Is Soy misunderstood? Find out inside. Hint: You’re not growing breasts

by | August 20, 2018

What’s the Deal with Soy?

If there’s one vegan staple food that attracts more debate than others, it’s soy. It has garnered quite the reputation: being accused of causing cancer, harming the thyroid, and even having feminizing effects on men. But before we slap a scarlet letter on it, let’s take a closer look at some of the suspicions around this controversial legume.

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soy



Soy causes breast cancer.

There is concern that, because breast cancer can be estrogen receptor-positive and soy contains phytoestrogens, eating soy will act as a catalyst. Phytoestrogens are natural compounds that resemble the hormone estrogen, but they are not estrogen. The American Cancer Society notes that large epidemiological studies have shown either a protective association or none at all between soy and breast cancer, and suggests a moderate consumption of whole soy foods is entirely safe. Studies of survivors’ eating and lifestyle habits have even shown that soy can lower the risk for recurrent disease, even when estrogen receptor-positive. Soy phytoestrogens appear to have anti-estrogen, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties that may actually inhibit cancer spread.


All soy is genetically modified.

In 2014, 94% of soybeans grown in the United States were genetically engineered. Most GMO soy is fed to livestock and, due to consumer demand for transparency, more soy brands are investing in non-GMO verification for their products. To find soy foods that have not been genetically modified, look for the USDA Organic or Non-GMO Project seal on the packaging.


Soy causes hypothyroidism.

Research has found the following related to soy and the thyroid:

  • For the average person, consuming soy will have no effect on thyroid function unless iodine levels are low, in which case some degree of hypothyroidism could be a risk.
  • Subclinical hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid without physical symptoms, is one rare condition that may require prudence with soy consumption. However, this appears to be influenced only by high doses of soy protein supplementation.

Men should not eat soy.

It is an urban legend that men who eat soy will develop effeminate physical features or become hormonally imbalanced. Phytoestrogens do not impact testosterone or circulating estrogen levels in men, even with higher consumption. While high doses of phytoestrogens have impaired fertility in rats, humans metabolize these compounds differently. If this myth were true, what a market there would be for men’s bras, eh?

Rather than demonize or fear soy, it’s important to look at what we’re actually talking about here. Today, soy is a spectrum of foods in the marketplace, not a single food. Below is a quick guide to navigating soy foods without worry.

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High Quality:

Whole, minimally-processed foods like edamame and tofu, and fermented soy foods like tempeh, miso (though high in sodium), and natto.

Medium Quality:

Moderately-processed foods, like soy milk.

Low Quality:

Highly-processed, concentrated components, like protein isolate. This can be found in some dietary supplements like protein powders, packaged snacks, and some meat and dairy alternatives.

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Resources

Messina, M. Soybean Isoflavone Exposure Does Not Have Feminizing Effects on Men: A Critical Examination of the Clinical Evidence. Fertility and Sterility, 2010; 93(7): 2095-2104.

Sathyapalan T, Manuchehri AM, & Thatcher NJ et al. The Effect of Soy Phytoestrogen Supplementation on Thyroid Status and Cardiovascular Risk Markers in Patients with Subclinical Hypothyroidism: A Randomized, Double-blind, Crossover Study. J Clin Endocrinol Metab, 2011; 96(5): 1442-1449.

Messina, M & Redmond, G. Effects of Soy Protein and Soybean Isoflavones on Thyroid Function in Healthy Adults and Hypothyroid Patients: A Review of the Relevant Literature. Thyroid, 2006; 16(3): 249-258.

United States Department of Agriculture. Recent Trends in GE Adoption. https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/adoption-of-genetically-engineered-crops-in-the-us/recent-trends-in-ge-adoption.aspx Updated July 12, 2017. Accessed June 4, 2018.
McCullough, M. American Cancer Society. The Bottom Line on Soy and Breast Cancer Risk. http://blogs.cancer.org/expertvoices/2012/08/02/the-bottom-line-on-soy-and-breast-cancer-risk/ Updated Aug 2, 2012. Accessed June 4, 2018.

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Lauren Panoff

Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD is a plant-based lifestyle strategist for families and founder of Chronic Planet. Join the Ask A Vegan Dietitian premium Facebook group to talk nutrition with Lauren and receive weekly meal templates!

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