13 Reasons Soy is Great for Thyroid & Hormone Health
To eat soy or not to eat soy? That seems to be the question of the day. Nah…of the century.
If you are struggling with a hormone imbalance, especially thyroid-related, you probably heard more than once that “soy is bad for you!”.
So, what’s the controversy surrounding soy? What is true? What’s not? What should we worry about and what should we disregard?
Let’s talk about it.
Before exploring any important topic, I suggest we approach it from these perspectives:
- What does history say?
- What does science show?
- What does common sense prove? And…
- Where does the money trail lead? Who stands to benefit from proving something as good or evil?
If we ask these questions, we are bound to find the truth.
DISCLAIMER: I am not writing this article to promote or discourage the consumption of soy. I simply want to set the facts straight, so those who want to do either will have their reasons to do it the right way.
I have been consuming soy as a part of a well-rounded diet for the last 10+ years, and it had not prevented me (or our clients) from reversing their hormone imbalance symptoms.
I do not eat extracts of heavily processed soy (you will see shortly why).
I am not going to ask you to arrive at my conclusion, but to follow me as I follow science and common sense.
SOY ALLERGIES: Soy allergies are real for some people, and not to be dismissed. If you have a soy allergy, enjoy this article, but do not take it as an encouragement to eat it.
If you are ready for this…let’s dive in!
NOTE: If you would like to LISTEN to this topic as a podcast, CLICK ON THIS LINK and enjoy!
While we tend to think that soy is a staple food in all of the Asian countries, I have grown up in Central Asia, where soy was not a major foods source. Most of the soy consumption is observed in China, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan. There, soy is consumed in many ways, most of which do not even closely resemble how soy is produced and consumed in the United States.
In soy consuming populations, soybeans are boiled, soy it is made into tofu, miso, soymilk, soy flour, and a few other delicacies. While it is processed into different soy products, soybean remains largely unaltered. Chinese certainly did not think of making soy into Boca Burgers, soy formula, or energy bars! That badge of “honor” will stay with the Americans.
Soy has been consumed in these cultures for thousands of years, providing a great source of nutrition. Chinese and Japanese populations, before they were introduced to the Western way of eating, were thinner, healthier, and enjoyed a longer lifespan. Japanese life expectancy is 84.19 years, compared to the U.S. life expectancy of 78.62 years. (1)
If you look at the world cancer statistics, the USA holds 7th place on the list of 50 countries with the highest overall cancer rates in the world, with 300.2 cases per 100,000 people, while Japan and China did not even make the list. (2) (You will see Chinese Taipei on the list—that is actually the country of Taiwan. Interestingly, Taiwanese, who are starting to follow the Western diet, are facing the same health dangers as the rest of the Western cultures. (3))
What is soy? And why does it seem to draw so much controversy?
Soy is a bean! However, its nutritional content places it somewhere between a legume and a nut.
One of the biggest concerns that you might have read about when it comes to soy, is that soy contains estrogen, which, as speculated, could negatively affect female estrogen, or, magically, make men more feminine.
This is one of the most flawed misconceptions about soy.
Soybeans, other legumes, and other foods contain phytoestrogens.
The reason phytoestrogens are called such is because their molecular structure is similar to that of estradiol, a major hormone in women.
Because of this, people who do not understand biochemistry, erroneously concluded that consumption of soy is dangerous, claiming that soy and soy foods will elevate estrogen levels in humans, thus increasing the risk of breast and other cancers.
Luckily other foods which contain phytoestrogen, often even in higher amounts than soy, have been left off the list…at least for now. Otherwise, flax seeds, which are often recommended for improving bowel movements, due to their high fiber content, would be a food to avoid too.
Interestingly, flax seeds carry a whopping three times the amount of phytoestrogen found in soy, sesame seeds, garlic, and even apricots! (4)
I think this is a good time to start asking WHY soy has been singled out.
Role of Phytoestrogens
Phytoestrogens bind to estrogen receptors in the body. However, they are almost a thousand times weaker than human estradiol.
