Monday, May 17, 2010

THE ISSUE | Soy Protein

Photo: Becky Luigart-Stayner; Cooking Light

So many myths and misconceptions surround pure vegetarianism.
I plan to address the most prominent on Kitchen La Bohème, for those who may be just starting to consider incorporating pure vegetarianism into their daily lives. Before blindly diving into a pure veg diet, these myths and misconceptions should all be investigated, and some of the biggest are about protein: how to get enough if you’re not including animal protein in your diet. For most of us, the first answer that comes to mind is soy.

Soy products have swept the nation as a healthy source of protein. This little bean’s many benefits have been played up to the point where it is touted as a sort of revolutionary miracle food. But you may have heard some experts say, “Wait a minute, there are real issues here.” So which is it: is soy good for you or not, and what’s a Pure Veggie to do about it?

Soy's Negative Effects
On the often prevailing negative side of the scale, studies have raised questions over whether soy might increase the risk of breast cancer in some women, affect brain function in men, lead to hidden developmental abnormalities in infants and have a negative affect on thyroid function. Yikes!

The core of most of these concerns rests with compounds called isoflavones in soy. Isoflavones mimic the female hormone estrogen, and some studies in animals show that soy isoflavones can alter sexual development. Keep in mind that these studies, unfortunately, were done on animals, and not humans.

Soy also falls into a category of foods known as goitrogens —foods that promote formation of an enlarged thyroid. Some goitrogens appear to be able to slow thyroid function, and in some cases, trigger thyroid disease.

Soy isn't All Bad
But according to Mark Messina, Ph.D., an expert on soy and nutrition, in 2006 a review of clinical trials concluded there was little evidence that soy foods or isoflavones had an adverse affect on thyroid function in healthy human subjects.

The bottom line is that it’s really inconclusive. No one can say with absolute certainty that soy is tremendously good or bad for you — the debate rages on.

To err on the side of caution, limit soy consumption to organic tofu, tempeh, miso and occasional products such as Tofutti in moderation; and in place of soy milk, use unsweetened almond milk. The wisest choice is to eat soy foods as part of a balanced diet and in the least processed form available. Soy and tofu has been used in this way for many years in Asian cuisine and was never intended to be substituted for dairy products in baking or used as a base for yogurt, etc. And if you want to be a true pure veg foodie, the best culinary results will come from whole, unprocessed foods; not processed meat and dairy substitutes that are often soy-based.

Getting Protein in Vegetarian Meals Without Over-Consuming Soy
It's a common misconception that meatless meals are short on protein. Even without consuming large quantities of soy this couldn't be farther from the truth. There are plenty of ways to get adequate protein in a pure vegetarian diet without over-consuming soy. Quinoa, nuts, lentils, whole wheat, flaxseed, oat bran and beans are all fabulous plant-based proteins, and just including these in your daily meal plan along with vegetables will keep you covered! A big part of switching over to pure vegetarianism is getting acquainted with all the wonderful plant-based proteins available.

{For the Record} I will be addressing other myths and misconceptions surrounding the pure vegetarian diet as a recurring column: The Issue. But please keep in mind that I am not a doctor or nutritionist and much research is still evolving. The information listed here comes from my studies and experience as a pure vegetarian trying to follow the healthiest possible diet. Use these articles as an entry point for further research of your own depending on what your particular concerns are.

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