Why soy is NOT a health food

When I think of soy and its so-called “health benefits,” I immediately see a 15-year-old version of myself eating breakfast at the kitchen table in the house where I grew up. It is a pleasant memory… until I get back around to the whole soy part. You see, when I was a teenager, I was health-conscious yet lacked any real knowledge of the food system and nutrition. I mean, I thought non-fat yogurt containing artificial coloring and sweeteners was healthy (get the gist?). And it was at this point in my life that I drank a glass of soy milk everyday with my breakfast.

And I mean everyday.

I was religious about it: I needed to get all of those heart-healthy benefits that I had read about on the carton!

*palm to face*

I know a lot of valuable things now that I wish I had known back then: never attempt to pierce your own ear; self-tanner rarely tuns out well (and that brand you use is chock-full-o-nasties); “popularity” is a high-school social construct that has no real meaning; boys are silly and gross until around the age of 23 (and then most are still silly and gross); soy is not a health food.

While I am happy to have learned some of these facts from firsthand experience, this does not apply to the last. This is because I can look back on my soy-milk-drinking phase of my life and make a clear connection between my soy intake and my irregular menstrual cycle, something that I  was told was “normal” and given birth control pills at the ripe age of 15 to “fix.”

But what needed to be fixed was my diet! I cannot explain how frustrated it now makes me that the first question out of the doctor’s mouth was not “Does your diet contain soy?” as it should have been since soy profoundly affects hormones and the menstrual cycle, and is utterly ubiquitous in today’s food system.

This is not the only detrimental health effect of soy, however.

The dangers of soy

The Whole Soy Story by Dr. Kaayla Daniel references thousands of scientific studies that link soy to:

  • Malnutrition
  • Digestive disorders
  • Immune deficiency
  • Thyroid malfunction
  • Declining brain function and behavioral problems in children
  • Increased infertility
  • Early-onset puberty in children
  • Increased cancer risk
  • Increased risk of heart disease

These health maladies result from a number of different properties of soy:

  • Phytoestrogen is a plant-based estrogen that mimics true estrogen, and soy contains more than any other source. Elevated estrogen levels can lead to breast cancer, early-onset puberty, infertility, decreased libido, and uterine fibroid tumors. Amazingly, the Phytoestrogens consumed by infants on soy-based formula (approximately 20–25% of U.S. infants receive at least some soy-based formula in their first year) is equal to taking 4 birth control pills everyday.
  • Goitrogens suppress the normal functioning of the thyroid, which regulates your metabolism. Furthermore, an Isoflavone called Genistein inhibits your thyroid’s natural hormone production and ability to absorb nutrients. A damaged thyroid may cause weight gain, fatigue, irregular menstruation, and loss of cognitive function.
  • Phytic acid blocks your digestive system’s ability to absorb nutrients. For this reason, many studies have linked soy to malnutrition.

Furthermore, GMO soy poses its own health risks. GMO soy was created to impart resistance to the toxic herbicide Roundup. While this increases farming efficiency and provides consumers with less expensive soy, as a result, soy is loaded with this toxic pesticide. GMO soy also contains genes from bacteria that produce a protein that has never before been part of the human food supply. This protein has been linked to an increase in allergies. Furthermore, the only published human feeding study on GMO foods ever conducted verified that the gene inserted into GMO soy transfers into the DNA of our gut bacteria and continues to function. This means that years after we stop eating GMO soy, we may still have the potentially allergenic protein continuously produced within our intestines. With 91% of soy grown in the US genetically modified, this is very concerning.

Fermented soy vs. unfermented soy

To understand the controversy surrounding soy, you must understand the difference between unfermented soy (which I have been and will refer to simply as “soy”) and fermented soy.

Fermented soy is central to many traditional Asian diets and is primarily consumed as a condiment. As such, in all, Asians typically only eat 2 teaspoons of fermented soy a day. Fermentation destroys the above “anti-nutrients” in soy, making it safe to consume in moderation. For this reason, fermented soy does have health benefits when consumed in small quantities, as in traditional Asian diets.

But the rest of the world is not consuming fermented soy. And the rest of the world is not eating 2 teaspoons a day. And to add insult to injury, the rest of the world is primarily eating GMO soy.

(S)oy vey!

So why is soy everywhere?

First of all, many people still believe that soy is a “health food” and demand thus remains high. It is important to note that studies that praise the health benefits of soy typically do not distinguish between fermented and unfermented soy products.

Secondly, soy is a cheap and easy filler for food companies to include in processed foods. As Food Renegade explains in her article The Dangers of Soy:

“The soybean was a modest and unpopular crop until food manufacturers intent on creating cheap vegetable oils convinced the U.S. government to start subsidizing it. The soy was turned into oil, and the industry was left with an industrial waste product. Then somebody had a brilliant idea: Let’s take this industrial waste product full of toxins and carcinogens — isolated soy protein — and turn it into food that people will eat!”