This binding attachment to estrogen receptors, however, may exert a protective effect—weaker plant-based phytoestrogens can block the attachment of stronger human estrogen, which is known to increase the risk of breast and other cancers.
Further investigation of plant foods shows that, unlike human estrogen, phytoestrogens do not accumulate in the body but pass through within a matter of hours.
So, eating soy, flax seeds, or even apricots does not elevate estrogen levels in the body.
What does elevate them is the consumption of animal foods, lack of fiber in the diet, alcohol consumption, and carrying too much body fat.
These should be the first factors to consider by those who want to keep estrogen levels in the normal, protective, range.
Isoflavones – phytonutrients found in soy and other legumes, serve as antioxidants in the body. By now we all know that antioxidants have a protective effect.
In addition to phytoestrogens, other isoflavones include glycitein, daidzein, and genistein, all of which are found in specific ratios in whole organic soy foods.
The consumption of GE (genetically-engineered) soy products, on the other hand, is problematic. Studies have shown that the isoflavone make-up of GE soy is different than that of organic soy.
Isolated Soy vs. Whole Soy
The whole is always better than the parts.
Nature intended for foods to be consumed the way they grow, or as close to it as possible, not as extracts.
If isoflavones are good for us, when consumed in whole foods, including soy, it does not mean that isoflavone supplements will have the same beneficial effects on the body. (24)
When the body is presented with an unnatural substance (isolate of soy in this case), it reacts differently than it would to whole foods. Yet, isolates are frequently used in studies, often leading to flawed findings. Because of this, those who conduct studies, often misinterpret data. They fail to realize that if they use whole foods (soybeans) in the study, they might get different outcomes.
Fake Foods and Extracts
While whole foods are beneficial with their full complexity, extracts of such foods are useless at best and harmful at worst (24). Recent studies have shown just how useless multivitamins are in preventing or reversing health issues. (5, 6, 7)
The story is no different when it comes to food extracts (isolates). In this case, namely soy isolates.
In the last couple of decades, the American markets have exploded with soy products and byproducts. Anything ranging from imitation meat and imitation dairy products to supercharged shakes and bars stuffed with food isolates. While they are perceived as a healthier option, most frequently they are not. The manufacturing process removes minerals, phytochemicals, dietary fibers, healthy fats found in plants, vitamins, and other great plant chemicals, leaving behind soy isolates.
These isolates (soy protein) are mixed with various heavily processed ingredients, including sugar, salt, oils, artificial sweeteners, eggs, dairy proteins, wheat protein, etc. to create fake replicas of meat and dairy products. You can find soy isolates in many processed foods, including salad dressings, candy bars, yogurts, ice creams, baked goods, cheeses, mayonnaise, and even more non-food items. While soy itself is a whole and healthy food, these items should never top the list of healthy items or be found in our kitchens…except on rare occasions.
It is interesting to note that the cultures we discussed earlier, namely China and Japan, which use soy regularly, did not make the list of 50 countries with the highest overall cancer rates in the world; America, on the other hand, which uses a lot of processed soy, and processed junk overall, is at the top of the list.
Studies on Animal vs. People
Many of the studies concerning soy involve animals, not humans. NEWS: our biochemistry is different!
Combine this with using isolated nutrients and it is no wonder there is so much confusion not only about soy but about other food extracts/whole foods as well.
Studies performed involving human subjects and whole soy products often point to an opposite outcome.
What does the Science Say? Or… 13 Reasons to Embrace Soy
Studies cited involve human subjects and real soy foods.
