Long story short, no. Soy would be considered a legume, which is not a part of the paleo diet.
However, it’s important to remind ourselves that the paleo diet isn’t just about being “allowed” to eat this and “not allowed” to eat that.
The paleo approach to eating aims to heal your body from the inside out, by eliminating as many toxins from your diet as possible, and by including more nutrient-dense foods which promote a healthy internal and external environment. Toxins include anything that can cause disease or damage tissue within your body. Unfortunately, with modern agriculture, it is getting harder and harder to eliminate these toxins.
A modern diet for a typical American is full of cereal, grains, sugars, omega-6 fats, mostly from industrial seed oils, and processed soy, which this post will address.
In small doses, toxins from these foods don’t affect us that much, but when consumed in large quantities or over an extended period of time, they can cause severe health problems by severely damaging the gut and immune system, promoting disease, and inhibiting your body’s ability to absorb vital minerals and other nutrients.
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Table of Contents
So, again, is soy paleo?
No. But not just because it wasn’t around when cavemen existed. Soy isn’t paleo because it can create a toxic environment in your body when consumed in large quantities.
That said, not all soy is inherently bad and some soy can be very beneficial for you. This post aims to address both the good, bad, and in-between of soy.
What is soy?
The soybean is a slow-digesting carbohydrate that contains fiber, protein, and starch, which can promote healthy bacteria in the gut (that doesn’t sound so bad). However, the manufacturing process removes most of the fiber, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, and minerals (that’s not so good).
When you think of soy, you probably also think of a type of legume from East Asia. There’s a very good chance that you also associate soy with having a healthy body.
After all, Asian cultures have been eating soy products for thousands of years and are often seen as cultures with limited amounts of obesity.
However, the truth is that Asian cultures consume roughly 1.5 to 3 ounces of soy per day (or about 10-20 grams of protein), with most of their soy coming in the form of condiments from unprocessed and fermented sources like tempeh, miso, natto, tamari, and certain soy sauces. Often soy will be consumed in various fish soups or bone broths that are extremely high in vitamins and minerals.
What’s interesting is that for a very long time soy was not considered ok for eating. It was used in crop rotation for nitrogen balance. It wasn’t until fermented products like those mentioned above came about that it was actually consumed.
Since it was introduced to the United States, soy has become a staple of most processed foods. It’s hard to look at a label without seeing the words ‘soy flour’, ‘soy protein isolate’, ‘soy lecithin’, or ‘soybean oil‘.
Due to this change, the soy industry has become an extremely rich and powerful industry. According to the Soy Foods Association of America, between 1996 and 2011, the sales of soy foods increased from $1 billion to $5.2 billion.
“From 1996 to 2011, soyfoods sales have increased from $1 billion to $5.2 billion over 15 years. This increase can be attributed to new soyfoods categories being introduced, soyfoods being repositioned in the market place, and new customers selecting soy for health and philosophical reasons.”
This dramatic growth in sales of soy products is largely due to recent research funded and promoted by the Agricultural Industry which suggests various benefits of soy, naming it a healthy alternative to meat and dairy products.
Soy protein in particular has had a significant impact on the growth and consumption of soy products. Originally, soy protein was a waste product from manufacturing soybean oil.
However, a common theme in American agriculture is to turn waste products into cash cows, literally, as soy protein was used as cattle feed. Then, by adding various flavors, preservatives, sweeteners, emulsifiers, and other nutrients, it was made edible and sold widely.
Benefits of soy
Research has shown that, consumed in small amounts, soy can be beneficial for you. Unfortunately, when most soy advocates preach the benefits of soy, they are lumping processed and unprocessed soy together. Any benefits from soy will be found in organic, unprocessed, and fermented forms.
The soybean is about 48% protein and, according to the PDCAA (Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid), the soy bean is given a high protein quality score, meaning it is complete in the essential amino acids. The soybean is high in phytoestrogens, which may have a positive hormonal impact and help menopausal symptoms, the prostate, lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes.
Again, these benefits are seen when soy is consumed in small quantities from unprocessed and fermented sources such as tempeh, natto, and miso. If you are consuming soy, it should be primarily from those sources mentioned above, in small quantities, and in organic and fermented form.
Dangers of soy
Soy contains a variety of nutrient blockers which inhibit your body’s ability to absorb various nutrients. These nutrients blockers protect the bean from predators and from being eaten (hmmmmmmmm – maybe that should tell us something). These nutrient blockers are also prevalent in grains and dairy products.
