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Soy or No Soy – What Is Healthy for Me?

Years ago we never heard about this strange food called soy. Americans ate meat from cows, potatoes and rice, familiar vegetables like spinach, cabbage and broccoli, familiar fruit like oranges and apples, and desserts made with lots and lots of sugar and heavy cream. And we enjoyed our meals and managed to not be an obese nation.

Our consciousness of food – what is good for us and what is not so good – has drastically changed. More often than not I hear people apologizing for eating a delicious piece of sugar filled dessert. Fewer people are able to just eat meat unconsciously since there are so many videos on the web showing adorable and lovable animals. So many of us feel guilty eating on these precious living beings. But not everybody is ready to become a full fledged vegetarian.

Personally, I never cared much for the taste of soy or any of the variations of soy products. But then I became conscious of the reputed health benefits. After all, the research revealed, Asian women living in Asian countries had much fewer cases of breast cancer or other cancers. The researchers attributed this to the Asian diet which included a lot of soy, plus rice and vegetables and was low on meat sources of protein.

At the beginning all I remember seeing was this strange food called tofu beging served in Chinese restaurants. At that point in time I remember only one Thai restaurant at the other end, all the way on the west side of Manhattan. And there were no Vietnamese restaurants. As I became increasingly conscious of the benefits of brown rice, I remember being one of the first people to ask for it in my local Chinese restaurant. Eventually, that restaurant and many others began to provide brown rice for an extra dollar.

But tofu, and the business of selling tofu, did not remain a hidden, special ingredient in local Asian restaurants. As America became more and more conscious of health and the dietary effects upon health and the benefits of healthy living, soy and all its subsidiary products became big business.

For awhile, some of us stopped drinking milk in favor of soy milk. Stopped eating peas and lima beans in favor of edamame and started using soybean oil to cook products containing soy protein. The only possible negative effect of soy, in my mind, was the fact that it was purported to increase the output of estrogen. I remember wondering, but nobody could give me a direct answer, “What if a woman takes estrogen replacement and also eats a lot of soy?”

It turns out, that soy actually has many negative effects, certainly not all beneficial for our health.

*Chemically processed soy products, like soymilk, soy protein and soybean oil, are the least desirable. One glass of soymilk may change estrogen levels and hormonal function. Soy portein is often processed with a neurotoxin, hexane, And the processing of soybean oil often mixes it with that same neurotoxin.

*Unprocessed and minimally processed soy, such as tofu, edamame and soy sauce, are less toxic than the chemically processed variety, but still can be somewhat harmful to the body. Tofu, contains “antinutrients,” substances that block the absoprtion on some essential minerals. Whole, unprocessed edamame, even though often boiled while still in the pod, may contain antinutrients and can be hard on our digestion, causing stomach problems and the familiar bloating. Some soy sauces combine soybeans with some type of grain, often wheat while others contain acid-hydolyzed soy protein instead of brewed with its culture. A healthier choice is gluten free Tamari or fermented unpasteurized soy sauce.

*Fermented soy, such as miso, tempeh and natto, preserve the traditional health benefits of soy while avoiding the dangerous side effects. Miso, often used in soups, is filled with probiotics, the good bacteria that helps to aid our digestion. Tempeh, often used to simulate chicken and meat in vegetarian recipes, is rich in B vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids. Natto, a traditional Japanese breakfast food, has a sticky texture and pungent smell but contains vitamin K and a good amount of probiotics.The key to maintaining a healthy diet is to find out as much as you can about all the food you are eating, especially the food you eat regularly, even every day. You want the benefits of a soy product that is rich in probiotics and natural vitamins but does not cause digestive problems, bloating or anything that will interfere with vitamin absorption.

Should you replace chicken, meat, fish and eggs with tofu to keep your body strong and healthy? The answer is probably “Yes and No.” Yes, if you balance your diet and insure that you receive an adequate amount of healthy vitamins, minerals and oils. No, if you are depriving your body of essential vitamins and minerals and probiotics. Soy is a wonderful addition to the western diet if we learn what we need to know about it and use it wisely.

Erica Goodstone