Soy - The Miracle Food
As with anything controversial, the soy story has two sides. In the 1990s it was the new miracle food and became the protein of choice for people who were looking towards a healthier lifestyle. Suddenly you could find soy in many wonderful forms - soy cheese, soy burgers, soy "ground round" - along with soy drinks and yogurt. Today soy is included in many food items as part of the production process and continues to hold a strong place in the North American diet.
The Debate Rages
What is also happening today is a hot debate between nutrition experts on both sides of the soy question regarding the role of soy in breast cancer. The primary question is: Does soy prevent breast cancer or does it promote it? The secondary question asks if soy affects different people in different ways. As is also common in such health related debates, the jury is still out on both sides of the issue. However, there is more clarity and information available for women to make informed decisions about their use of soy products and to become better educated about the potential concerns of usage as well.
What Are Phytoestrogens?
Phytoestrogens are powerful disease fighting elements found in soybeans and foods which are produced from soybeans. The specific phytoestrogens found in soy foods are isoflavones, which act like the human hormone estrogen but are weaker in strength. Isoflavones are the cause of concern when it comes to women with breast cancer or those at risk for the disease.
The Double-Edged Sword of Estrogen
Human estrogen is a double-edged sword, having both beneficial and detrimental effects in a woman's body. Estrogen is a vital element for women, protecting the bones and heart and it is also important for childbearing. This same estrogen may raise the risk of breast and uterine cancers in women who are exposed to high levels of estrogen over long periods of time. There are specific cells in the breast and uterus which are extremely sensitive to the estrogen receptors which interact with it. When the cells are stimulated they multiply, thus increasing the risk of tumors.
The Experts Weigh In
Much of what has been written about the value of soy products is based upon information focusing on the Asian phenomena of soy in the diet. Mark Messina, PhD, editor of "The Soy Connection" newsletter and former nutrition researcher at the National Cancer Institute, has studied soy for 12 years. He said, "For all we know, the breast cancer rate in Asian women would be even lower if they didn't eat any soy - we really can't tell from these studies. Until there is a long-term study looking at breast cancer survivors and soy, it's going to be a bit of an unresolved issue."
It seems that exposure to soy products before and during puberty may have the potential of reducing the proliferation of cells in the breast and therefore reduce the risk of tumors, according to Barbour Warren, PhD, research associate at Cornell University's Program on Breast Cancer and Environmental Risks. But, "the exact amount of soy needed to show this effect on breast tissue is not yet clear," he said.
It is worthwhile for a woman to keep herself updated on all of the current information about soy foods in order to make the right decision for her own body.