Forget the myths: Soy offers health benefits

Asian diets have included soy for centuries, and there’s growing interest in the western world because of the versatility and benefits. Soy offers a super food for replacing meat and dairy in a highly digestive and low glycemic way.  The benefits of soy are numerous and have been studied extensively for safety and efficacy.

It can be hard to eat enough protein, an important fuel for your body, if you’re vegetarian or vegan and especially if you’re an athlete or very active. Soybean, also called soya bean, can help. Unlike most plant protein, soy includes all nine essential amino acids you need for healthy muscles and bones. Your body can’t make those compounds on its own, so non-vegetarians mostly get them from beef, chicken and eggs. 

Only 10 percent to 15 percent of the total fat in soybeans is saturated. Other protein sources like ground beef or pork chops have much more of this type of fat, which usually turns solid at room temperature and could increase your risk of heart disease. Swapping out meat dishes with soy products could benefit your ticker.

The role of soy foods in a healthy diet has become somewhat confusing in recent years. Concerns are based almost entirely on the results of studies involving rodents. Results from rodent studies often don’t translate to humans or help in learning about the effects of soy foods.

With the exception of those allergic to soy protein, which is relatively rare, all healthy individuals can safely consume soy foods. Much of the concern about soy is based on the estrogen-like effects of isoflavones, a group of naturally occurring plant chemicals found in large amounts in soybeans. Isoflavones are known as phytoestrogens (plant estrogens), but are much different from the hormone estrogen. Isoflavones might have estrogen-like effects. But depending on a number of factors, they also could  have effects opposite to those of estrogen or no effects at all in tissue affected by estrogen. Looking at the health effects of estrogen doesn’t provide much information about how isoflavones act. The only way to learn about the effects of isoflavones is to look directly at their biological activity in studies.

Although the National Cancer Institute and laboratories throughout the world have rigorously investigated the role of soy in breast cancer prevention, concerns have arisen in recent years soy foods could worsen the prognosis of women with a history of breast cancer as well as increase the risk for those already at high risk of contracting the disease.

In stark contrast to animal research, human research supports not only the safety, but also the benefits of soy.  When female subjects in clinical studies were given soy foods for isoflavones, there was  no effect on breast cancer risk.  Hormone therapy increases breast cancer risk as well as breast tissue density and breast cell proliferation.

Recently published studies indicate soy consumption after a diagnosis of breast cancer reduces recurrence and improves survival. Women in these studies reported their soy consumption and were followed for several years to determine whether they were more or less likely to have a recurrence or die from their disease. According to the most recently published study, clinicians no longer need to advise against soy consumption for women diagnosed with breast cancer. Nevertheless, it’s always advisable for women with a history of breast cancer to talk with their health care providers before adding soy to their diets.

There are many other benefits of adding soy to a diet, such as enhancing thyroid and cognitive function as well as enhanced childhood development.

Fermented soy commonly consumed include natto, miso and tempeh. Unfermented soy foods include edamame (green soybeans), tofu, soymilk and isolated soy protein. Fermented and unfermented soy foods have similar protein and isoflavone contents. However, the protein digestibility of protein from unfermented soy is excellent, exceeding 90 percent. 

Based on clinical studies conducted in Asia and the West, you can feel comfortable eating as much as three or four servings of these foods a day. This amount provides around 25 grams of protein and about 100 milligrams of isoflavones.

Enjoy that high-quality shake everyday and begin to experience the health benefits. It’s a convenient and great way to start your day.