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Is soy bad for you?

Is soy bad for you? What are the dangers of soy? What are the side effects of soy?

Many people are now asking these questions. Yet, not too long ago during the 1980s and 1990s, they were raving about the health benefits of soy.

Back then, soy beans were considered a "superfood" - a "miracle food" that can prevent cancer, slow down the aging process and impart a long list of health benefits. It was seen as an ideal meat substitute for vegetarians.

Today, a number of respected health writers are seriously asking : "Is soy bad for you"? They advise against soy consumption and warn against the dangers of soy and the side effects of soy.

These respected health writers include Dr Joseph Mercola, who runs probably the most widely read health website on the Internet, as well as Sally Fallon and Dr Mary Enig from the Weston Price Foundation, an organisation that promotes traditional foods and diets.

Yet soy IS a traditional food. The Chinese, Japanese and other Asians have been eating soy beans and soy products as part of their regular diet for maybe 3,000 years.

The Chinese, in fact, regard soy as one of the "five sacred grains" even though soy is a bean and not a grain. Soy beans hold that high a position in Chinese culture and the traditional Chinese never once asked: "Is soy bad for you?"

What has happened? Why the sudden change in focus from the benefits of soy to the dangers of soy and side effects of soy? What is the truth about soy? This article will put some of the soybean warnings in perspective and examine is soy bad for you, really?

Is soy bad for you - the scientific evidence

A lof of the concerns over the dangers of soy are based on science evidence. Over the decades, more than a hundred scientific studies have shown that soy contains various chemical substances that are highly toxic and harmful to health.

These substances are called "anti-nutrients" because they interfere with the body's absorption of nutrients. They include:

Soy infant formula

The dangers of soy mean also that soy infant formula is NOT SUITABLE for babies. Apart from the presence of these harmful chemical substances, soy infant formula lacks cholesterol, which is vital for the development of a child's brain and nervous system.

So the dangers of soy are real. If you ask "Is soy bad for you?" and consider purely scientific research evidence, the answer would be a definite: YES.

Is soy bad for you - the Asian reality

Consider, however, the experience of the Chinese, Japanese and other Asians. They have been eating soy for thousands of years - soybeans having first been cultivated around 1100 BC. And they have all along been enjoying the benefits of soy without apparently suffering any of the side effects of soy.

Has this to do with the genes? Is soy bad for you only if you are American or some other Westerner, but possibly good for you if you are Chinese or East Asian?

Not likely. Because there are major differences in the way Asians versus Westerners eat soy products. This is very clear to me as an Asian who is also exposed to Western dietary habits and fads. However, it may not be obvious to many Westerners who may be misled - by none other than the soybean industry - into thinking that Asians consume huge amounts of soybeans and soy products.

Soy consumption in Asia

No. No. No. In Asia, even though soy products are eaten regularly, they are eaten in small amounts - either as a side dish or, more likely, as a cooking ingredient.

If you take a Japanese miso soup, for example, you might find very tiny pieces of tofu in it. Or, the popular Japanese dish called Agedashi Tofu (deep fried tofu in broth) might consist of just two or three cubes of tofu per serving. Natto, a fermented soybean, is also served in Japanese cuisine as a small side dish, with each person eating the equivalent of two or three tablespoonfuls of it.

Similarly, the Chinese might eat tofu cooked with vegetables or with meat or fish. The Chinese also eat a form of fermented tofu as a condiment, served with rice or porridge / congee. Each person might eat no more than a small "brick" no more than the equivalent of two teaspoonful.

In a traditional Asian meal, the main food is always grain - rice, noodles, etc. The second main food would be vegetables - lots of it. High protein foods like meat, fish, beans and soy products form only a minor part of the diet.

Apart from these small servings, soy products are consumed in Asia mainly in the form of miso, soy sauce and other seasonings where each person might, again, eat no more than the equivalent of a teaspoonful or less. Asians eat soy very regularly but very little each time.

How much soy do Asians eat?

A 1998 study by Japanese researchers suggested that the average Japanese consumes only about 8 grams of soy beans and soy products per day for men, and about 7 grams per day for women. (Nagata C, Takatsuka N, Kurisu Y, Shimizu H; Journal of Nutrition 1998, 128:209-13).

K C Chang, editor of Food in Chinese Culture, wrote that soy products made up only 1.5 percent of total calorie intake of the Chinese during the 1930s, compared with 65 percent of calories from pork. (Personally, I find the 65 percent figure for pork hard to believe, perhaps it refers to percent of protein rather than percentage of total calories. However, the low percentage for soy seems to me totally credible.)

Okinawans, who are well-known for their good health and longevity, are said to have the highest rate of soy consumption in the world, eating about 20 times more soy beans and soy products than the average Asian. Even then, the Okinawans do not eat things like tofu steak and tofu burgers, nor do they drink a few glasses of soy milk every day, which is what some modern health-conscious Westerner vegetarians do.

Is soy bad for you when you eat very small amounts? Well, it still might be. BUT... another major and importance difference between soy consumption in Asia and in Wesern societies is that Asians eat soy mainly in the form of fermented soy products. We shall look at this further in Part II of this article, Is soy bad for you?

For now, let's look at...

Soy consumption in modern Western societies

In contrast, what do we find in modern Western societies? Because the soy industry has been touting the benefits of soy, some supposedly "health conscious" people are eating huge amounts of soy products every day - in the form of soy milk, soy burgers, soy steaks, soy crackers, soy snacks as well as soy "ice cream", soy pudding and other soy desserts.

It has become possible to eat soy products for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Modern supermarkets sell soy products that can be eaten as a starter, main course, dessert and in-between meal snacks.

This is surely going overboard. Is soy bad for you if you eat such huge amounts? Not just soy but every food, no matter how good it is, will become harmful if consumed in such excesses.

Not everyone is exposed to the dangers of soy, of course. But certain groups need to be particularly careful:

People in these groups (or parents in the case of infants being fed soy formula) should need to seriously ask themselves: Is soy bad for you?

Genetically modified soy

Oh yes! I almost forget... most of the soy beans grown today are GMO (genetically mofified organism) soy. Genetically modified today accounts for about 93 percent of US production and 77 percent of world production. This makes soy the most widely genetically modified crop by far, with cotton a distant second at 49 percent of world production.

This is yet another reason to seriously ask yourself: is soy bad for you?

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