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Should you eat soy? What are the alternatives?

by Katherine Willow ND

Two people asked me recently about soy products in relation to the topics of hyperactivity and breast cancer.  They also wanted to know what was a good dairy substitute if not soy.

Soy is an interesting topic, as it is one of those quintessential health foods which is rapidly falling out of favour.

Several decades ago in North America, soy seemed like God’s gift to vegetarians as a source of protein with 19.5 grams per 100 gram serving of tempeh — although less than half of that for tofu.  Whole communities grew up around eating soy instead of animal products and the soybean was made into everything from milk to ice cream to cheese to fake meats.

Fast forward to today where we have learned that soy is probably one of the unhealthiest foods we can choose for the following reasons:

  • Being high in phytates, soy binds with minerals, especially zinc, and prevents them from being absorbed and used in our bones and elsewhere.
  • Soy consumption can lead to digestive discomfort, bloating and gas due to blocking an enzyme called trypsin that breaks down protein.
  • The high level of plant estrogen, isoflavones, interrupts normal hormone levels and can cause a heavier menstrual flow, cramping, infertility and a lowered libido in men.  Soy has been used by monks in monasteries in the east for that very reason!
  • Soy infant formulas can feminize boys and accelerate puberty in girls.
  • Isoflavones also lower thyroid function, leading to fatigue, low energy, depression, hair loss, poor skin, weight gain and diminished sex drive.
  • Haemagglutinin in soy is clot-promoting, causing red blood cells to clump together.
  • Soy is a frequent allergy and so could be a cause of hyperactivity, although this is not specifically presented in the research I have seen.

As for the question about the plant estrogen or isoflavones causing breast cancer, all the studies I have seen so far say the answer is inconclusive.  My personal opinion is that it doesn’t and I wouldn’t worry about eating a little soy a few times a week, especially if it is fermented as in tempeh, natto and miso, or even a little soymilk once in a while if one tolerates it well.  A detailed article which addresses this topic can be found at: www.vegetarian_nutrition.info/vn/soy_breast_cancer.php

If you are surprised by and unfamiliar with the negative claims about soy and would like to examine some of the evidence and reasoning, I would suggest you look up the following resources:

1.  ‘Nourishing Traditions’ by Sally Fallon

2.   Dr. Mercola’s website:  www.mercola.com/article/soy/avoid_soy.htm

Now let’s explore replacements for soymilk.

I would agree with avoiding cow’s milk for regular use that if you are a healthy adult, however I do recommend raw cow’s milk from grass fed cows for children and youth and adults who need a build-up of strength if they don’t have a sensitivity to it.  Although it is illegal in Ontario to sell raw milk (hopefully not for too much longer), one can obtain it by joining a cow share.  Similarly, one can acquire raw goat milk, which is easier to digest for many people.

A version of cow’s milk that may suit you is to dilute a good quality yogurt, optimally made with whole raw milk and bacteria, with water to taste.  This is called a lassi in India and is very refreshing.

There is quite an array of plant-based milks other than soymilk in cartons on health food store and even grocery store shelves made from rice, almond, hemp and oat.  I wouldn’t recommend them as optimal for regular consumption, although they are convenient, as they are too processed, usually contain some form of sugar and are not as vital as something you make yourself.  Here are some possibilities:

a) Almond milk: blend soaked skinless almonds with 3-6 cups water depending on how you like the texture; you can add stevia as a harmless non-sugar sweetener; Sally Fallon recommends using fermented liquids and has recipes in her book mentioned above.

b) Rice milk: Sally Fallon has a recipe for fermented rice milk and you can make a simple unfermented version just by blending cooked rice and water

c) Tahini milk: one of my favourites to use in cereals or over fruit; plop some tahini (sesame butter) into your cereal bowl and slowly add water to make a paste, adding more water to make “milk”—it’s delicious, simple and nutritious!

d)  Try the same procedure with any other nut butter ie almond, sunflower or cashew for variety.

e)  Consider introducing some fermented non-milk drinks into your life for the exceptional health benefits they provide.  All long-lived cultures included fermentation.

Please don’t think you have to be too rigid with your diet.  A gradual move toward optimal is usually best for most of us unless we are dealing with a serious health issue, in which case you might want to move a little more quickly.