Provision #484: Sullied Soy

Laser Provision

After a brief recap of my experience at yesterday’s Baltimore Marathon, this Provision debunks a popular misconception: that soybeans and other legumes are health food. They can actually cause more problems than they solve, particularly for infants, children, and genetically susceptible individuals. All of us have to cope with their allergens, antinutrients, and hormones; that’s why I view them more as a treat to be enjoyed on occasion than as a staple to be eaten daily. Read on to get the details.

LifeTrek Provision

Although it will be more than a month before we make our transition to the output side of the Optimal Wellness Prototype, I would be remiss to not share with you the fun I had yesterday in Baltimore, Maryland, leading the 4:45 pace team to another successful finish. For the past five years, I have participated in the pace-team program, and every year we have a blast. I say “we” because for the past three years, I have headed up the same foursome to a perfect 4:45:00 finish.

We consistently win (or tie-for) the “perfect-pacer” award, given to the team(s) that come closest to their designated finish time. It’s important to do that, because large numbers of people sign up to run with the team they want to finish with. For the teams faster than four hours, many people are trying to qualify for the Boston marathon and they need to stay on pace in order to push themselves to a personal best. For the teams slower than four hours, many people are trying to finish their first marathon and they need the consistency as well as the coaching that pace teams provide in order to calm their nerves and to strengthen their muscles.

This year our team did it’s best job ever of staying on pace, mile by mile. We were seldom more than a few seconds off for 26.2 miles (42.2 kilometers). We stayed together as a team, encouraged each other on the run, and had more people stay with us until the very end than ever before. The people who came up during and after the race, thanking us for our leadership, strategy, camaraderie, and even our bad jokes, were impactful to say the least. It makes you want to stay fit enough to go back, year after year.

I hope you can feel that energy because I know many people who struggle to find the motivation to shape up and to stay in shape. It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as pacing marathons, but I wish everyone could find activities that they love so much that they have no trouble doing them on a regular basis. Exercise is not a punishment; it’s a gift that keeps on giving. When we enjoy the experience itself, exercise bolsters happiness and relieves stress. Beyond the experience itself, the health benefits of exercise are legion. It lowers the risk of virtually every disease, both chronic and infectious.

What activities do you love enough to do on a regular basis? Can you do them vigorously enough to get your heart rate up, for at least 20 minutes a day? What about Walking? Skipping? Jumping? Dancing? Cycling? Swimming? Gardening? Mowing? Circuit training? Skating? Roller blading? Kayaking? Canoeing? Tennis? Golf? The possibilities are limitless. Find something you love to do, find people to do it with, then go for the gold. There’s no better prescription for health and wellness.

That said, it’s time to tackle one of many myths that are perpetuated by the food-manufacturing industry: the health benefits of soy. This is but one claim that has been foist upon us to the point where it is now taken for granted. Ask people whether soy is a healthy alternative to meat, and research has shown that the vast majority answer, “Yes.” That’s a pretty significant development since, at least in the USA and in many western countries, soy was almost unheard of in our diets just a generation or two ago. I know I did not grow up eating soy. The food-marketers have done their job well.

Soy is not alone, by any means, when it comes to conventional wisdom being manipulated by food-marketing. Whole grains are good for you, right? Dairy products build bones and prevent osteoporosis, right? There’s no trans-fats in many margarines and snacks, right? This morning, staying at the home of someone in Baltimore, I noticed a tub of margarine on the counter, “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.” The label clearly said “0 Trans Fats,” and yet the ingredients included partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. There’s no way for partially hydrogenated vegetable oil to have “0 Trans Fats,” so what’s up with that?

It has to do with the food-manufacturing lobby. If a food has less than 0.5 grams of Trans Fats per serving, they successfully lobbied the government to allow downward rounding. Since less than 0.5 rounds down to 0, they can claim “0 Trans Fats.” There’s only one problem with that: 0.49 does not equal 0. And no one should be eating any Trans Fats at all; they are that dangerous to human health. Eat more than one serving (often scaled down to beat the .5 limitation), which is easy to do (especially in snacks) and people can easily end up consuming many grams of Trans Fats per day.

