084-2010 Oct 8 - Savvy On Soy

To Your Health - Savvy on Soy
By James N. Dillard, M.D.,

(Oct. 8, 2010) Meat is a delicious staple of the American diet. But many nutrition experts warn us that consumption of meat on a regular basis can lead to heart disease, stroke, cancer, and degenerative illnesses. Other countries eat much less meat than we do, and have significantly lower rates of these serious illnesses.

Asian nations consume much more soy than the United States, and their residents have much less cardiovascular disease and cancer. Though these broad trends sound impressive, soy is really neither an angel nor a devil.

There are many scary claims out there, mostly on the Internet, that say soy is bad for you. It has become conventional wisdom that only fermented soy products (soy sauce, miso, natt, and tempeh) are safe. Other media-amplified fears include risk to babies from soy formula, breast cancer scares, soy interference with thyroid fution, and concerns about genetically-modified soy.

Jim Rutz of the right-wing World Net Daily Web site has even become famous for writing that feeding soy to young boys will make them gay. Soy it ain’t so, Joe! Well, it ain’t — it’s just crazy and wrong.

The primary group attacking soy is an Internet-based foundation that doesn’t seem to understand published research. At the top of its Web site is a picture of a smiley family of four with a big label, “They’re happy because they eat butter!” Yeah, I’d be happy too — right up until the crushing chest pain starts.

Somehow, all the tons of real soy science are being ignored. In the Web-world echo chamber, facts are not relevant. I talked with Dr. Mark Messina, Kanko
Sorting out the scary claims from the real science on soy in the diet

a soy research scientist and former director of the diet and cancer branch of the National Cancer Institute, about the research and the myths.

“Internet myths take on lives of their own, free of facts,” Dr. Messina told me. “Most people don’t read the peer-reviewed research, so the scary stories continue to spread. And then even major media gets on board.”

Soy beans contain 35 to 40 percent protein on a dry-weight basis. A Japanese person eats about 30 grams of soy protein per day. In Korea, that number is 20 grams, in Hong Kong, 7 grams, and in China it is 8 grams. We consume about 1 gram in the United States.

The anti-cancer effects of a group of soy compounds, the soy isoflavones, have been intensely researched since 1990. These isoflavones are considered phytoestrogens (plant estrogens) and also anti-estrogens, because they both weakly mimic and oppose the effects of the hormone estrogen in the body.

Regarding the breast cancer risk, there was some early, 1997, research in mice by William Helferich, implying that soy isoflavones could stimulate breast cancer cells. Subsequent human research does not reproduce the mouse studies’ results. Soy isoflavones do not adversely stimulate human cells.

Asian women eating a traditional diet have little breast cancer. When they move to the United States and change their diets, their rates of breast cancer rise to the levels of other American women — within one generation.

Soy baby formula contains large amounts of isoflavones, so questioning the effects on children is reasonable. The United States National Toxicology Program, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, rated this as of “negligible concern” in 1996 and of “minimal concern” in 2009. The American Academy of Pediatrics supports “negligible concern,” based on current research.

There is no evidence that soy impairs absorption of calcium despite the presence of the mineral-binding compounds phytate and oxalate. This common criticism is just not true. Even large amounts of soy in healthy people will not affect thyroid function. People with low iodine or slightly weak thyroid glands have not yet been studied, however.

Soy foods do not need to be fermented to be digested. Tofu (non-fermented) is more than 92 percent digestible. Slightly more than half of the soy consumed in Japan is in non-fermented forms, whereas in China, the percentage is quite a bit higher.

Two new studies have shown that the ferritin form of iron in soy foods is absorbed as well as the heme iron in meat. Vegetarians can have trouble getting enough iron in their diets, so plenty of soy can help.

The last soy myth to bust is about genetically-modified soybeans. The United States grows half the world’s soybeans; about 80 percent are genetically modified. Virtually that entire soy product is fed to livestock, so for now the issue probably does not matter much to human individuals. Though Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans are an unfortunate development, it is easy to buy non-G.M. soy foods in local stores.

Dr. Messina recommends that people eat whole soy foods and avoid isolated isoflavone products with questionable health claims. As a vegetarian, he relies heavily on tempeh and tofu for high-quality dietary protein.

In 2005, T. Colin Campbell, a Cornell professor of nutritional biochemistry, published the best-selling book “The China Study.” Though more broad observation and advocacy than actual science, the book enlightened many in the West to dramatic differences between the Chinese diet and lifestyle and our own. He blames many of our chronic diseases on these differences.

Though oversimplifications are not helpful, there are important lessons to be learned here. People who live on plant-based diets live longer and are healthier. Those who exert themselves physically on a daily basis get sick less often. Eating more whole soy can be an important part of these regimens.

I’m not going to try to sell you on soy burgers, tofutti, or other suspicious-looking soy-based foods. Though some of these products really aren’t so bad, the traditional Asian uses of soybeans can be much tastier — and the less processed the better.

Try chopping up garlic, onions, bok choy, shiitake mushrooms, broccolini tops, and extra firm tofu, and stir-fry them in a wok or big pan in that order. Season with soy sauce, curry paste, pepper, and mirin (sweet rice wine) to taste. Healthy vegetables and soybeans never achieved such heavenly flavors.

Foods that are not familiar to us from childhood can seem unattractive and wrong. That’s a shame, because unfamiliar foods have the potential to become healthful and delicious staples of our diet. The key is in the cooking. With a few innovations in the kitchen, soy could be just the thing you’ve bean waiting for.

Dr. James Dillard is on the faculty at the annual University of Arizona Nutrition and Health Conference directed by Dr. Andrew Weil, now going into its eighth year.

Questions can be directed to Dr. James Dillard at jdillard@ehstar.com.

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