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Soy: An Unhealthy Health Food?

Is soy providing the health benefits we think it is?

Republished with permission of VeloPress from The Athlete’s Fix, Pip Taylor’s three-step program to help athletes identify their problem foods and find the foods that make them feel and perform best. Get started at


Proponents of soy often point to the famed health of the Japanese people and their typical diet. And it is true that the Japanese have been among the longest living, with some of the lowest rates of cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes. It is also true that for centuries the Japanese diet has contained soy.

So why do I accuse soy of being an unhealthy food? Well, it comes down to food processing and quantity.

Traditional Japanese forms of soy—tofu, tempeh, natto, and even traditional soy sauce—are all fermented. Fermenting changes the structure of the proteins and begins to break down the carbohydrates. In Japan soy is used more as a condiment than as the meal itself, so the total amount of soy consumed as part of a Japanese diet is quite modest.

Americans commonly consume soy very differently from the Japanese, a fact that should bring us to question the promotion in the United States of foods like soy milk as healthier alternatives.

Thanks to subsidized production, soy is an inexpensive filler, and it also works well as a carrier for other flavors. Soybean oil is omnipresent. In fact, if you ate out today, you most likely ate foods cooked in soybean oil. If your food came out of a package, you probably consumed soy.

Approximately 60 percent of all packaged foods contain soy in some form—soybean oil, soybean protein, soy lecithin, textured vegetable protein, or hydrolyzed vegetable protein.

Soy is another food that is high on the allergen list and is also strongly linked to food intolerance. Our overconsumption of soy in these forms has the potential to increase inflammation and may also contribute to rising rates of allergies and intolerances as previously noted.

Unfermented soy is high in FODMAPs and, as mentioned earlier, is a common ingredient in processed and packaged foods—and may be a major contributor to symptoms in some FODMAP-sensitive individuals.

There are other contentious issues linked to soy consumption. Production of soy is notoriously mired in genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Furthermore, soy contains phytoestrogen, chemicals that mimic female sex hormones and have been linked to reproductive and hormonal issues in both men and women. These hormonal effects are irrelevant to food intolerance, but they’re worth noting.

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