1. The Diet and Androgens (DIANA) Trial
104 postmenopausal women with elevated levels of testosterone and estradiol, consuming a Western diet, were placed on a diet low in animal fat and refined carbohydrates, rich in low-glycemic-index foods, monounsaturated and n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, and phytoestrogens, to see if the hormonal profile of postmenopausal women could be changed to reduce the risk of postmenopausal breast cancer. (8)
They were placed on a diet that comprised of:
- Meat, eggs, and dairy consumed only once per week
- Reduced consumption of refined carbohydrates
- Increased consumption of whole grains, legumes, vegetables, cruciferous vegetables, fruit
- 1.7 servings of soy per day
- Flax seeds every day
- Seaweed every other day in dishes
Only 4.5 months later, here were the results:
- Reduction of insulin resistance, an increase of insulin sensitivity
- Reduced cholesterol from an average of 240 mg/dl to 206.5 mg/dl
- 4 kg weight loss
- Serum sex hormone-binding globulin levels increased (+25.2%)
2. Epidemiologic Studies of Isoflavones & Mammographic Density
In January 2008, researchers at the University of Southern California found that women averaging one cup of soymilk or about one-half cup of tofu daily have about a 30% less risk of developing breast cancer, compared with women who have little or no soy products in their diets. (9)
(NOTE: Adding a cup of soy milk or tofu to a poor diet is not likely to be protective against cancers. Normally people who consume soy products are more health-conscious. They use less or no animal foods, which would lead to the positive effect of including soy products in their overall diet.)
3. Soy Food Intake and Breast Cancer Survival
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2009 showed that soy products may reduce the risk of cancer recurrence. In a group of 5,042 women previously diagnosed with breast cancer who were participating in the Shanghai Breast Cancer Survival Study over a four-year period, those who regularly consumed soy products, such as soymilk, tofu, or edamame, had a 32% lower risk of recurrence and a 29% decreased risk of death, compared with women who consumed little or no soy. (10)
4. Isoflavone intake significantly associated with a decreased risk of premenopausal hysterectomy
A study of Japanese women found that the more soy women ate, the less likely they were to need a hysterectomy. (11)
5. Soy and Men
Fifteen placebo-controlled treatment groups with baseline and ending measures were analyzed. In addition, 32 reports involving 36 treatment groups were assessed in simpler models to ascertain the results. The results of this meta-analysis suggest that neither soy foods nor isoflavone supplements alter measures of bioavailable testosterone concentrations in men. (12)
6. Soy consumption and prostate cancer risk in men
An analysis of 14 studies, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that increased intake of soy resulted in a 26% reduction in prostate cancer risk. Researchers found a 30% risk reduction with nonfermented soy products such as soy milk and tofu. (13)
7. Soy products do not cause hypothyroidism
A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial was conducted in 43 women to evaluate the effect of soy isoflavones on serum thyroid profile. The study showed that soy products do not cause hypothyroidism and had no negative effects on thyroid function.(14) I personally was able to fully reverse hypothyroidism without medication, while regularly enjoying soy foods.
With that said, soy isoflavones may take up some of the iodine that the body would normally use to make thyroid hormone (15). The same is true of fiber supplements and some medications. In these cases adding iodine-rich sea vegetables to your diet is advisable.
8. Soybean isoflavone exposure does not have feminizing effects on men
There is essentially no evidence from the nine identified clinical studies that isoflavone exposure affects circulating estrogen levels in men. Clinical evidence also indicates that isoflavones have no effect on sperm or semen parameters. (16) (And all the men reading this article can finally exhale and relax.)
9. Soy intake decreases cholesterol
The relationship between soy product intake and serum total cholesterol concentration was examined in 1242 men and 3596 women in Takayama City, Japan. A significant trend was observed for decreasing total cholesterol concentration with an increased intake of soy products in men. This negative trend was also noted in women. (17)
10. Soy intake reduces hot flashes
Phytoestrogens have both a weak estrogen-stimulating (estrogenic) and paradoxically, an estrogen-inhibiting (anti-estrogenic) activity. The estrogen-like activities may strengthen bones and prevent menopausal symptoms like hot flashes. Hot flashes are reported by 70% to 80% of US menopausal women compared to 10 to 14% of women in Japan and Singapore. The anti-estrogen activity reduces the risk of breast and uterine cancer. (18)
11. Soy contributes to a lower risk of breast cancer
2400 Asian-American women were studied to determine what role their dietary patterns played in developing breast cancer. Three dietary patterns were observed: Western meat/starch, ethnic meat/starch, and vegetables/soy. Women who consumed the Western and ethnic meat/starch diets had the highest risk of breast cancer, while those eating the vegetable/soy diet had the lowest risk.
