Soy: Health Marvel or Menace?

As a vegan, I depend quite strongly on the famed soybean. Originally touted as the angel of all foods, a smart choice for any health-savvy person anywhere, this little bean has recently gotten a lot of flack.

Before making the switch from vegetarianism to veganism, I did some research on soy, with the understanding that I’d be depending a lot more on the bean. In short, this is what I found:

  1. Soy cures cancer!
  2. Soy causes cancer!
  3. Soy may cure or cause cancer!

Disgruntled, I did some more research:

  1. Natural hormones in soy good for men and women alike!
  2. Natural hormones in soy cause men’s penises to shrink and women to develop breast cancer!
  3. Natural hormones in soy may or may not cause men to grow breasts and women to have health issues!

At this point I was getting rather frustrated, but I kept pulling forward:

  1. Soybeans will help you live longer like Asian people do!
  2. Soybeans will kill you quickly and Asians don’t even eat soybeans!
  3. Soybeans may help you live past 100 or kill you at 40, and research in inconclusive as to whether Asians really eat that much soy!

Finally, I just threw up my hands, probably made some comment about how everything seems to kill everyone anyways, and decided to make the overnight switch to veganism, using plenty of soy, nonetheless.

I don’t know exactly what is going on with soy, but I can say this: being in Italy has helped me realize just how much I depend upon soy. Doing a speedy overview of my average diet in America, I realized I take in as many as three to four servings A DAY of soy, not even counting foods where soy shows up as a random, sneaky ingredient (as it often does, because it is frequently used as a “filler” in many products). A DAY! I don’t know what the average vegan consumes, but it does seem to me that this number is excessive. It’s funny, because I didn’t even realize just how central soy has become to my meals! Breakfast is cereal (often with soy) with SOYmilk, lunch is perhaps a salad with SOY protein, dinner includes some sort of SOY, and snacks are often rife with SOY yogurt, SOY cheeses, and SOY protein bars. Ack! Not only is my diet unhealthily centered around soy, but I’ve realized that half of the time (if not more), I’m constantly using substitutes for meat, yogurt, cheese, etc.

Because of my dairy-and-meat-centric upbringing, I have consistently sought to continue to include these things in my diet, simply substituting soy for animal protein when needed. Let’s be honest here: a lot of the time I’m just using faux meats, cheeses, and such instead of protein from other sources like ancient grains, nuts, seeds, or legumes.

Why? For one thing, it’s a helluva lot easier. Time to cook a veggie burger? 2 minutes. Time to MAKE a veggie burger at home? More like an hour. Furthermore, I think it’s also a subconscious acceptance thing. With everyone in my family eating meat and dairy and eggs, it’s somewhat comforting to have all these clever mock meats and such to make me feel less isolated and more “part of the group” without having to sacrifice my beliefs.

Does this mean I’m giving up soy for good? Of course not. Arguments against soy are based primarily on the idea that excessive consumption will do you harm.

What I want to do upon my return is revisit my diet, make a few switches here and there (rice to soymilk, etc.) and try to lean more towards a macrobiotic vegan diet (whole beans, nuts, seeds instead of just processed soy). For now I’ll have to wait, but I think it will be quite an adventure!

Below are some articles regarding soy. If you don’t want to read all 3, I totally understand, but I ask you to at least skim the last one by John Robbins (my new hero).

In the meantime, I’d like to hear from you. What have you heard about soy? How much of it do you eat?

Till then!




July 26, 2010. Tags: , , . Uncategorized. 1 comment.

Learning to Cope in Tuscany

Ciao, bellissimi!

Greetings from Italy or, more specifically, Florence! Located in the famed region of Tuscany, this city is one of the most beautiful and culturally rich places in the world. And, more importantly, it has the distinction of being the place where a good portion of my family is based.

I know I’ve been MIA for the past few weeks, and I’m sorry for it! But, however, while here I plan to make up for it by taking advantage of this wonderful opportunity in the world of foodie blogging: a trip to Italy, the cooking capitol of the world!

That said, Italy is food heaven for omnivores. As a vegetarian (as I have been for nearly 5 years) it was sometimes hard enough  to find meatless fare, or get locals – particularly my family – to understand my food choices. But as a vegan it has been, as I anticipated, much more difficult. When I refused meat, my grandmother would simply give me fresh mozzarella or a slab or two of provolone, or make an easy frittata (an Italian omelette) full of different cheeses or veggies. Now, she’s more or less dumbfounded about what to feed me.

