Category Archives: Nutrition

S’up with Soy?

To soy or not to soy? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer.

To soy or not to soy? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer.

As a trained scientist, I can’t help but get discouraged sometimes at the amount of unsubstantiated or misleading information that exists on the internet. While it can be empowering to have so many sources of information and opinion at our finger tips, it doesn’t change the fact that most of us are by nature very easily swayed by the power of anecdote.

This tendency is taken advantage of by all sorts of interests, not least by the food and health industries. Every day I read conflicting ‘evidence’ about things like grains (they are either the foundation of a healthy diet or the source of all our health ills, depending on who you ask), meat, dairy, GMO’s, and more. Recently, I’ve investigated some of the debate over soy.

Depending on the sources you choose to ‘believe’, soy is either a nutrient dense super-food or a cancer-causing poison–at least, according to the sources that garner the most attention. Just do a Google search for ‘soy health benefits and risks’ and you’ll see what I mean. It can be overwhelming! Like any issue, being an extremist is more likely to get you noticed, for better or for worse. Or get your book published. Or get you your 15 minutes of fame. That’s why I am always skeptical of completely condemning or glorifying any one food source, perspective, or idea.

As a centrist, my ideas probably aren’t that ‘sexy’. However, I think being cautious but open is much preferable to taking someone’s word because they’ve cited a few non peer-reviewed or biased studies. The underlying problem is that most readers have not been trained to differentiate between opinion and fact, or peer-reviewed versus non peer-reviewed scientific research. Even among published scientific studies, if you don’t realize whether a journal is funded (or controlled) by some corporate interest or other, versus being a more independent journal, you fail to understand the underlying biases of a piece of evidence.

peerreview

Many health articles cite faulty science or non-peer reviewed sources that lack substantial scientific evidence to back up their claims.

While some authors and bloggers purposefully deceive their readers, I think that it’s the ones who unwittingly mislead the public that may be even more dangerous to true rational thought. I’ve read many a web page that either references faulty or non peer-reviewed studies, or fails to reference any sources at all for their information. While some viewers point out these flaws, many take these posts at face value or even claim them as gospel.

Regardless of the topic, taking the initiative to do a little of your own research (to the extent possible) and read with a dose of healthy skepticism (which is not the same thing as disbelief) will go a long way toward improving your critical thinking skills, and hopefully encourage writers to do their homework on sourcing accurate information.

S’oy vey!

So, back to soy. Not too long ago, soy was considered the staple of a modern vegan diet. Don’t eat meat? Eat tofu. Don’t drink milk? Drink soy milk. Luckily, these days most of us have a lot more options—ranging from coconut, almond, and hemp milks, to protein sources like mung beans, quinoa, and millet. Still, is soy really so bad a food choice?

In a matter of years, soy went from being touted as a miracle food to being ostracized for its hormone-wrecking, cancer-causing compounds. Are any of these supposed characteristics actually founded in scientific fact? According to Holly Wilson, MD, a doctor who practices a vegan lifestyle, the misinformation regarding soy has resulted in a number of ‘myths’ that have unnecessarily made people fearful of consuming soy products.

To Wilson, soy is a reliable source of a variety of nutrients as well as protein, and has played a healthy role in Asian diets for centuries. She attempts to debunk a number of negative perceptions about soy (with the exception of genetically modified soy, which she says to avoid as a precaution and opt for organic non-GMO instead), claiming that a lot of the ‘research’ comes from one particular organization—the Weston A. Price Foundation—that has a vested interest in protecting the rights of dairy and cattle farmers, who see the rise of soy as a threat to their business. In other words, the science against soy is biased, in Wilson’s opinion.

Her arguments are convincing, and she provides a number of peer-reviewed articles to substantiate her claims, and she writes with a clear, rationale approach. However, it’s very possible she has a personal vendetta against the Weston A. Price Foundation. Maybe the Foundation is actually doing legitimate research in the name of sustainable farming. Maybe the studies cited by Wilson as providing evidence that soy is safe were funded by corporate entities with a vested interested in soy production (which is a massive industry in the U.S.).