Sex hormone-binding globulin levels were 23% lower in women eating the meat/starch pattern with low intake of vegetables and soy than in those eating lower meat/starch diets with higher soy and vegetable intake. Sex hormone-binding globulin assists in removing both testosterone and estrogen from the system, therefore reducing the risk of both prostate and breast cancers. (19)
12. Soy intake and risk of endocrine-related gynecological cancer
This study was a meta-analysis that included five case-controlled and two cohort studies. 169,061 women in the U.S., China, Italy, and Japan were included; 3516 of them had ovarian or endometrial cancer. Soy intake was measured and based on both foods eaten and soy isoflavone intake.
In all of the studies, the women who consumed the highest amount of soy had a lower risk of developing endometrial or ovarian cancer as compared to those women who consumed the lowest amounts. (20)
13. Soy intake reduces premenopausal breast cancer risk by an average of 40%
A study in 2009, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, concluded that soy intake during adolescence and adulthood may reduce pre-menopausal breast cancer risk by an average of 40%. Risk reduction was 59% for those with the highest soy intake, and 56% for adults with the highest soy isoflavone intake.
The study involved 73,223 Chinese women in the Shanghai Women’s Health Study. It was led by Wei Zheng at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. The researchers collected data using a food-frequency questionnaire and found that soy consumption was associated with reduced risk. (21)
“This large, population-based, prospective cohort study provides strong evidence of a protective effect of soy food intake against pre-menopausal breast cancer,” wrote the researchers. “Women who consumed a high amount of soy foods consistently during adolescence and adulthood had a substantially reduced risk of breast cancer.”
Supplements do not Work!
While all of these studies are exciting, remember what I said earlier: “The whole is always better than the parts.”
According to a study published in 2011, taking soy isoflavones does not reduce bone loss or menopausal symptoms during the first 5 years of menopause and may actually increase the incidence of hot flashes and constipation. The authors of the study stated that the results are disappointing because estrogen therapy, while it is effective in reducing hot flashes, increases the risk of breast cancer and heart attacks and the risks outweigh the benefits. Researchers would like to find a natural alternative that is safer and more effective. (I can certainly say that the dietary lifestyle which we and our clients choose is that “natural alternative” to this dilemma and a sure way to have uneventful menopause!)
The 248 women in the study were randomized to take either 200 mg per day of soy isoflavones in pills or a placebo for 5 years. This dose represents about 2 times the amount of isoflavones consumed daily in food in a typical Asian diet.
There were no significant differences in the two groups in terms of the bone mineral density of the spine, hip, or femoral neck. However, significantly more participants in the isoflavone group experienced hot flashes and constipation than those in the control group getting a placebo. The researchers concluded that soy isoflavones were ineffective in preventing bone loss or reducing menopausal symptoms and that they did cause side effects. (24)
I recently read an article that listed 12 reasons to avoid soy in any form.
I took the time to read every word in the article and follow every reference used in it.
The article was poorly written and the research was taken out of context. Some parts of the studies were cited, while others were ignored since they did not seem to benefit the author’s goal.
Some studies were cited without a clear connection to the author’s thesis.
I found that only those who did not do their homework to investigate their reference, or understood how to interpret them, would truly believe what was written.
If anyone was cautious enough to pay their due diligence, they would have dismissed the article and the author as a valid source of information.
There were several studies cited in the article, so, I am going to bring a couple of them up here, to show how flawed research can lead to faulty findings.
