I thought I’d finally address the elephant in the room – aside from the almond milk controversy, I’ll do that when I have more energy.
You heard it, read it somewhere, and certainly were warned by family and friends when you told them you consumed soy products. “Soy is dangerous: it contains estrogen, it will give you cancer, it will make you less “manly”” etc.
The real hassle in finding out the truth about soy was the information disseminated by soy producing companies, or, companies that are “threatened” by the rise of veganism.
Today I am sad to announce that the effects that soy has on our bodies are not completely sorted out just yet. But this is what you can find out if you ask nutritionists, and do some research online.
PS: This is not, in any way, medical/professional advice. I came up with this summary by reading reliable articles online, and by asking a couple nutritionists’ opinions.
1. What are Phytoestrogens?
To use popular English, phytoestrogen is a chemical compound found in plants (yes, seeds and fruits – and even red wine – contain them too, but in lower quantities) that mimic the naturally formed estrogen in our bodies. They are sometimes given as supplements, for healing purposes.
Phytoestrogen in soy contains isoflavones, which after a whole complex chemical reaction during digestion, return to the gut area in a different form, and either produce “metabolite equol” (I’ll call it A) or “O-DMA” (I’ll call it B).
It’s also been shown that 30%-50% of individuals are able to make that conversion to “A” (most of which are vegetarians or Asians), and it’s been hypothesized that the ability to do this is crucial in obtaining all the amazing effects of soy consumption.
The pros of phytoestrogen:
1. Some can lead to reduction of cell proliferation are a protein called PTK that is crucial in the development of cancer cells. So yes, they can have anti-cancerous properties.
2. In other weird chemical reactions, it can also be protecting nerve cells in the brain, and improve cardiovascular functions.
3. They are good anti-inflammatory chemicals, and good antioxidants.
The cons of phytoestrogen:
Since they mimic estrogen, they can block estrogen receptors (ERs) and lead to hormonal imbalances. They are considered endocrine disruptors and can cause imbalances in lactation, reproductive cycles, sexual behavior, timing of puberty…
However, and with the studies around this, these effects are not conclusive yet, and are still in the “could” category; these effects were found in animals in the 1940’s, and thought to be generated by phytoestrogen, but it turned out, a few years later, that they were actually due to another chemical called coumestrol.
There are two receptors estrogen might block, and it blocks them differently. I do not want to bore you with the chemical details of this, but you can read more on the link I’ve attached below.
The conclusion is, that it is very “Selective” in the ER (estrogen receptive) it blocks, and thus is compared to a breast cancer drug that can be agonist in the uterus and bone, but, antagonist in the breast.
Agonist: it binds to receptor and activates a reaction
Antagonist: it blocks the action of the agonist and results in a reverse reaction
Even though I still don’t get exactly what this means as an amateur, it is clear and enough for me to understand that it can have different effects in different parts/circumstances of the body.
Whether it binds to one block or the other (ERα or ERβ) changes the result completely. And it highly depends on circumstance, and a bunch of conditions, to determine the result yielded by phytoestrogen.
2. What does this mean ?
The conditional benefits of Soy
On top of all this confusion, while Soy has shown to yield extremely beneficial effects in bodies, studies are still inconclusive, because of the critical role dose, genes, dietary composition and other factors play.
Indeed, the benefits of soy and phytoestrogens in general varied greatly across epidemiological studies.
For example, the benefits of phytoestrogens related to menopause were much more present in Asian countries than in Western ones.
Other benefits such as helping out with good bone density, turned out to depend on whether equol production occurred. Also, the extent to which Soy led to lower cholesterol, highly depended on the amount of soy consumed.
To quote one of the articles I read (and I reference below),
“determining if phytoestrogens increase or reduce the risk of developing breast cancer has proven to be one of the most challenging human health impacts to address.”
While it is known that by blocking the ERs, exposure to estrogen increases chances of getting breast cancer, the studies on the considerably lower cancer rates in Asia say the opposite is true.
This is where it gets most complicated; the study results vary greatly across ethnicity.
3. So can I eat soy?
It is well concluded that a moderate intake of soy leads to a lot of pros and cons (similarly to caffeine, alcohol, etc.)
Despite the “cons”, soy remains a great source of protein, free of cholesterol, and packed with amazing nutrients.
Moderation is key here. Soy and phytoestrogens are NOT poison, but they are also not “superfoods” that we can just include 24/7 in our diet.
If you consume soy in your diet, just be aware of the potential risks associated with phytoestrogens, and make choices accordingly:
If the milk in my fridge is Soy-based, then I make the conscious effort of avoiding soy in other forms during meals.
If I had minced soy in my food for the week, I replace soy-milk with Oat, and avoid soy Yoghurt.
People suffering from heart disease, high cholesterol, and other specific cases, ARE still encouraged to include soy in their diets, and there’s nothing to worry about if consumed moderately.
So my conclusion is, soy is A-Ok.
In a proper plant-based/vegan diet, there is not ONE component that we abuse of, unlike dairy and animal products in other diets; there are so many ingredients to have fun with, we accidentally consume a “moderate” amount of everything.
However, we shouldn’t depend on Soy to cure our diseases, and make us live forever; its benefits highly rely on our genes, ethnicity, and overall diet.
that being said, we shouldn’t “rely” on soy to make us healthy. It is just another sprinkle on top of the amazing benefits of a vegan diet.