Soy may be the most controversial food of our modern time. It seems that everyone, nutrition professional or not, has an opinion on whether soy is healthy; proven by a quick google search that produces thousands of articles on the dangers of soy. Last week, as I was checking out at the grocery store, the attendant looked at my bag full of tofu, tempeh and veggie burgers and interjected that ‘I was better off eating meat than ingesting all of that soy.’ As I defended my purchases and tried to set the record straight, I couldn’t help but wonder, how did soy, one of nature’s most perfect foods, become so misunderstood?
Most of the confusion seems to stem from soy’s phytoestrogen content. It’s true that estrogen has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, but phytoestrogens are not estrogens and don’t work the same way. Phytoestrogens are naturally-occurring plant compounds that are found in a number of foods, like soy. A series of health benefits can be attributed to consuming phytoestrogens: lowered risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, and yes- even breast cancer. We see this most notably in traditional Asian diets, which have high soy intake but low rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and breast cancer.
Digging a little deeper, we find that isoflavones, a class of phytoestrogens, can block other estrogens from binding to estrogen receptors, therefore reducing excess estrogen where it isn’t needed. This mechanism helps to explain why women who consume the most soy isoflavones have a lower risk of breast and other hormone dependent cancers. While studies do show mixed results on the potency and amount of soy needed for breast cancer reduction, it doesn’t seem to be harmful. Some studies suggest the effect of soy on breast cancer risk is most beneficial when consumed at an early age, when breast tissue is still developing.
To me, soy is a near-perfect food.
As a plant-based protein, soy is kinder to the environment than animal-based options and contains fiber, phytochemicals and twelve essential nutrients like calcium, iron and omega-3 fatty acids. I include some form of it into my daily diet and encourage clients to do the same. Organic, minimally-processed forms like edamame, soy milk, tofu, and tempeh are my go-to choices. Try snacking on steamed edamame pods for a simple snack at 17g of quality protein per cup. For ease, I buy steamable packets in the frozen food section of the grocery store to quickly pop in the microwave whenever I need a quick, filling snack. Enjoy plain or with a sprinkling of sea salt or soy sauce.
If you’re new to tofu, try this cooking method for perfectly crispy tofu without a ton of oil. Before using, you’ll need to press out the excess water that it comes packed in. Wrap tofu in a kitchen towel or paper towel and place a heavy object (like a cast-iron skillet) on top. Cube the tofu, place in a single layer on a baking sheet, then cook for 15-20 minutes in a 350-degree oven until tofu is golden brown and dry. Remove then toss with your favorite marinade for at least 10 minutes. Removing the packed water and drying the tofu in the oven allows it to soak up as much flavorful sauce as possible. Enjoy as is or lightly fry with the marinade in a non-stick skillet for a crispy exterior. Enjoy over rice, pasta, salad, tucked into a sandwich or on it’s own! Tempeh, a fermented soybean product, is another delicious meat alternative. Try crumbling it sautéing it with your favorite taco seasoning for a healthier take on taco night!
For baking, soy milk can be used anywhere traditional milk is found: in cookie, cake and smoothie recipes. For a healthy protein-packed cheesecake, try swapping in silken tofu for all or half of the recommended cream cheese amount. Silken tofu has such a smooth texture that it works perfectly anywhere you’d normally find ricotta or cream cheese. With so many health benefits, there’s no reason not to include at least a serving or two of soy into your diet.
Alex Caspero MA, RD, CLT, RYT is a Registered Dietitian and nutrition expert with a passion for both health and wellness. Her blog, Delish Knowledge, focuses on making whole-food vegetarian eating deliciously simple. She serves as a consultant and spokesperson for like-minded companies to develop nutrition communication strategies and recipes. She is also a Registered Yoga Teacher, Certified Group Exercise Instructor and personal trainer.