting in weight gain over time.

Happily for vegetarians and vegans, most of the damage done by goitrogens can be undone by ensuring that you are getting the recommended amount of iodine in your daily diet. Goitrogens do most of their damage by mucking around with the thyroid's iodine supply, and this can be easily avoided with iodine supplements. However, individuals with hypothyroidism, thyroid cancer or Hashimoto's Disease should consult a health care professional about regulating their soy intake.

Effects on the male libido – All those phytoestrogens may do wonders for women, but men should think twice before significantly upping their daily soy intake. While no conclusive studies have been conducted, preliminary research suggests that the estrogens in tofu may tinker with male testosterone levels, resulting in a lower sex drive.

Additionally, a six-year study, which concluded in 2006, revealed that soy may lower sperm count and contribute to male infertility.

Impacts on healthy digestion – Ironically, though soy is considered a paragon of proteiny goodness, it also contains enzyme-blocking compounds that interfere with the healthy digestion of proteins. On the up side, raw soybeans were found to contain more digestive inhibitors than fermented soy products such as soy sauce and miso.

High incidence of genetic modification – Just because soy is a vegetable doesn't necessarily mean that all soy is good for you. While soy products enjoy a reputation for being wholesome and organic, a frightening percentage of soy-based foodstuffs are made from genetically modified beans. Moreover, unless you're reading labels and sticking to certified organic soy goodies, chances are that pesticides were used during the production process.

The truth is that the jury is still out on the joys of soy. What's certain is that our bodies need a well-balanced, varied diet to thrive. Like any other food, soy should be eaten in moderation, paying strict attention to your body's specific needs. Talk to you doctor about whether or not a soy-rich diet is right for you.

Published: Sep 9,2008 05:37
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