My decision to stop being a vegan was based on a gut feeling–literally and figuratively: the blog post(s) that I’m about to provide you with are simply based on all of the research I’ve done since making the decision to stop being a vegan.
I’m writing it all here not to promote any kind of orthorexia or nutritionism or restrictive eating or dogma–I’m writing it here because there are people who want to understand the potential health implications of a low-fat plant-based diet.
I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist–just a girl who is sick and tired of being sick and tired–and sick and tired of watching so many people make decisions based on half-truths, emotional appeals, and ingrained biases that ultimately leave them sick and tired too.
Tofu is a Health Food. Right?
When you think health food, what’s the first thing that comes to your head? Nine times out of 10, I guarantee that tofu’s in the top five. Whenever a comedian jokes about a health food diet or you try to convince someone to stop eating McDonalds, what’s the response you hear? “I don’t want to eat any of that tofu crap.”
When I was a vegan, however, that “tofu crap” was a staple in my diet–firm for salads and silken for smoothies. Soy milk in my oatmeal and tempeh (fermented soy) in my stir-fries. Plus soy lecithin (an emulsifier, or stabilizing agent used to keep baked and shelf-stable foods together) in everything from vegan margarine to chocolate to chewing gum. Edamame. Roasted soy nuts and soy nut butter.* Soybean oil. Miso. Natto. Soy protein powder. Texturized vegetable protein. Hydrolyzed soy. Soy protein isolate.
Tofu (and soy) is often a staple of the vegan and vegetarian diet, the proud answer to the oft-asked, “But how do you get your protein?” that so offends anyone following such a diet. But for all of its touted goodness, there lurks plenty of bad behind the surface of that little bean.
Here are the arguments for soy, in a not-a-nutshell:
- Replacing meat with soy lowers dietary cholesterol intake.
- Soy is a complete protein that is low in saturated fat.
- Soy may protect against breast cancer and/or may have no effect on breast cancer risk.
- When you eat more soy, you get more folate, vitamin K, calcium, magnesium and iron.
And here’s why I won’t touch the stuff with a 10-foot pole:
- Replacing meat with soy lowers dietary cholesterol intake. Well, duh. But we actually need dietary cholesterol. Unlike the “science” we’ve been force-fed for the last 40 years would suggest, dietary cholesterol doesn’t necessarily have adverse effects on our endogenous (or bodily) cholesterol. For more on cholesterol, I’m deferring to the expert.
- Soy is a complete protein that is low in saturated fat. Which is exactly why it’s inferior to proteins found in muscle and organ meats, eggs, and raw dairy. You also have to eat more of it to get the same amount of protein as you might from, say, a piece of fish or a steak. It’s also higher in carbohydrates, so if you’re trying to get more protein bang for your health buck, err on the side of the fat-and-protein combo.
- Soy may protect against breast cancer and/or may have no effect on breast cancer risk. Okay, so here’s the thing with this one: there are “conclusive” studies on both sides of the argument that say that soy either protects against OR causes breast cancer. It’s also often cited that women in Asian countries that eat tofu/soy have lower breast cancer risk than women in America. While this may be true, the statement doesn’t tell the whole story: those women aren’t sucking down genetically modified soy milk smoothies and slathering their digestive tracts in lecithin. They’re not eating eggs from chickens fed genetically modified soy feed. They’re not stopping at the health food store every day for tofu salad. And almost all of the soy in America is genetically modified, which could have an effect on the harmful estrogenic properties of soy. If you are at ALL concerned with estrogen overload, estrogen toxicity, amenorrhea, or breast cancer, stay far away from soy. End of story.
- When you eat more soy, you get more folate, vitamin K, calcium, magnesium and iron. Except for the fact that soy also contains anti-nutrients called phytates, which interfere with the body’s ability to absorb nutrients like calcium, magnesium, copper, iron and zinc .You’re also not getting much of the benefit of folate (or other B vitamins), and your body needs fats to absorb and properly utilize vitamin K (and I can guarantee you that your vegan diet isn’t giving you the amount of fat you need unless you’re mainlining coconut and red palm oil.) So if you’re expecting your soy-milk-flax-seed-and-spinach smoothie to give you all sorts of amazing health benefits, you may be mistaken.
And here are some more arguments against soy, in case you weren’t convinced:
- Soy is a goitrogen, which means that it wreaks havoc on your thyroid function. And you need your thyroid to function. And if you’re doing lots of raw veggies in addition to soy on a vegan diet, you’re putting yourself at even higher risk for thyroid disruption–raw kale, broccoli, and cauliflower, for example, are also goitrogenic. So that soy-milk-kale-and-broccoli smoothie I drank every morning for 9 months? Yeah, bad plan.
- Soy is a phytoestrogen. If you’re looking to lower your toxic estrogen load, then soy is probably** not your best choice. Phytoestrogens are plant-based estrogens that mimic the effects of the estrogens your body makes.Unfortunately, it’s easy to fool your body with these false estrogens–all your estrogen receptors see are estrogens. The problem is that they don’t perform as well in your body as your own endogenous estrogen might. So you overload on stuff your body can’t use well, tie up your estrogen receptors, and force your body to lessen or–worse–shut down its own estrogen production. This can also lower your endogenous testosterone and mess with progesterone levels as well. If you want to keep your sex drive and/or your fertility, or if you’re dealing with PCOS or any other hormonal imbalance (and/or you don’t want to cause a hormonal imbalance), then stay far away from soy.
- Soy contains FODMAPS (basically, foods that turn to sugars in your gut and ferment there, causing all sorts of tummy trouble like IBS).
- Soy protein can be inflammatory and allergenic. If you’re looking to reduce food sensitivities, soy is one of the first things you should pull out of your diet (in addition to gluten, eggs, and a few others…)
- Almost all soy in the US is genetically modified. Enough said.
And before you get mad at me for suggesting that all vegans eat soy, and are therefore doing it wrong, don’t. I get it. Not every vegan eats soy. But in today’s Tofurkey-laden marketplace, many do. And if you’re considering soy-free veganism, you’re going to have to work even harder to get protein and satiating foods into your diet. So let’s look at what else vegans have to contend with:
(to be continued!)
*Technically, soybeans are a legume, not a nut, but don’t tell that to the people who dry roast them and sell ‘em as nuts. More on why legumes are less-than-ideal here.