So what can you do?

Avoid it!

Plain and simple, read those ingredient labels. Although really, soy is just another reason to cut processed foods out of your life.

If you are relying on soy as a source of vegan protein, it’s time to diversify. There are plenty of other sources of vegan protein out there: nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables, quinoa, beans, sprouted grains. If you are a soy milk drinker, consider making a switch to other non-dairy milks such as coconut, hemp, or almond milk (just be sure to avoid this carcinogen hiding in your milk).

Sources and further reading:

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Share Your Thoughts

  1. Thank you for sharing this vital information!

    July 12, 2013 • 9:56 am •
  2. What about edamame?

    July 20, 2013 • 10:52 am •
  3. Claire

    Are you just referring to processed soy or edamame as well?

    July 21, 2013 • 12:23 pm •
  4. Nadia

    All unfermented soy, both the full bean (as with edamame) and processed.

    July 21, 2013 • 2:20 pm •
  5. Thank you for sharing this information! When my sister in law was diagnosed with thyroid cancer I did research online & found the same information about soy, this was 5 years ago. Unfortunately, friends and family haven’t listened to me. Just shared your article, maybe your articulation is better then mine. 🙂

    July 27, 2013 • 7:38 pm •
  6. July 31, 2013 • 1:46 pm •
  7. Jenn

    Does this mean all tofu products?

    August 14, 2013 • 6:58 am •
  8. Elle

    I started drinking soya milk in my coffee 2 years ago ( the same time we moved house), Plus used soya in my cooking. I had hayfever symptoms 24/7, even at night. After I blamed a tree around our house, I thought it can’t be seasonal as I had it all year round. I started a detox and cut out as many foods as I could. I’ve done a research and found that has the same protein structure as birch tree pollen which I’m highly allergic too. I’m allergy free cutting out soya.

    September 22, 2013 • 7:44 pm •
  9. Ann G

    I think we should all talk to our docs. So much stuff goes around on the internet. Lot’s of information that is not totally true. I was just sent a video on soy from a heart doctor who promotes soy in it’s natural whole food form, unprocessed.

    September 23, 2013 • 2:59 pm •
  10. M

    What about non gmo organic soy products? Avoid all together?

    September 23, 2013 • 5:00 pm •
  11. Stephanie

    I’ve recently read that flax meal has phytoestrogens. Does it have the same effects as soy? Soy really messes up my hormones and avoid it like the plague due to the phytoestrogens and was wondering if flax would have the same effect on my hormones.

    September 23, 2013 • 6:00 pm •
  12. […] Limit your soy intake: natural plant-based estrogens in soy may provide healthy benefits in low doses, but may be a risk factor for breast cancer in higher doses. This is an issue since soy is ubiquitous in our modern, highly processed food system. The high prevalence of soy is really just another great reason to cut back on processed foods as much as possible. I play by the precautionary principle and so really flat-out avoid soy (to read more, see Why soy is NOT a health food). […]

    December 14, 2013 • 4:51 pm •
  13. Hownowbrowncow

    Soy hysteria and the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF) are inseparable. Much of the fear-mongering around soy is a direct result of misinformation disseminated by the WAPF’s relentless anti-soy campaigns. The WAPF, registered as a nonprofit organization, is a multimillion dollar operation that lobbies for raw milk and grass-fed beef. – See more at: http://freefromharm.org/health-nutrition/vegan-doctor-addresses-soy-myths-and-misinformation/#sthash.NGcpLHfF.dpuf

    February 4, 2014 • 12:31 pm •
  14. CleanEater

    Regardless of whether or not there are health benefits of “clean” soy – it is highly overused in our diet (as a common food filler/additive and preservative – soy lechtin for example) and is a highly GM product. For these reasons if nothing else, it should be avoided. Too much of anything isn’t good for us. But if you’re cutting out additives and preservatives and purchasing non-GMO, organic soy products then I would say it’s okay in moderation.

    February 10, 2014 • 1:16 pm •
  15. Mackytack

    @hownowbrowncow…um…maybe it’s time you revisited your research info…there are faaar more supportive articles etc on the reasons to remove soy intake…wow, you show your ignorance by including the fact that WAPF supports raw milk, and grass fed beef as though those were bad things…wake up!

    May 28, 2014 • 6:07 pm •
  16. Here is a lot of resources showing scientific studies and the huge benefit of soy: http://nutritionfacts.org/topics/soy/

    May 29, 2014 • 10:15 am •
  17. Well, I don’t like soy, so I consider myself lucky to be able to bow out of this controversy, altogether.

    June 2, 2014 • 8:10 am •
  18. You say that fermented soy is healthier. Does this include tempeh? Isn’t tempeh fermented?

    July 22, 2014 • 7:41 am •