Legumes and soy contain phytates which bind up minerals in food, so that the minerals are unavailable for your body to use. Phytates can also cause bloating and gas, as the carbohydrates in them are digested pretty easily by gut bacteria but not by your own body. With all this bloating and gas, there’s inflammation and another reason to eliminate legumes/soy from your diet.
Soy in particular has one of the highest levels of phytates. These phytates can make it extremely difficult for you body to absorb calcium, zinc, and iron, which are all very important for various bodily functions and processes.
Soy milk is extremely high in phytates. Organic tofu contains a relatively moderate amount. Phytates in food is reduced through the fermentation process which is why tempeh is a better alternative for those of you that are trying to follow a vegetarian/paleo approach.
Trypsin inhibits digestion, specifically protein digestion.
Hemagglutinin is a protein that causes red blood cells to lump together. This keeps those cells from properly distributing oxygen around the body.
Phytoestrogen is used as a defense mechanism in soybeans to keep them from being consumed by predators. Phytoestrogen can also be found in tomatoes, green tea, and red wine, and can, in small doses, act as an effective antioxidant. But, when consumed in excess, as is the case in the Standard American Diet, phytoestregens can inhibit muscle gain and impair fat loss.
High consumption of soy phytoestrogens as been linked to:
- Increased risk of breast cancer
- Loss of bone mass
- Decreased sex drive
- Impaired thyroid function
- Increased body fat
- Impaired blood sugar control
Lectins mess with leptin sensitivity and can affect your appetite and energy expenditure.
Goitrogens inhibit the thyroid’s ability to use iodine. In women, who are more likely to suffer from thyroid problems, this can result in a decrease in metabolism, feeling cold all the time, low energy, and feeling weak.
Goitrogens are also found in veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. It is best to consult an endocrinologist if you believe you may have thyroid issues.
The primary reason you may want to avoid soy in the U.S. is that, since 2007, 91% of all soybeans planted have been genetically modified in order to improve crop yields.
GMO foods cause environmental hazards, so if someone tells you they do not eat meat but consume soy instead because it is “environmentally friendlier”, they’re wrong.
Soy crops rob soil of nutrients and are pesticide-laden. Because of Monsanto (the largest producer of soy and GMO foods), local farmers are being sued for cross-pollination by Monsanto’s patented GMO crops. You can read more about GMO foods, risks, and studies here.
For more specific research about the dangers of soy, please visit the Weston Price Foundation.
Where to go from here?
When did nutrition become as polarizing as politics and religion? Wherever you turn, someone is right, another person is wrong, this study says this, and that study refutes it.
The best thing you can do is simply ask, “How’s that working for ya?”
If you’re consuming soy products and are where you want to be body composition-wise and internally (blood work and tests come back positive), you feel healthy and energetic everyday, and you have faith that you are not doing any long-term damage to yourself, awesome! However, if you’re just not sure, keep searching, doing your research, and always be asking yourself how your current nutrition plan is working for you.
Are you getting what you want out of soy? Are you seeing results physically, mentally, and even spiritually?
Nutrition should not be about fad diets, quick fixes, and ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ attitudes.
Why are you eating the way that you’re eating and have you looked into alternatives?
This site is called the Ultimate Paleo Guide because it favors a paleo approach to eating. Sometimes I question the use of the name ‘paleo’. When I think about it, to me, paleo means eating more real food. Real food has one ingredient, whatever the heck that food is, and that’s it.
Today do both myself and yourself a favor and avoid foods that come with a label. If you do this, you’ll avoid over-consuming a lot of those soy problems we discussed, by eliminating a bunch of additives such as soy concentrate, textured soy, lecithin, and other additives and preservatives that have been linked to a whole host of health problems.
If you are consuming soy, stick to tempeh, miso, and natto. Avoid soy milk altogether. If you insist on consuming some sort of milk, try unsweetened almond milk, coconut milk (in a can), which provides you with healthy saturated fats, energy, and brain performance-promoting medium chain tryglycerides such as lauric acid, or raw milk, which contains enzymes that may help promote healthy bacteria growth in the gut, and which is also high in calcium and proteins.
With so much information out there it can be a bit overwhelming but when in doubt JUST EAT MORE REAL FOOD.
How To Know What Is And Isn’t Paleo
Check out Paleo.io, the mobile app that answers the question, “is __ paleo?” Paleo.io comes with the most comprehensive paleo diet food list out there, so no matter which food you’re confused about, you’ll always be able to find out whether or not it’s paleo.
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