Minimally processed soy products such as organic tofu, edamame, miso, and tempeh are likely the healthiest options if you choose to consume soy.

Minimally processed soy products such as organic tofu, edamame, miso, and tempeh are likely the healthiest options if you choose to consume soy.

Ironically enough, when I did a bit more perusing on this topic, I came across a post by Kristen Michaelis on her website called Food Renegade, detailing the dangers of soy. Michaelis is neither vegan nor a doctor, so she approaches this topic from a very different perspective. She advertises a way of eating that condones eating red meat and lots of fresh dairy. Her post is laid out clearly, covering a number of supposed health issues of soy—but surprise surprise, her cited evidence largely comes from one source: the Weston A. Price Foundation.

Are you starting to see how conflicted the ‘evidence’ is out there? Some of Michaelis’s links didn’t work when I tried to follow them, or were not from peer-reviewed papers, which is a bit of a caution sign for me. Still, a lot of her nutrition perspectives on the website hold weight, and I appreciate her support of local, sustainable agriculture. It may very well be true that large amounts of soy (especially GM soy) can cause problems for our bodies—but the same can likely be said for pasteurized dairy, meat, or even a number of fruits and vegetables eating in too large of quantities.

The point of this post is not to demonize one view over another, but rather to argue that we all have biases, and that we must each come to reasonable conclusions based on the information available. I’m also not going to discuss every study ever published for and against soy–there is plenty of that already in existence on the web. It’s easy to get misled by catchy headlines that scare us out of (or into) eating something OR ELSE, but the world generally doesn’t work that way. Both Michaelis and Wilson provide some valid points, but neither can provide the entire perspective.

After doing a lot of research and reading, my tentative conclusion is that moderate amounts of soy will not harm your body (assuming you are not allergic to it), and it may in fact be a valuable source of protein and certain nutrients. However, it should not be a product you rely on as a cure-all. Rotate soy products with other nutrient-rich foods, like coconut milk/oil, legumes, organic whole grains, and more importantly organic fruits and vegetables. I would also suggest opting for the least processed soy products possible, such as miso, tempeh, and tofu, rather than soy-based fake meats and cheeses, which contain a lot of fillers and other ingredients that are probably much worse than soy for our bodies. Most reasonable health practitioners seem to agree that fermented soy products are generally safe to consume, while processed foods such as those containing soy protein isolate are not recommended.

Also, definitely stick with organic soy products because over 90% of conventionally grown soybeans are genetically modified (although most of these are fed to animals, which means if you eat meat you are eating GM soy). Plus, conventionally grown soy, the second largest crop by acreage grown in the U.S. (after corn), requiring the application of millions of tons of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides each year. Much of this soy is converted into cheap oil, diesel fuel, animal feed, or used in processed foods.

Crop dusting a conventional soybean field. Non-organic soybean fields require vast amounts of fertilizers and pesticides that contaminate the surrounding environment (and our bodies).

Crop dusting a conventional soybean field. Non-organic soybean fields require vast amounts of fertilizers and pesticides that contaminate the surrounding environment (and our bodies).

Bottom line: Just as there is no short cut to long-term good health, there is no short cut to educating yourself. Sifting through information and doing background research takes time, but when your health is on the line, I would argue that it’s worth it. That’s just my opinion though—I guess each of you ultimately have to determine that for yourself!

Some of the supposed health benefits and dangers of soy. Bottom line--look for evidence from peer-reviewed scientific studies, and don't believe a website unless it has links to such studies. Organic, fermented soy products are your safest, healthiest options.

Some of the supposed health benefits and dangers of soy. Bottom line–look for evidence from peer-reviewed scientific studies, and don’t believe a website unless it has links to such studies. Organic, fermented soy products are your safest, healthiest options.

Too many sweets for the sweet

A new study links sugar consumption with increased risk of death from heart disease.

A new study links sugar consumption with increased risk of death from heart disease.

You can never have too much of a good thing, right? Except when you can. And when it comes to sugar, too much, however ‘sweet’ it may seem at the time, can literally kill you—this according to a new scientific study linking added sugar intake to higher incidence of cardiovascular disease mortality.