To fully understand, it is necessary to give some background first on Italian eating habits:

Breakfast is light, and usually centered around coffee/expresso with or without a bit of steamed milk, and some sort of small pastry or light, biscuity type sweet (often dipped in aforementioned milk or coffee). More recently, American-style breakfast cereals have surfaced, and yogurt and fresh fruit are also sometimes eaten, along with some sort of bread/croissant spread generously with marmalade or the ubiquitous Nutella.

Lunch (or “pranzo”) is eaten later in the day here in italy than in America, where the standard lunch hour is noon. Around 1 or 2 in the afternoon, everyone just shuts down to focus on what is traditionally the biggest meal of the day. The idea is that in the middle of the day, when you need the most energy to keep you going, you have the most food. Pranzo is often an hour-plus-long affair, and is broken up into at least two courses. Traditionally, the grain (in the form of a risotto or, most frequently, pasta) is served first, followed by some form of protein, which is virtually always of animal origin. After the meal, fresh fruit or some form of dessert is served.

Dinner is lighter, and is eaten (when compared to American dinners) quite late, anywhere from 7 to 11 at night. It contains the traditional grain and protein, though it is often in smaller quantities and with lighter ingredients. Often, a little cheese, bread, and some form of vegetable (often drizzeled with olive oil) is eaten before a little bit of fruit, and sometimes even expresso, which Italians will drink at any time of day, it seems. (One coffeeholic cousin even claims black expresso at night helps her get to sleep!)

At least in my extended family, snacks (which I depend upon and treat with the same importance as meals, especially after undergoing recovery) seem to essentially be a rarity. I have never seen a member of my extended family eat between meals, with the exception of maybe one or two instances. This is a bit odd for me, as I dislike going 5+ hours without eating, if only because of my metabolism paranoia. I am much happier with a small, frequent meal approach, rather than a stuff-everything-you-can-down-your-throat-now-because-you-won’t-see-food-for-another-seven-hours kind of approach. But I digress.

The real issue here, besides obnoxiously late dinners and the afore-mentioned eating philosophy, is the issue of veganism. I have gone from being simply a liability to being a flat-out lunatic in their eyes. Not only that, but as you can see from the meal summaries above, Italian cuisine isn’t exactly vegan friendly. Even when you get rid of meat, which is tough, dairy products and eggs pop up everywhere and are an expected part of every meal. It’s been really tough to get in enough protein, because my grandmother doesn’t really get the concept of using legumes or beans or nuts in her cooking to add vegetable protein, because she’s so used to depending on animal products for protein. Luckily, I brought a new can of vegan protein powder and a HUGE bag of almonds from the States, and have been snacking on those to at least get my protein in between meals. That, and I’ve been fortunate enough to find Italian soymilk! Check it out:

Between pistachios, almonds, or other miscellaneous nuts at breakfast and mid-morning, 2 ½ servings soymilk a day, protein powder, and whatever legumes or whole grains I can find I think I’ve at least gotten a fair amount in.

But protein isn’t really the biggest issue here – my family is. Their response has been one of horror and even disgust. They literally think I am insane. What hurts the most is that they assume I have no idea at all what I’m doing.  The countless visits to dieticians, the numerous books and research done on soy and calcium and protein is not at all recognized. In fact, I’ve stopped even trying to defend myself, because whenever I mention something, even if it’s true, they just scoff and dismiss my comments. They tell me that I’m ruining my health, that I will pay for my foolishness in my later years, which seems unfair to me, as I have actually done this for my health, not to destroy it. They tell me that I’m going to die.

Fellow vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores alike – help me get through this. Is it possible that all I’ve read was a fallacy? I respect them and know they are just concerned about me, but I don’t appreciate their stubborn, single-minded approach. Do I not have a right to choose what goes into my own body without having to endure the criticism of others at every meal?

We’ll see where I am in 40 years, it’s true. But for now, I’d like to leave you all with some statistics from John Robbins’ incredible Food Revolution that I found particularly astounding:

Countries with the highest consumption of dairy products: Finland, Sweden, United States, England

Countries with the highest rates of osteoporosis: Finland, Sweden, United States, England

Daily calcium intake for African Americans: more than 1,000 mg

Daily calcium intake for black South Africans: 196 mg

Hip fracture rate for African Americans compared to black South Africans: 9 times greater

Calcium intake in rural China: one-half that of people in the United States

Bone fracture rate in rural China: one-fifth that of people in the United States



July 17, 2010. Tags: , , , , . Uncategorized. 1 comment.