There has been a lot of debate lately about the health and safety of eating soy and soy-based foods.  In the early 90’s soy was touted as a super-food that would lower cholesterol, prevent breast cancer, eliminate hot flashes, and ensure a fountain of youth.  But, like all food trends that promise a “magic bullet”, soy has been pulled off its pedestal, and lately this food trend seems to be on the downswing. Ten years ago I was teaching soy-based cooking classes, and they were my most popular.  It seemed everyone wanted to find ways to get more soy into their diets.  But lately I have received a number of emails asking, is soy really good for me?

The truth is, research is still mixed on the subject.  In the positive, soy is a food that is rich in protein, low in fat, and high in B vitamins, calcium, magnesium, and some essential isoflavones which mimic estrogen in the body; an ideal food for vegetarians, athletes, women, and those wanting to reduce saturated fats in their diet.  Unfortunately research is now indicating is that our earlier ideas that soy would  eliminate breast cancer risk, menopause, osteoporosis and high cholesterol was either overstated or incorrect.  It doesn’t mean that soy isn’t healthy to eat, just that it may not be the “cure all” we once hoped.

As healthy as soy is, there are some drawbacks.  One issue with eating soy is that some people don’t digest it well, and it can cause bloating, congestion, and digestive discomfort.  Many nutritionists are suggesting that we look to our genetic history to determine what foods are good for us.  Those from cultures that have eaten soy for many generations may digest and assimilate it better then people from cultures that don’t have a long history with soy.  Another point to consider is that since soy burst onto the scene over a decade ago as a “super food” we have also seen soy becoming more and more processed, genetically modified, and the use of pesticides has increased, and this could cause allergic reactions, sensitivities and digestive discomfort for some people.  So, what to do about soy?

• Choose organic as often as possible, and aim to eat soy products that are less processed and contain less sugar, preservatives and additives.  Edamame (soy beans) are one of the purest sources of soy.  Fermented soy products like tofu are considered a healthy choice, but watch out for some soy milks, soy burgers/sausages, and soy-based dairy substitutes which tend to be highly processed and contain a great deal of additives.
• Don’t overeat soy.  Just as we shouldn’t over consume any one food type, choose a variety of foods every day/week to maintain a healthy body and mind.  Soy a few times a week is a healthy choice for most people.
• Understand individual difference.  Just because a diet or exercise plan is popular doesn’t mean it’s for you.  Observe your own body’s reaction to soy and soy-based foods and determine for yourself if it is a healthy addition to your diet.
A final word on soy:
No food is a island.  No one food will give you ideal health, and over-consuming one food type will often negate its many benefits.  Nutritionists (and yours truly) stand by soy as a healthy addition to any diet when eaten intelligently.

First Published in the Mind Body Messenger 2009

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