Most people these days are aware of the links between high sugar intake and diabetes, and that added sugar equates to empty calories that lead to weight gain. This recent study, however, found that Americans who consume at least 25% of their daily calories from sugar are almost three times as likely to die of heart disease than those that consumed less than 10%. The study used data collected from over 30,000 adults over 15 years.

25% calories from sugar may sound like a lot—and it is—but a significant number of people consume about this much sugar daily. In fact, 70% of adults monitored in the study consumed over 10% (the World Health Organization’s recommended limit) of calories from sugar daily, increasing their risk of heart disease and other health issues. According to the study’s authors, it didn’t matter what kind of sugar was consumed—be it corn syrup, cane sugar, fruit juice concentrate, etc.—too much is too much.

Just a few of the countless processed foods that contain added sugars.

Just a few of the countless processed foods that contain added sugars.

It’s actually frighteningly easy to over-consume sugar, especially if you eat out frequently or consume a lot of pre-packaged and processed foods (even if they are organic). It’s not just the dubious loads of sugar in sodas and candies that are to blame. Sugar is added to nearly every packaged food, from salad dressings and marinades to breads, yogurt, and soymilk, so it’s easy for those calories to add up without you realizing it.

Sucker Punch to the Food Industry—but will it help?

As more and more research is published about the negative health impacts of added sugar, Michelle Obama is stepping up with her campaign to promote healthier eating. To this end, the Obama administration is proposing a food label overhaul. If they get their way, the food industry would have to update portion sizes on their labels to more realistic portions, increase the font size of total calories, include total grams of added sugar, and change how they represent various vitamins and minerals.

Side by side comparison of current food label with the proposed label changes advocated by Michelle Obama.

Side by side comparison of current food label with the proposed label changes advocated by Michelle Obama.

I believe Michelle Obama’s heart is in the right place, I really do. But the fundamental problem with our food system is NOT food labels. I can’t fathom how increasing the font size of a calorie count is really going to create a shock wave of change in how people eat. Perhaps it’s a start…or maybe just a distraction from the bigger problems we choose to ignore, because they would require much greater effort.

The only way to cultivate a healthier lifestyle is to know and care about the actual ingredients in your food, not just how many calories are in a serving size. I have never counted calories in my life—I feel like it’s a waste of my time. As long as I’m consuming mainly whole, nutritious foods, I know I am eating healthy. Calorie counts can’t tell you the quality of your food. Not all calories are created equal: 100 calories of Oreos is not the same as 100 calories of almonds or 100 calories of strawberries.

Individuals who don’t have a good grasp on nutrition tend to rely on calorie counts as if it were a religion, and end up making poor health choices as a result. Substituting sugar for artificial sweeteners, for example, may be even more detrimental than the sugar itself.

What we should really be encouraging people to do is buy less processed food in the first place. That means buying the foods that DON’T have labels (or don’t need them), because they don’t have a multitude of ingredients in them. Fresh organic fruits and vegetables. Nuts and legumes. Whole grains. Natural herbs and spices. None of these products have any added sugars, or preservatives, or fillers.

While I think that changing the food label to display an ‘added sugar’ content is a positive move, fear it will just motivate the food industry to get more creative in how they design and market their products. Maybe this is too pessimistic of me. Maybe this will actually force food companies to reduce their reliance on cheap added sugars and create healthier products—even if they are processed. And I definitely have no sympathy for the cost these new policies may incur on the food industry, considering how many billions of dollars they earn at the expense of people’s health and wellbeing each year.

But there are always unintended consequences. In 2006, when the FDA began making food companies list trans fats on their labels, most companies decided to replace trans fats with cheap substitutes. The most commonly used replacement fat is now palm oil, the demand for which is now so high that it is resulting in massive destruction of rainforests worldwide so palm plantations can be planted in their place.

What I do hope for is that at the very least these changes continue to make consumers more aware of what they are purchasing and eating, so that demand continues to increase for healthier, more sustainable choices. Perhaps these small steps forward in food labeling will pave the way to eventually label GMOs in the U.S. (most European countries and Australia already do this) and create more transparency in the long chain from food producer to consumer. That would be “sweet”.