No wonder it’s hard to know what’s going on in order to be healthy. The same is true for soy. According to a recent article by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (Nutrition Action Health Letter, October 2006), early enthusiasm for the alleged health benefits of soy have turned out to be unsupported. To quote:

  • In August 2005, an expert U.S. government panel found unclear or insufficient evidence that soy can prevent heart disease, relieve menopausal symptoms, or prevent osteoporosis. That led the National Institutes of Health to suspend funding for new soy studies.
  • In the Fall of 2005, the soy industry withdrew its petition asking the FDA to allow claims that soy protein helps prevent cancer.
  • In February 2006, the American Heart Association concluded that soy doesn’t cut bad cholesterol as much as experts thought.

That stands in stark contrast to the many health claims of soy, including the following claim, approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 1999, which appears on many soy-containing foods, “Diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol that include 25 grams of soy protein a day may reduce the risk of heart disease.” The way things are going, that approval may end up being withdrawn before too long.

All this probably comes as no surprise to anyone who read last week’s Provision on Trojan Foods. Legumes in general, and soy in particular, contain lectins, trypsin inhibitors, lignins, phytates, allergens, and other antinutrients that make them hard to digest. If they are not prepared properly, or if they are consumed excessively, these foods not only fail to provide health benefits; they actually cause health risks.

The reason I call them Trojan Foods, is that the health risks • for all but the most allergic • sneak into our systems, causing incremental damage which builds up slowly over time. By the time we find ourselves suffering from a chronic disease, we may not even be aware that our diets are contributing to our problems. We may just figure, “We’ll that’s the way it goes. It’s a genetic problem that I’m stuck with for the rest of my life, until it disables or kills me.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can clean up our diets and, in the process, we can save our lives. If that gives me a chance to run another marathon on another day, then I, for one, am going to take the chance.

Soy foods are in a difficult category, because we have to ask not whether or not they are good for us (they’re not, especially in large and frequent amounts). We have to ask whether or not they are better for us than the alternative, which is often conventional, fatty meat mass produced by the same food industry that funded the research which led to the health claims for soy. We’re talking the lesser of two evils here, and it can be hard to choose.

Especially since most of the soy in the USA, and increasingly in the world, is of the genetically-modified variety. The four most common, genetically-modified foods are soy, corn, canola (for canola oil), and cotton (for cottonseed oil). The jury is not still out on many genetic modifications: the US FDA has banned some genetically modified foods from the marketplace, because they cause disease, disability, and/or death. Many genetic modifications have been approved, however, and only time will tell whether they do more harm than good.

One thing is clear: genetically-modified foods wreak havoc with those who are allergenically or genetically sensitive to Trojan Foods. When two or more foods are mixed together to form a new food (Genetically-Modified or GM soy), called by the same name as an old food (soy), who knows how such people will react to eating the new food? That’s especially true for legumes such as soy, with lectins that lead to gut inflammation and permeability. When partially digested G-M food proteins and remnants of resident gut bacteria spill into the bloodstream, they can do a number on health and wellness. Genetically-modified foods truly represent a public health experiment, the results of which will not be know for decades or even centuries.

Still, many people have found at least short-term health benefits by decreasing their consumption of conventional, fatty meats and increasing their consumption of soy. They may be dammed if they do and dammed if they don’t, but the lowering of cholesterol by the reduction of conventional saturated fat is no surprise. These people could have achieved the same result, however, with far fewer health risks, by substituting wild fish and local, pasture-fed, lean meats for their conventional, fatty counterparts. Those really are the protein sources our bodies are best designed to eat and digest.

The key to eating soy and other legumes is to eat them in moderation and, then, only from non-GM, organic sources. Moderation means to not eat them every day and to prepare them properly.

The best way to eat soy foods is to stay with fermented soy foods such as miso, tempeh, and natto. These foods have been predigested by bacteria, making them more digestible and deactivating potentially harmful substances. A good use of tempeh, for example, is to crumble it into lightly-steamed vegetables. This adds both healthy, lean protein and a great taste to the vegetables. We do this a couple times a month in our house.

