Reader’s Question: Should I avoid soy?

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by Jennifer Fugo on October 5, 2010

Question: So, is there a reason I should avoid soy? I drink the occasional soy milk because I somehow feel its better than cows milk on a regular basis… and I enjoy tofu when we eat Asian. If I was going to pick one protein powder for a smoothie what should it be? I have used whey before and it was fine but not sure if I am getting all the benefits available.  ~ K. I.

Answer: Great question!  There’s so much confusion out there about fermented soy and soy products.  The reason that I’m separating fermented soy and soy products is because they are quite different.  Though we Americans have become accustomed to just lumping these types of products together, they really shouldn’t be (at least in my book).

Fermented soy is traditionally what is/was consumed in Asian cultures.  Why?  Because the soy bean itself is quite difficult for the human body to digest.  So someone out there in history realized that we humans could certainly reap nutritional benefit from soy IF it was already somewhat ‘digested’ by fermenting it.  This process created nourishing foods such as tempeh (from Indonesia), miso, tamari, soy sauce, etc.  Some can be quite high in sodium so you need to watch how much of them that you consume because it’s quite easy to go overboard.

Soy products, on the other hand, are not very traditional in nature except for tofu which I will touch on in a moment.  Generally any products made from soy, (ie. soy milk, soy protein powder, soy meat alternatives, soy cheeses, etc.) are what many consider to be ‘processed white stuff’ just like the white flour and white sugar that you may already be avoiding.  The reason is that these products are NOT in any sense traditional nor have any sort of history with traditional cultures.  With the exception of tofu, these soy products are not an acceptable form of nourishment.  I don’t care how many ‘Heart Healthy’ logos they add to these products, they are not real food.  They are highly processed items which many believe are healthy alternatives when going vegetarian or vegan since the American mentality is unable to grasp the following two notions: you do not need dairy in your diet and there is no shortage of protein in most people’s diets.

One thing that my nutritionist, Samantha Grant, impressed upon me when we started working together years ago was to be extremely careful with soy intake.  Soy naturally contains plant estrogen which is quite similar to that of the human female variety.  By consuming soy, you are also throwing into your body hormones that have the potential to disrupt your endocrine (aka. hormonal) system in general.  Another issues is that you can end up depressing thyroid activity (aka. hypothyroidism).  Seriously!  True story- I ran into a friend last summer from my old cycling team whose doctor told him to increase his protein intake and suggested getting some soy protein powder.  So, my friend starting drinking soy protein shakes daily that also contained soy milk.  After several months of this, he began to become quite run down and exhausted.  Turns out, all that soy created a huge imbalance in his endocrine system and he was diagnosed with hypothyroidism.  Since removing the soy from his diet and some medication (which he’s almost off), his thyroid levels are slowly recovering to normal levels.

Another question that you’ll need to address surrounds whether the soy products you are consuming are organic or not.  This actually IS important in regards to all soy products including tofu.  If your products are NOT organic, then the soy is most likely a genetically-engineered strain that now produces amino acids not natural to soy.  Rather they are identical to dust mites and shrimp.  Generally, only organic soy products will guarantee that you’re not taking in a product that’s genetic makeup has been messed with.

Okay, now for that tofu….  Tofu is more of a traditional food, however we abuse it because we put it in everything and in mass quantities.  The Japanese would eat maybe three or four cubes of it in a soup.  We eat entire blocks in one sitting.  That’s NOT healthy.  If you want to eat tofu, stick to a few cubes per meal if you really enjoy it that much.  However, I suspect that most Asian meals aren’t skimping on the tofu…my Thai takeout is usually loaded with chunks of soy which I proceed to pick out and toss in the trash.

My suggestions for getting around your dilemma would be as follows:

1) If you are totally 100% able to tolerate dairy, go get yourself some super high quality raw milk.  You could even try goat milk (which I’ve heard from some clients is divine).  If you can’t, then check out almond or rice milk.  You can even make your own almond or rice milk.  Haven’t done it myself since I don’t have much free time to do things like that, but it’s apparently not that difficult.

2) As for protein powders, I’d look for something that’s less ‘fragmented’.  What I mean is that whey (whether you can tolerate it or not) is extracted from the milk.  It does not simply exist in that format in nature which makes it a highly processed product.  Instead, you could try some other types such as brown rice (which can still be processed) and hemp.  Vega is a great brand and their protein mixtures also contain other foods with high levels of good fatty acids and antioxidants.  Yes, more expensive, but this is your health we’re talking about here.

You could definitely check here for some smoothie recipes that I’ve posted to perhaps inspire some ideas as to what you can do in your own kitchen.  More will obviously be posted in time.

I hope you find this helpful and if you have any other questions on this matter, please let me know!

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Lisa October 6, 2010 at 4:28 pm

Hi Jennifer, also as per our conversation on FB–soy causes a great deal of mucus in the body. It actually creates more mucus than dairy does, believe it or not. So if you are a person who is prone to sinus infections, asthma and /or mucusy conditions, eliminating soy is a biggie. I’m a 5 year vegan and when I first went vegan, I ate a lot of soy, through eliminating soy I realized I felt much better! Now I only have it on special occasions, and I always feel the negative effects of it immediately afterwards!


Jennifer Fugo October 6, 2010 at 4:41 pm

Hi Lisa,
Thank you again for bringing this up as I didn’t even remember to mention this aspect of why to avoid soy. It’s funny because so many people associate those sort of respiratory issues with dairy and then switch to soy only to continue experiencing them. This is important for people to know and I appreciate you reminding us all of this problem. 🙂


Laury @TheFitnessDish October 6, 2010 at 4:55 pm

Jen, AMAZING post! I have been meaning to do a post on this topic, it’s a question that comes up often! I will be linking you tomorrow…thanks for saving me the time 😉

I try to avoid using too much soy, always organic, and I go for the fermented products more often. I consider all the veggie meats and processed soy products franken-foods….it’s unfortunately why a lot of Vegans and Vegetarians become so unhealthy…because they are not as educated on how to eat and just take in a lot of veggie burgers, dogs, and meats.

Again, great info, love how you hit all of the points!


Jennifer Fugo October 6, 2010 at 5:18 pm

Thanks Laury! I get this question a lot and at least once at every single workshop that I lead. It’s something that does not get a lot of attention because there is so much marketing that goes into the belief that soy products are just as healthy, if not healthier than more natural forms of food. Now, there are some people who do well with soy and I’ve heard some women who have suffered with endometriosis say that soy has actually alleviated some of their symptoms. So the key is to be well informed and understand that what you put in your body does leave a lasting effect….it just depends on many different factors that could spell success or disaster (or somewhere in between) for long-term use.


TheHealthyApron October 7, 2010 at 8:46 am

This is very informative. I have always been wary of processed soy products and honestly avoid them like the plague. I hardly ever recommend these products to clients either…even with “lactose intolerance.” i’m not vegan so I do consume organic dairy products and just prefer it that way. Thanks for sharing this information. You do a wonderful job of differentiating the fermented soy discovered however long ago and the crap they have on the shelves now. It’s disturbing.


Jennifer Fugo October 8, 2010 at 9:58 am

Looking for more information? Here’s a great article from Sally Fallon of the Weston A. Price Foundation talking in more scientific terms as to why soy can be dangerous.


B Italia October 12, 2010 at 11:06 pm

Hi! This was a really outstanding post! I come from italy & I was luck to come cross your topic.
Also I get much in your post. Really, thank your very much. I will come here every day.


Marion March 17, 2011 at 4:12 pm

I use soy mild in my cereal only. Enjoyed the article and will be more carefull of what I eat.


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