Tofu has been around for centuries, and lately, it’s gotten a lot of flack. Poor tofu. I’ve been running into lots of people who are scared of tofu because it’s a soy product. Soy has been hotly debated in its relation to cancer risk, among other things.
I was at a party one day, and this lady (whom I just met), asked me what my usual diet was.
“Mostly plant-based, maybe some poultry or fish on the weekends,” I said.
She looked shocked, then said, “Then how do you get enough protein?! Surely not tofu – DON’T FEED YOUR HUSBAND SOY! HE’LL GROW MAN BOOBS!”
I didn’t miss a beat. “So you’re telling me, that in Asia, where they’ve eaten tofu for five thousand years, they all have man boobs?”
Anyways, after poring through tons of reading material on tofu and other soy products, I’ve come to a few conclusions. There’s so much information out there regarding soy, so I’ll do my best to break it down:
- Just stick to the least processed soy products, like tofu, tempeh, miso, soy milk, and edamame. Stay away from highly processed soy foods, like veggie burgers that contain “soy protein isolates,” or “texturized soy protein,” and products with a million ingredients in which you have no idea what they are. I stay way from aseptically packaged soy milk because the expiration date is always in a year – meaning it’s highly processed! If you’re in an Asian market and see fresh soy milk in the refrigerated aisle, I’d rather you drink that instead. And no, it won’t be “vanilla” or “chocolate” flavored. Less food additives = better food product.
- A serving of soy is about 1/2 cup tofu, tempeh, or soybeans (edamame), or 1 cup soymilk. If you stick to 1 to 2 servings daily, you should be fine. Don’t worry about getting man boobs or being impotent – there have only been a couple case studies related to extremely high intakes in men (read: TWELVE OR MORE SERVINGS!). That’s a boatload of tofu! Besides, you should practice moderation, whatever diet you’re on. If you’re vegan or vegetarian, try other sources of protein, like quinoa, beans, legumes, and seitan. Don’t restrict your diet just because you can’t eat meat. Explore – there’s a whole world of new foods to try!
- Soy foods have actually been shown to be safe in normal consumption patterns for women who have had breast cancer. Not only that, soy consumption in China and Japan are linked to lower rates of heart disease and cancer than the Western world. Soy consumption, in moderation, can be protective against heart disease and certain cancers.
Update 9/16/14: Soy foods contain compounds called isoflavones, which are phytoestrogens (plant estrogens), which exhibit estrogen-like activity. Because of their properties, they were thought to increase risk of hormone-dependent cancers, like breast, ovarian, and prostate cancers, because of their ability to attach to estrogen receptor sites and influence activity. But the evidence has been inconclusive. The AICR (link below) comments, “human studies show soy foods do not increase risk and in some cases, research suggests they may lower it.”
- Soy intake can lead to lowered cholesterol. Not to brag (okay, I totally am), I lowered my husband’s total cholesterol and LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) by FIFTY POINTS in three months, by implementing a mostly plant-based diet that included whole soy foods. No medication needed, and his doctor can’t believe that he did it without meds.
- In people with hypothyroidism, the debate on whether they can eat soy or not is a tricky one. Soy can interfere with medication in some people, so it’s best to ask your doctor about soy foods and your thyroid. You doctor will provide more advice on how soy foods can interact with your medications.
- I usually don’t recommend supplementation, and the same goes for soy supplements. I think you can have a balanced diet, inclusive of whole soy products, but I would not take a soy supplement. Those are highly concentrated, processed forms of soy.
- Here’s a question that I can never find the answer to: If there’s so much talk about how soy contributes phytoestrogens, what about the ANIMAL estrogens found in meats and dairy products, especially those who are guzzling down cow’s milk? I know that the research being done regarding plant-based diets compared to standard American diets find that plant-based diets result in lowered risk of cancer, heart disease, and more. How do animal estrogens affect these diseases?
With all the information out there regarding soy, you have to get a little used to dissecting the things you find – is it a credible source? Is it just a sensationalist piece of propoganda paid for by a certain group? Was the research that was done indicative of a large population, or just a case study of one or two extreme stories?
I hope I helped a little to break down the information regarding soy foods. Now I can look forward to posting my next recipe – a soft tofu pudding – without feeling that no one will eat it because they’re scared to! Ha! Watch out for it in a week – it’s delicious!
*No, I was not paid by any soy proponents for writing this article*
References, and more reading for you:
Dr. Weil’s take on soy foods here
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine – Soy fact sheet
Soy and thyroid advice from the Mayo Clinic
Today’s Dietitian article on Soy