It is rather common when transitioning from the standard American diet (refined carbohydrates and high-fat animal products) to a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, to eat a substantial quantity of soy products. The reason is simple. Soy is a neutral-tasting meat analogue which assumes the flavor of the spices and foods it is combined with. And soy is everywhere! From tofu to tempeh, soy sauce to edamame, soy protein isolate, concentrate, soy milk, soy cheese, protein powder, even soy ice cream, soy is everywhere.
Soy does provide some benefits. It has anti-estrogen properties that may be protective against breast cancer, and it is high in protein. But most soy products are heavily-processed pseudo-foods that should not be considered healthy. Sure, use soy in your transition phase. It is savory and high in fat, and makes a useful substitution for the chicken, fish, turkey, etc. that you are leaving off your plate. There are soy burgers, dogs, deli slices...there's even tofurky for Thanksgiving.
But remember that more than 90 percent of soy grown in the United States is genetically engineered. Genetic modification confers increased resistance to pesticides, which increases farming efficiency and decreases cost, but the dollars you save come at the expense of your health. Consider that rats fed genetically-modified soy suffered health problems including decreased life span, lower birth rate and impaired reproductive ability. So if you consume soy products, opt for organic varieties. This ensures that they are not genetically-modified.
In addition, soy products also contain anti-nutrients. These compounds, which include phytates, oxalates and goitrogens, interfere with the work of protein-digesting enzymes. These enzymes are required for the proper functioning of your digestive tract. While a small amount of these substances is not necessarily harmful, the average American diet contains far too much, owing to the widespread use of soy in packaged and processed foods. In addition, goitrogens can hinder the function of your thyroid gland, and phytates inhibit the proper absorption of minerals, setting the stage for nutritional deficiencies.
And though tofu is naturally low in saturated fat and is free of cholesterol, it contains large quantities of omega-6 fatty acids. These fats can aggravate pain and worsen inflammation, while omega-3 fatty acids oppose these effects. Tofu contains six times as much pro-inflammatory omega-6s as omega-3s. Omega-6 fats can also worsen conditions such as heart disease, arthritis, and other inflammatory/auto-immune conditions.
Soy is also allergenic. Two percent of adults and 5 percent of children suffer from food allergies, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Soy is one of the eight major foods that cause 90 percent of food allergies. Symptoms of food allergies range from mild itching and stomach upset to severe cases that involve emergency room treatment and even death. The FDA requires that foods containing soy or processed on machinery used to manufacture soy be labeled accordingly.
With this list of health hazards, you may be wondering which if any soy products you should include in your diet. Soybeans are so widely used that soy appears in a large percentage of processed foods. These include baked goods, cereals, soups and sauces. If you are looking to monitor your consumption of soy, note that the food may appear on labels by a variety of different names. These include textured vegetable protein, hydrolized plant protein, vegetable gum and vegetable starch. It is best to steer clear of packaged, processed foods, especially those with more than a few ingredients.
When opting for soy, choose minimally-processed options. Tofu is a high-fat derivative of soy, which is produced from soy milk. Tofu is high in fat and low in fiber. Tempeh, on the other hand, is produced from whole soybeans which are fermented. The fermentation process renders the carbohydrates found in soy easier to digest, and also fortifies tempeh with probiotics and B vitamins.
Going closer to the source, edamame, a staple at most sushi restaurants, is simply whole soybeans in a pod. This is as minimally processed as soy can get.
Soybeans are also available in the canned beans section at your local health food store. It is easy to forget that soy products are all derived from a legume, and that the particular legume (the soybean) is lacking in nutrition compared to its cousins, legumes such as peas, lentils, and beans including kidney, black, pinto, garbanzo, etc.
It would therefore be most judicious, when desiring a soy fix, to opt for these healthier alternatives, which are also easier to find and much less expensive. A can of kidney beans, for example, will cost you under a dollar and contains less than 10 percent the fat found in soybeans (1 gram compared to soy's 15 grams).
So think (and eat) outside of the box, and remembering that soy is a legume, opt for beans over heavily processed non-nutritious soy-based foods.