Soy: it’s a food, not a drug

It's the whole diet, not just soy

The news this week that soy supplements do nothing to alleviate menopause symptoms isn’t surprising.  What would be surprising is if the dedicated Soy True Believers finally get the message.  These people are devoted to the idea that soy is some kind of miracle cure and preventative for all human ills, from cancer to heart disease to hot flashes.  Their dedication to the cause is impressive, and I attribute it in part to the idea that foods that are disagreeable and taste bad must by definition be “healthy”, just as foods we enjoy must be unhealthy.

The idea that soy must suppress menopause symptoms started with the observation that Asian women didn’t report so many unpleasant symptoms.  The logic went like this:

Asian diets include more soy foods.

Therefore soy foods must prevent symptoms.

Never mind that Asian diets are different in countless other ways, such as vastly more omega-3 fatty acids, more vegetables, lower fat in general, far less meat, more fiber, etc.  No, it must be only the soy.  Happily for food companies, it’s easier to create soy-based versions of our usual foods than to convince people to change their entire diet to be more Asian.  The soy food industry exploded: from soy “milk” to soy “yoghurt” to soy burgers to frozen edamame to plain old tofu, there has never been so much soy in the American diet.

Despite all that soy, menopause symptoms continued to plague women.  This study gave women tablets of concentrated soy extracts, which included hormone-like chemicals called isoflavones, for 2 years.  A control group got placebo pills.  After collecting data on bone density and symptoms like hot flashes, the researchers concluded that there was no difference in bone density between the groups, and that the soy group actually complained of more hot flashes, not to mention constipation.  Great.

A better approach to reducing unpleasant menopause symptoms might be to eat like Asians — high fiber, high omega-3, lots of vegetables, modest fat from vegetable oils, much less meat and much less sugar.  If you want to include soy, fine.  Soy protein is actually very high quality for humans.  Just don’t expect it to perform any medical miracles.  It’s a healthy food, not a drug.

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