Ask An Adult: Is Soya Really Fucking With Our Hormones?
The Debrief: We cut through all the confusion about what we should and shouldn’t be eating
Maybe it's just me, but haven't most of us have learned to switch off when someone blames a food for causing cancer? I've frittered away many an evening hunched over my laptop, frantically Googling everything from 'is it safe to cook with olive oil?' to 'I just ate burned toast am I gonna die?'
You can't blame us for being paranoid, though. We're bombarded with scaremongering BS every day. It's become so frequent and incessant and frankly exhausting, that it's impossible to keep up. What was once touted as a disease-fighting 'superfood' can be knocked off its pedestal months later by a tabloid newspaper, citing 'research' that 'proves' it's going to make you green/obese/dead.
From the moment I read a Daily Mail splash claiming chips cause cancer (but hey, what doesn’t cause cancer according to them), I packed all my worrying in. Not least because I refused to accept my longest running relationship (it's been me and chips for 28 glorious years) might be killing me.
I've always thought soya was a good shout, health and ethics-wise. It's low in saturated fat and can help lower cholesterol, or so Alpro packaging says. And as someone who doesn't want to harm animals or drink dairy milk because the concept that humans would consume something specifically developed to nourish a baby cow is utterly bizarre, I've been blissfully gulping the stuff down for a decade.
Then, Made In Chelsea's Olivia Bentley threw a spanner in the works. 'I've stopped drinking soya because it's full of oestrogen,' she said on the show. 'I'd drink it then I'd cry.' Someone that a) can probably afford a nutritionist and b) looks like health radiates from her every pore must really know her stuff, I thought. Plus, I cry a hell of a lot too. It got me thinking if soya ain't good enough for OB, it might not be good enough for me. Does she know something we don't?
A quick online search lands you in an abyss of articles about the dangers of consuming soya. Within a minute I was freaking my noggin' - soya contains oestrogen and therefore drinking it will 'give you breast cancer', 'make you infertile', 'increase your sex drive', 'stop your periods', 'cause acne and early onset puberty'. Hello paranoia, my old friend.
It's impossible to sort the utterly ridiculous from the legit. Are these claims merely Daily Mail level clickbait nonsense, or are they rooted in science? This is especially important to figure out since according to the Vegan Society, in the past decade there's been a 360 per cent increase in people following a vegan diet.
The organisation's dietician Heather Russell told me: 'Soya contains good quality protein, and calcium-set tofu and calcium-fortified soya alternatives to milk and yoghurt are also valuable plant-based sources of calcium. Research suggests that eating soya as part of a balanced diet does not have negative effects on reproductive health, and it can be safely consumed by people with breast cancer. Furthermore, some studies have shown that soya may help to reduce the severity of hot flushes.'
However, many hormone experts disagree. Sandra Greenback, a Nutritional Therapist and expert in fertility and female health, warns women to think carefully about the way we're consuming soya. She explains that although it's traditionally consumed in Japan, where there are some of the lowest rates of female breast cancer in the world, the way in which it's produced in the UK is totally different. 'In Japan, most products are fermented and are generally good for you as they contain lots of friendly bacteria. Soy in the West is normally unfermented. Soya beans are pressed into milk and soy is added to lots of processed foods,' Sandra says.
Despite conflicting information, there's a consensus that unfermented products like soya milk, butter, yoghurt and most tofu contain isoflavones – a source of phytoestrogen, a human-like hormone. 'This type of oestrogen works like our own and is found in plants,' Sandra explains. 'It sits on the cell oestrogen receptors and acts like a gatekeeper. It will unlock the door if the cell needs more of it, and lock the door if there's too much. It can be beneficial in helping those with oestrogen-related conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or endometriosis.'
Although some studies found soya was great for those going through the menopause as it helped ease hot flushes by balancing out oestrogen levels, Sandra doesn't recommend it for younger women. 'In female children, high soy consumption has been implicated in early puberty and infertility. Unfortunately, you can't really do trials on humans. All the trials for fertility and soy are animal studies, but show that it hampered fertility.' But Sandra explains it's not that simple. 'It depends on the form the soy is in. The science is a bit out when it comes to that.'
In her work as a nutritional therapist, Sandra says she never recommends soya to anyone who's trying to fall pregnant because she believes it does lower fertility in women. And what about breast cancer? 'If you have a cancer that specifically is affected by oestrogen then you have to be really careful,' she says. 'It depends what type of cancer it is and if you have a family history of it.'
Giving blanket recommendations is really difficult, she says as it depends on the person. But in short, she advises any woman in their 20s shouldn't go overboard when consuming soya.
While Sandra says one portion of fermented soya – like natto, soy sauce and some tofu - a day is fine, she adds: 'Don't have soya milk in your coffee or on your cereals every day, unless you have had a genetic DNA test and it's been confirmed more phytoestrogens won't harm you. This is especially important for anyone who plans to have a baby at some point. Most people don't have that data which is why I tell them to be careful. We just don't know enough about soya yet.'
Nicki Williams, founder of Happy Hormones for Life agrees. 'Soy consumption is a very controversial, complex and individual issue. For every paper that states that soy is beneficial, there’s one that says it’s not. Research is mixed on whether phytoestrogens are beneficial or harmful. Too much oestrogenic activity can lead to cancer, while too little can lead to heart disease, bone loss and dementia.'
'Soy is also rich in oxalates and glutamate, which in excess can cause all sorts of health issues. It is also a common allergen and in excess can inhibit your thyroid,' she adds.
With such an epic rise in the number of people following vegan diets, surely more definitive research needs to be done into the effects soya has on our hormones? I, for one, am going to follow Sandra's advice, and opt only for fermented soya products. She also advises switching soya milk for almond or cashew milk, while making sure you get your calcium from other sources as most soya milks are calcium-fortified.
It looks like Olivia Bentley might be onto something.
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