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Impacts Of Soy On Increasing Belly Fat And Inhibiting Lean Muscle Development

Here’s a question I received recently via email regarding the use of soy products.

Q. Shane, a friend of mine recently attended one of your Lean Code Method seminars and informed me that you we’re down on soy products. I’ve been led to believe eating more soy was a “healthy” thing and that it would be a good way to get protein if I were to give up eating animal proteins.

I’ve been considering switching to a vegetarian diet to help me lose weight. I’m 58 years old, female, and have about 30 pounds I’d like to lose. Could you explain to me why you’re not a fan of soy?

A. Thanks for the email. You bring up some good points that I think a lot of people question. There’s no doubt we’ve seen a recent trend towards the promotion of soy by food manufacturers and some health experts.

While it’s often touted as a “health food,” the traditional ways we get soy in Western cultures is anything but healthy in my book. I’ll do my best to explain to you why I’m not a fan of increasing soy in your diet.

For starters let me reiterate something I’m always preaching on my blog…that your hormonal balances most certainly affect your waist line. There’s a lot of hype about soy products being a sound alternative to animal protein.

In all my years of research and hands-on experimentation with clients I just haven’t found this to be true.  One of the biggest downsides of soy, and there’s many in my opinion, has to do with its estrogenic properties. Excess estrogen is going to make you have a harder time losing weight and can impact belly fat.

Some foods affect your hormonal balances more than others. Soy, while it does have one of the highest protein amounts for a plant food, also has some detriments.  One of them is that it promotes the increased storage of estrogen.

When in excess, estrogen promotes the growth of estrogen sensitive tissues, leading to an increased size of adipose tissue in the waist, buttocks, legs, and chest.

Now in all fairness, not all soy products are the same which I’ll cover in more detail as we go along. The traditional ways in which we consume soy products in Western cultures is very different than how it’s prepared in Eastern cultures. Most soy products you’ll pick up at the grocery store are processed. As you’ll learn this is the least desirable way to consume soy.

But wait a minute you might be saying, “tofu is a health food, right?”

Not as much as once thought.  Many types of tofu, especially the “mock meats” are along the same lines as processed deli meats and sausages. Granted, tofu comes from a bean and doesn’t contain antibiotics, added hormones, nitrates, and the other garbage found in a typical hot dog for example. But make no mistake about it, tofu is still a processed food!

However, there is an alternative that I do quasi recommend. It’s called tempeh. The difference here is that tempeh is a fermented soy product which is rich in isoflavones.

Eating whole soybeans, otherwise known as edamame (in the shell version), is another alternative to consider since its unprocessed and a whole food. I’m still more of “edamame in moderation” promoter due to the plant estrogens and phytic acid contained in soybeans.

Processed soy products…

Let’s talk about soy nuts, chips, snacks, veggie burgers, and the like for a second. These foods I most definitely recommend you leave out of your diet. Just because natural soybeans have some health promoting properites doesn’t mean it will carry over into a processed food. The processing destroys valuable nutrients and enzymes, making these products a negative food.

The same thing can be said for soy milk. Ditch it. Try almond milk instead if you’re lactose intolerant or just have to have some milk. Soy milk contains a high amount of phytic acid which inhibits the absorption of nutrients. It’s also high in sugar and plant estrogens. Soy milk along with other processed soy products are among the least desirable forms to consume.

Soy products and the connection to pesticides and genetically modified foods…

Soybeans grown in the US are often done so with the use of heavy pesticides.  It’s very difficult these days to get soy that hasn’t been genetically modified to be more resistant to the heavier pesticide use.

Soy has one of the HIGHEST percentages of contamination by pesticides of any of our foods. I don’t think I need to expand all that much on the downsides of consuming foods that are genetically modified and/or contain high levels of pesticide contamination.

What about soy being a staple in Asian diets?

This is a bit of a misconception as well. Soy is really not as much of a staple food as you’d think. Plus the soy products that are used for consumption are frequently fermented. This is totally different than that soy “veggie burger” like we talked about earlier.

One of the main reasons the Chinese ferment their soy products is they’ve long understood that unfermented soy contains natural toxins. These include enzyme inhibitors that block the action of trypsin and other enzymes vital for protein digestion. The enzyme inhibitors found in unfermented soy are not completely deactivated during ordinary cooking.

They can produce gastrointestinal distress and reduce amino acid uptake. While I don’t have research on humans, there have been documented animal studies showing that diets high in trypsin inhibitors cause enlargement and pathological conditions with the pancreas, including cancer.

Soybeans and phytates

You may have heard me talk about phytates and lectins before in my posts or videos on grain consumption. One of the downsides of soybeans is that they contain some of the highest phytate concentrations of any legume or grain.

As a refresher, phytates can act as an allergen causing gastrointestinal inflammation and irritation. Once again the impact will vary from person to person on how well they can tolerate excess grains and legumes.

The thing is the phytates in soy are highly resistant to the normal “phytate reducing” techniques such as long, slow cooking, which works with some grains. The ONLY way to reduce phytate concentrations in soybeans is through a long period of fermentation.

In all fairness for the defense of soy…

While I don’t advocate a lot of soy in the diet, there can certainly be a place for edamame and some of the fermented products like tempeh, miso, etc. I’ve also seen some impressive results with soy based protein drink diets like the Almased diet (albeit over the short-term). The Almased shakes seem to work well in some instances where traditional whey protein shake diets don’t fare so well. That’s another subject for another day, but in all fairness I had to disclose it.

I think a lot of this comes down to the type of soy that’s consumed, how much, and how often.

The bottom line on soy…

Let’s just say I’ve seen more middle age adult vegetarians struggle with losing belly than those who consume animal proteins. This isn’t an argument against vegetarians, it’s just what I’ve experienced with over 20 years consulting with clients.

Deciding to become a vegetarian is a personal choice that each individual has to make on their own, for their own reasons. I will say however that it’s NOT the optimal diet for a middle age adult looking to lose weight. I can argue that point all day long.

Do you have to completely remove soy from your diet? No, I wouldn’t go that far. Certainly there’s a place for some soy like I mentioned in moderation. This is a far cry however from relying on soy products to meet protein needs like some vegetarians do.

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As a recap here’s why I’m particularly down on a LOT of soy in the diet…

- estrogenic properties of soy leading to an increase in estrogen sensitive tissue

- high levels of phytates contained in soy

- presence of enzyme inhibitors and “anti-nutrients” in unfermented soy products

- reduced nutrient assimilation when consuming processed soy products

- growth inhibitors in soy including decreased amino acid uptake…this means a harder time gaining lean muscle.

- high levels of pesticide contamination in soybeans with Western farming techniques

- high degree of genetic modification in soybeans with Western farming techniques

With all that being said, I think everyone is better off consuming soy in moderation or leaving it out of the diet completely. Men should really look to minimize consumption due to the estrogenic properties.

Women will fare differently but I’ve found younger women tend to do much better with soy than middle age women. I know there was a study back in 2008 linking soy to decreased belly fat in postmenopausal women, but I’ve not seen it in the real world.

The one group that should definitely not consume a lot of soy is children. Their neurological and endocrine systems are not developed enough to handle the potential negative impacts of soy. This is a whole discussion in itself I’ll leave for another day.

I know this has been a long-winded response to your question, but I hope it’s helped to clarify my position and give you some food for thought.

Shane Doll is a certified Charleston personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts. With a staff of over 10 certified fitness professionals, Shaping Concepts provides fitness consulting in Charleston with a specialty on weight loss and body transformation. See our success stories from numerous Lowcountry residents then sign up for a no-obligations consultation today.

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Category: Nutrition.