Soy (The Meat of the Issue)

Let’s get to the meat of the issue: today we’re talking soy.

By now, it’s popular dogma that soy is the greatest thing since sliced bread, at least when it comes to your health (and neither one, it turns out, is good for your health, but that’s a rant for another blog post….). It’s touted as a cholesterol reducing, heart-healthy protein that’s low in fat and a great substitution for animal products. When you turn it into tofu, you can use the flavorless block in so many different ways–from stir-fries to smoothies!–and somehow develop a health halo in the process. Moreover, this “miracle” food can be used to change the mouthfeel and emulsification (among other things) of mass-produced food products (yes, even the ones you buy at Whole Foods), which makes it possible to produce low-fat cookies, and granola bars, and pretty much anything that comes in a package. And don’t get me started on the “wonders” of partially hydrogenated soybean oil for replacing butter and other “unhealthy” fats!

Grocery products made with soy

The problem with soy is not just that it’s incredibly dangerous to your health, but that we consume massive amounts of it daily without even realizing it.*

I’m not going to go into all of the health ramifications of soy today (and there are a lot)–my purpose here is to examine and explain how it’s possible that veganism caused my secondary amenorrhea, and why I can’t seem to heal my body without drugs. (And hopefully to warn you about the potential hormonal disruptions that can be affecting your own health so you can be armed with the knowledge to make positive change.) So here goes:

Every person, male and female, has a very delicate balance of hormones in his or her body, and those hormones regulate everything, from mood, to hunger, to sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Seriously.

We talked a little bit about that when I introduced leptin, and also at the beginning of the Getting Healthy…Period series.

Hormones obviously play a role in reproductive health (I mean, the image of the hormonal woman with PMS is essentially a punchline). The major hormones that affect important things like fertility & menstruation are estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. When any of those hormones get thrown off, even a little bit, things start to go awry in the body.

For example, if you’ve ever taken an estrogen or progestin/estrogen birth control pill and then stopped, you may have experienced a harrowing few months of irregular periods. Why? Because you not only tricked your body into thinking it was pregnant, but you also tricked it into stopping production of the hormones it normally makes by default, by providing it with a surplus of hormones from outside of the body. It takes the body a while to remember how to make hormones after it’s had a break, just as it takes a while to build a muscle back up in the gym after you’ve spent a few months on the couch.

The same thing happened in the case of my exercise-induced amenorrhea–even after I started to come back to normal body fat levels, it was still several months before I got my period back.

When I became a vegan, I did do a few months of intense yoga (one thirty day challenge, and then yoga 4-5 times a week for another month before I had to go on disability for my ankle). After that, I stopped exercising nearly altogether. I was eating 6 low-fat, (vegan) “protein-packed”** meals a day (meals that were even more carb-packed, now that I look back on it), and I was juicing every morning. Things should have been going well.

The first red flag I ignored was the exhaustion and anxiety. The second, the puffiness and weight gain. The third was the acne. Oh, man…the acne.***

Acne Breakout While Vegan

October 2011, 3 months into my vegan “detox”

And finally, after 8 months of veganism, my period stopped again entirely. I was stymied. Why would this happen?

Soy is what’s known as a “phytoestrogen.” Stefani Ruper, author of PCOS Unlocked, explains it quite simply:

Phytoestrogens are a class of chemicals that resemble estrogen, but are not identical to estrogen.  The whole category is called xeno (= false) estrogens.  And then as a subclass come then phytoestrogens.  Phyto means plant.   Estrogen means estrogen.  Phytoestrogens are plant estrogens.”


In other words, with every scoop of soy protein powder, every soy milk smoothie, every piece of chewing gum with added soy lecithin (yep, it’s in gum, too!), I was putting extra estrogen into my body, just as if I had been taking a birth control pill.

Now, when estrogen builds up, whether it’s from an internal or an external source, the estrogen receptors in the body send signals to the brain that there’s too much estrogen around, and so the brain stops production. The problem is that the plant estrogens don’t necessarily do what your human estrogens are made to do, and if your body stops making the right hormones and becomes dependent on the wrong hormones, bad things start to happen. Like acne. And amenorrhea.

Stay hungry,


*This is why the “but people in Asia ate soy for thousands of years and…” argument is invalid. They were not consuming the ridiculous quantities of it as we do, and they did not consume it at nearly every snack and meal.

** And I quote Dr. Kaayla Daniels, author of The Whole Soy Story: “Protease inhibitors interfere with protein digestion and have caused malnutrition, poor growth, digestive distress, and pancreatitis.” Protease inhibitors are things that stop the break down and digestion of protein. So your soy protein powder doesn’t actually supply you with the amount of protein the canister tells you you’re getting…

**Believe it or not, acne is mediated by hormones, not just oil or dirt on your skin…but I’ll explain that more in depth another day….

For the rest of the Getting Healthy…Period series, see:

Getting Healthy…Period
My Boy…Friend, ED
Sex With ED, or Let me Be Frank
The Disappearing Woman
Becoming ED: The Female Athlete Triad and Amenorrhea
Sex vs. Sexy
Word Games

3 thoughts on “Soy (The Meat of the Issue)

  1. Like I mentioned before, I find I don’t react well to soy but dairy doesn’t bother me at all. If I increase the amount of soy in my diet, I puff and bloat around the mid section. The only thing I would really like is to be vegan out of kindness to animals but most of the time I just stick with vegetarianism and consume egg whites and some skim milk. I actually like tofu (believe it or not). The health food store near the ballet studio does a lovely roast tofu salad so I eat it as a treat once a week or so. I also don’t eat processed or packaged food so I manage to avoid the extra soy that they sneak into everything. It is disturbing how unnatural it is but processed food is bad in many other ways too, not just the soy content. Thanks to ED, I avoid most of it!

    • As weird as it sounds, I definitely loved tofu, too. People thought I was crazy for salivating over the idea of broiled tofu with winter vegetables. But losing my period and pinning the cause down to diet made me go cold tofurky–even with the fermented stuff, which is supposedly less harmful (and I had a serious foodie-love-affair with tempeh, so that was hard). I can’t tolerate dairy either–you’re lucky that you can. I used to just get mild stomach upsets and sugar crashes from it, but now that it’s been so long since I’ve had it, if you sneak even a little bit into my food, I definitely feel it…

      But the good news is that there are SO many other amazing foods out there that are waiting to be tried and savored…it’s hard, with ED wanting us to focus on the idea of restricting, but I really never think about the foods I don’t eat, and instead focus on cultivating a list of ones that I enjoy eating. It’s a tough balance, but it’s worth it, I think. 🙂

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