1. Soy protein isolate influence on breast secretion
This pilot study indicated that prolonged consumption of soy protein isolate has a stimulatory effect on the premenopausal female breast, characterized by increased secretion of breast fluid, the appearance of hyperplastic epithelial cells, and elevated levels of plasma estradiol. (22)
Since a concentrated soy isolate, not the actual whole soybean, was used, the study is flawed. It should be redone with whole foods and average soy intake in mind.
In a typical Japanese or Chinese diet, less than 5% of daily calories come from soybeans, which translates to about 2 ounces daily.
2. A diet containing the soy phytoestrogen genistein causes infertility in female rats
This study was performed on rats with a genetic deficiency.
A soy isolate was used in high amounts to see whether it would induce infertility.
Not surprisingly, when you take a flawed (genetically deficient) population of rodents (not humans) and induce them with “much higher soy content” (quoting the study) isolates, the results would be unfavorable. The rats in this study indeed turned out to be more infertile when fed a high soy isolate diet. (23)
I think that there is a cautionary tale to learn from this, however – consuming isolates and supplements is not a sound idea!
The Truly Negative
While soybeans are not evil and have great and protective qualities when they undergo processing and manipulation, truly bad things can happen.
Soy isolates, just like isolates of any other foods, are not good news.
They are largely used in many prepackaged foods you find on the market, including vegan faux food and protein shakes, and even infant formulas.
Soy is also largely used as animal feed in factory farming. Mostly genetically modified beans are used in all of these instances. All of this leads to allergies, overconsumption of soy, and soy sensitivities.
Soy baby formula, while plant-based, is not much removed, in quality, from its counterpart dairy infant formulas.
It is synthesized from corn syrup, safflower oil, and soy protein isolate.
The protein the babies get comes from an isolate, the chemical compounds reach levels many times higher than the levels found in adults who consume soy foods. They even exceed concentrations shown to be toxic in laboratory experiments.
Soy and dairy-based formulas are packed with unfavorable ingredients to health and are dangerous! There is nothing safer and better than the mother’s breast milk.
There are instances when a mother might not produce enough milk, or in situations of adoption. In such a situation, if possible, the parents should find breast milk banks, to supplement.
Too Much Protein
We can never have too much protein. Right?!
Nothing can be further from the truth!
While plant protein, unlike animal protein, does not contribute to cancer development, when over-consumed (which can only happen when we use isolated forms or plant protein) it comes with its own set of problems, ranging from kidney toxicity, severe liver problems, to an increased risk of osteoporosis and hip fractures.
Following the Money Trail
This is the last step of any research I do.
Whenever analyzing a study, an article, or a blog post, always ask yourself: “Who stands to gain from this?”
Unfortunately, science can be sold as much as it can be skewed.
While there are honest, but flawed studies performed frequently, leading to erroneous results, there are also studies that are funded by groups with vested interests.
Remember how the tobacco companies used to conduct their own studies on the safety of their products? And even had medical doctors promote their products?
Even to this day the meat and dairy industries do the same.
Such research will always be set up to lead to certain conclusions, always adding to the bottom line of the investors. So, always follow the money trail.
To Eat Soy or Not to Eat Soy?
Now that you have enough evidence to draw your own conclusions, you should be able to answer this question for yourself: “To eat soy or not to eat soy?”
As you have seen, soybeans and soy byproducts are high in fat and protein. As such, we should consume them as we would other calorie-rich foods, such as nuts, avocados, and seeds—occasionally.
Soy has its place in a well-planned whole food, plant-based diet, but, if you do not like soy, or have a soy allergy, by no means is soy a necessity. You can find the same beneficial nutrients in other plant foods.
Fermented or not?
Either one is fine! While some soy products, like tempeh and miso, are fermented, in Japan, about half of the soy products are consumed unfermented, while in China, Hong Kong, and Singapore, nearly all soy products consumed is unfermented foods.
I hope this now gives you enough ammunition to make an educated decision about the role of soy in your diet.
