Soy, is it as Unhealthy as They Claim?

By Dana Gross

Soy’s been getting a bad wrap, and it’s made us wonder if it really is as unhealthy as some claims have stated. If you’re wondering the same thing, the next question on your mind should be, ‘And who is the ‘they” anyway?’ 

In recent years we’ve all heard a friend, or friend of a friend say, they’re trying not to eat soy because of its estrogen content, or how they’ve heard that soy isn’t healthy for women. Then men jumped in, thinking, “Hey! If it’s unhealthy for women to eat high estrogen food, then it’s definitely unhealthy for men to consume the legume.” Concerns over estrogen in soy certainly triggered many wild images in people’s imaginations, but what are the hard facts about soy, and should we eliminate, or limit, this ingredient in our diets? 

A Closer Look at Soy

Soybeans are a legume harvested in pods, which as you may have already known, is native to Asia. It has actually been a staple in Asian cuisine for thousands of years, if not more. Soy can be consumed in a variety of styles – it can be fermented, whole, or processed into several alternative forms. The biggest concern for the consumer is the high levels of phytoestrogens found in soy. But, is the phytoestrogen found in a plant the same as the estrogen found in the human body? And what are its effects on both male and female hormones? It’s exactly this point that has caused a lot of mass confusion. To think about the incredible power this one word has generated is quite impressive.  

Those for Soy

Soy advocates praise soy for all of its valuable health benefits, and let’s not forget, there are islands in Japan with natives recording the highest life expectancy in the world. What’s their secret? Well, many would argue that it could have something to do with the fact that soy is a complete protein, containing all 9 essential amino acids, plus loads of other nutrients and minerals. 

Soy can also improve cholesterol levels, but most importantly LDL cholesterol, which is the one your doctor tends to monitor. Not only do soybeans reduce bad (LDL) cholesterol, but they increase good (HDL) cholesterol, and there are many studies out there ready to hand over their proof. In 2017 the FDA attempted to dispute the soybean’s benefits against heart disease, however, according to the Journal of the American Heart Association, more recent studies have showed that soybeans do, in fact, reduce LDL between 4.2-6.7 mg/dL on average. This average was very close to the results of the studies conducted in the late 90s, which prompted the initial FDA approval of soy’s heart health claims.  

Next Up, Soy and Fertility

Soy has proven to increase fertility in women, aid in menstruation, ovulation, and pregnancy – especially for those beginning in vitro fertilization. While we’re discussing women’s bodies, when it comes to menopause, several studies have shown soy’s ability to reduce distressing symptoms during menopause. When isolated and supplemented, the isoflavones in soy, (an estrogen-like compound called phytoestrogen), helped raise estrogen levels in women, thus reducing straining menopausal symptoms like hot flashes and night sweats. 

Some have asserted that soy increases the risk of breast cancer, but studies have proven otherwise. Over 30 studies have shown that the isoflavones found in soy reduced breast cancer risk in Asian women. When similar testing was conducted on non-Asian women, breast cancer risks or remedies produced inconsequential results. Alternatively, when this study was conducted on animals, rats were 10-20% less likely to develop breast cancer (the percentage is dependent on what form of soy they were fed). And, if all that wasn’t enough, in long-term studies of women who had survived breast cancer, 21% of the women who ate soy were less likely to experience a recurrence of the disease. 

Further – soy seems that have benefits for men post-cancer as well. It appears that those who have survived prostate cancer, believe it or not, may also benefit from soy consumption. Additionally, it seems that soy may lower the risks for gastrointestinal cancer. 

Those Against Soy

Many men resist eating soy in fear of the negative consequences the estrogen can have on their hormones, however, there has been no proof of such a correlation. Rather than affecting testosterone in men, it may actually reduce the risks of developing prostate cancer

If you’re blessed with healthy functioning thyroid glands, then soy won’t have any negative side effects on your hormones. However, if you suffer from an underactive thyroid, it’s recommended to hold off on over-doing soy, which could interfere with thyroid medication when eaten too closely after taking your medication. More than ten studies on how soy affects thyroid function have proven little to no definite results.   

If GMOs are a concern for you, then you’ll be disappointed to know that almost all the soy grown in the United States is bioengineered. However, non-GMO soy and/or organic soy is available at some grocers.    

Who Benefits from Soy and Who’s Really at Risk Here?

Besides being a complete protein, soy contains both soluble and insoluble fiber, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and no cholesterol. Plus, when compared to meat, soy contains very low saturated fats. Non-processed soy has many benefits; however, processed soy is a whole other topic. Products marketing soy burgers, soy hot dogs, soy cheeses, soy protein bars, may not provide all the health benefits of soy. Processed soy, like ‘soy protein,’ or ‘soy isolate’ are often stripped of all their hearty health benefits. So, if health and protein are what you’re after, you’re not going to find it in Trader Joe’s soy ice cream, or severely processed soy-meat, as is this case with most processed foods from any source.

Soy Facts

  1. Phytoestrogens received their name because they are similar to the structure of estrogen. However, the prefix, which many seem to overlook, ‘phyto’ is exclusive for plants. Interestingly enough, some phytoestrogen work at blocking estrogen receptors while others imitate its effects. 
  2. Different types of phytoestrogen include: Lignans, Isoflavones, Resveratrol, and Quercetin.
  3. Other products that also contain phytoestrogens include flax seeds, sesame seeds, garlic, berries, peanuts, wine, beer, and more. Surprisingly enough, no one seems to be afraid of drinking beer with their delicious and garlic-heavy pizza slice!
  4. It’s suspected that soybeans have been growing in China since 9,000 BC!
  5. If you are interested in eating whole bean soy products, you can choose between edamame, tofu, and soymilk. Be careful when purchasing soy milk, however; it’s important to read the label to make sure the ingredients are clean (without added preservatives or sugar) if that’s something you’re concerned about. 
  6. Fermented soy products include soy sauce, tempeh, and miso. Soy sauce has very low nutritional value and high levels of sodium, though, so if you’re after health benefits, it’s best to add tempeh and miso to your diet. 
  7. One cup of tofu contains 20 grams of protein, raw soybeans contain 68 grams of protein, and tempeh holds 31 grams of protein -we’re talking complete protein here.
  8. In the end, our goal is not to try and convince you to switch over to an exclusively soy-based diet. It’s always best to eat different ingredients in moderation. Many sources suggest limiting soy-based products to 2-3 times a week. If you’re a vegan, alternating between chickpeas, black beans, lentils and other forms of beans and legumes mixed with a healthy amount of soy can lead to a stable and healthy diet. Vegetarians can include cheeses and eggs as sources of protein, and meat-eaters can evenly distribute their diet between meat-based proteins, soy protein, and plant-based or other sources of protein. What’s most important here is creating a healthy diet for you and your family with the facts, not the myths. 


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