Nonfermented soy foods include edamame, tofu, soymilk, soy burgers, soy nuts, soy sauce, tamari, soy flour, soy grits, texturized soy protein, and soy protein isolate. These foods are best kept to a minimum; eat them on occasion as treats rather than regularly as daily fare.

Never eat soy or other beans raw; there are too many health hazards, some of which are toxic (the poison ricin, for example, is made from castor beans). Washing, rinsing, and cooking beans provides a measure of protection from their toxins, but it does not eliminate them completely. Their antinutrients and allergens still make their way into our systems, doing whatever they do to our long-term health and wellness.

Do not be confused by the claim that Asian countries have eaten soy for generations, with plenty of health benefits and no sign of health risks. They have not, traditionally, eaten large quantities of soy • let alone soy supplements containing large doses of the isoflavones (phytochemicals with hormonal effects) in soy • and they have eaten more fermented than nonfermented soy foods. It is more likely the fish in their traditional diets, the lack of gluten (from wheat, rye, barley, and oats), as well as the lack of dairy that make them so healthy. As soon as they add the health-risky foods in their diets — as soon as McDonalds and other fast foods make their appearance • their health and wellness plummet.

Perhaps the most serious of concerns involving soy revolves around infant formulas, which are often made from soy as an alternative to dairy. This is another case of trying to figure out the lesser of two evils. Infants are even more susceptible than adults to the antinutrients, allergens, and hormones in soy protein. The perfect food, of course, is human breast milk. When that is not available, I would look for non-soy and non-dairy alternatives. I would also avoid feeding children a diet that is high in soy protein, for the same reasons mentioned above, amplified by their young, developmental stage in life.

In spite of their health risks, I see no reason to completely avoid all soy products along with other beans and legumes. In moderation and with proper preparation, the Optimal Wellness Prototype makes it clear that soy, beans, and other legumes can be part of a healthy diet. Vegetarians have a hard choice; these foods often provide them with essential proteins. But even vegetarians can select the fermented varieties that carry less of the risks and more of the benefits. For the rest of us, we can keep them to a minimum in favor of other, more healthful choices.

Coaching Inquiries: How much soy do you eat on a daily basis? Is it fermented or nonfermented? Is it GM or non-GM soy? How many other beans or legumes do you eat on a daily basis? How could you switch to viewing them as a treat rather than as a staple? What research would you need to do to make the change? Who would you want to talk with in the quest for wellness?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob..

I’m amazed at what I learned reading this most recent Provision on Trojan Foods. I have been following a sort of carbohydrate-and-watching-calories kind of diet, and I was feeling guilty giving up grains. Now I feel blessed. What is your thinking about fruit? Veggies? Atkins? (Ed. Note: I have been addressing these questions in my current series. I would encourage to visit the Provisions archive to read past issues.)

I have really enjoyed your series on nutrition. The point of view from which you speak really makes sense! I bought the Paleo Diet book and have since lost 15 lbs in about 4 weeks. Thanks for that. Please cover the soy issue more thoroughly and completely.

As a public health officer, I have become persuaded that a Paleo diet a good thing. It certainly makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. A big part of my current job is taking a very critical stance toward the industrial era diet. Here’s my problem: The pre-agricultural hominid diet isn’t an option for most people. Like so many good, healthy interventions that we can recommend, in the end only the most advantaged segments of society will benefit. The net result is a widening disparity between the well-off elites and everybody else. Beyond this, I have environmental concerns. The planet can’t support 6 billion people on a Paleo diet. I wish the article had addressed this. Our very enlarged human family depends on mass production of cheap foods for its survival. Yes, we need to make it easier for Americans and others to make relatively good food choices, but bringing back the Neolithic diet seems unrealistic and potentially destructive of already damaged ecosystems. 

You are in the enviable position of advocating what’s best for your select clientele, including diets unsustainable on a mass scale. Perhaps that’s how it should be, and I support that. But from a public health standpoint, taking into account the needs of the entire population, it seems that a more tempered approach is called for. (Ed. Note: You are right that the planet cannot support 7 billion people on a Paleo diet. That’s what really damages the ecosystem: overpopulation that must be fed with extensive reliance on petrochemicals. I will write more on this in future Provisions. Thanks for the thoughtful and thought-provoking reply.) 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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