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(8) http://cebp.aacrjournals.org/content/10/1/25.short Berrino F, Bellau C, Secreto G et al. “Reducing Bioavailable Sex Hormones through a Comprehensive Change in Diet: the Diet and Androgens (DIANA) Randomized Trial.” Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev January 2001 10; 25
(9) Wu AH, Yu MC, Tseng CC, Pike MC. Epidemiology of soy exposures and breast cancer risk. Br J Cancer 2008;98:9-14; http://www.apocpcontrol.org/paper_file/issue_abs/Volume12_No11/2837-40%20c10.4%20Yan-yun%20Zhu.pdf
(10) Shu XO, Zheng Y, Cai H, et al. Soy food intake and breast cancer survival. JAMA. 2009;302:2437-2443 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19996398
(11) Nagata C, Takatsuka N, Kawakami N, Shimizu H. Soy product intake and premenopausal hysterectomy in a follow-up study of Japanese women. Eur J Clin Nutr 2001:55:773-7 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11528492?dopt=Abstract
(12) Hamilton-Reeves JM, Vazquez G, Duval SJ, Phipps WR, Kurzer MS, Messina MJ. Clinical studies show no effects of soy protein or isoflavones on reproductive hormones in men: results of a meta-analysis. Fertil Steril. June 11, 2009. DOI:10.1016/j.fertnstert.2009.04.038
(13) Yan L, Spitznagel EL. Soy consumption and prostate cancer risk in men: a revisit of a meta-analysis. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;89:1155-1163
(14) 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;16:249-58. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3135991/
(15) Divi RL, Chang HC, Doerge DR. Anti-thyroid isoflavones from soybean: isolation, characterization, and mechanisms of action. Biochem Pharmacol 1997;54:1087-96.
(16) Messina M. Soybean isoflavone exposure does not have feminizing effects on men: a critical examination of the clinical evidence. Fertil Steril. 2010 May 1;93(7):2095-104. doi: 10.1016/j.fertnstert.2010.03.002. Epub 2010 Apr 8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20378106
(17) Nagata C, Takatsuka N, Kurisu Y, Shimizu H. Decreased serum total cholesterol concentration is associated with high intake of soy products in Japanese men and women. J Nutr. 1998 Feb;128(2):209-13 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9446845
(18) Lu LJ, Anderson KE, Grady JJ, Nagamani M. Effects of an isoflavone-free soy diet on ovarian hormones in premenopausal women. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2001 Jul;86(7):3045-52. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11443166
(19) Wu, AH, et al, “Dietary patterns and breast cancer risk in Asian-American women.” Am J Clin Nutr 2009;89:1145-1154 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19211822
(20) Myung, S-K et al. “Soy intake and risk of endocrine-related gynaecological cancer: A meta-analysis.” BJOG December 2009;116:1697 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19775307
(21) S.-A. Lee, X.-O. Shu, H. Li, G. Yang, H. Cai, W. Wen, B.-T. Ji, J. Gao, Y.-T. Gao, W. Zheng “Adolescent and adult soy food intake and breast cancer risk: results from the Shanghai Women’s Health Study” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition June 2009, Volume 89, Number 6, Pages 1920-1926, doi:10.3945/ajcn.2008.27361 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19403632
(22) Petrakis NL Stimulatory influence of soy protein isolate on breast secretion in pre- and postmenopausal women. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 1996 Oct;5(10):785-94. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8896889
(23) Seppen J. A diet containing the soy phytoestrogen genistein causes infertility in female rats partially deficient in UDP glucuronyltransferase. Toxicol Appl Pharmacol. 2012 Nov 1;264(3):335-42. doi: 10.1016/j.taap.2012.09.013. Epub 2012 Sep 20. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23000043
(24) Levis S, Strickman-Stein P, Ganjei-Azar P et al. “Soy Isoflavones in the Prevention of Menopausal Bone Loss and Menopausal Symptoms: A Randomized, Double-blind Trial” Archives of Internal Medicine Volume 171, Issue 15, Pages1363-1369, doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.330 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21824950
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