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I’ve often been asked about whether soy is good for women with Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS.) It seems the controversy remains strong. Opinions vary about soy, from the ‘it is healthful’ side to the other end of the spectrum. Yes, people have told me sternly, soy is poison for PCOS. When we remove the passion, what is the likely truth? And is there a middle ground? I think so. Let’s take a look at some of the facts around PCOS and soy, so you can make a better-informed choice for yourself.
Soy is produced from soybeans, which are legumes. Soy can come as the natural bean, or in the form of soy protein, soy milk or soy fiber containing the fibrous parts of the beans. These latter three are each a processed form of soybean.
Soy offers a multitude of health benefits for PCOS.
High in protein, it is a low-cost source of amino acids. As women with PCOS need to maintain healthy protein consumption levels to aid craving avoidance and to moderate healthy blood sugar levels, soy is a helpful source. Particularly for vegans, vegetarians and those looking to reduce the inflammatory levels associated with highly processed red meat intake, this bean makes good sense.
Soy also contains polyunsaturated fat, vitamins, and minerals such as vitamin C, folate, thiamine, iron, calcium, and magnesium, which has been shown to be lower in women with PCOS. It also contains antioxidants such as isoflavones, phytic acid, and saponins, which help to address the dangerous higher levels of inflammation associated with PCOS.
The Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) stated, “the addition of soy protein to a diet that is low in saturated fat and cholesterol may also help to reduce the risk of CHD [cardiovascular disease]”. Plus, soy may help to improve bone health, reduce high blood pressure, ease symptoms of both menopause and hormonal imbalance, and boost vitality.
Importantly for PCOS patients, “Consumption of soy protein can favorably affect satiety [a feeling of fullness] and reduce excess body fat in obese… humans. Soy protein ingestion also improves insulin resistance, the hallmark of obesity and PCOS.
With these important reported health benefits, what about the negative soybean controversy?
As with any food, there is the possibility of allergy. This is no different with PCOS and soy. And this specific reaction aside, there are other possible cons, so let’s take a look at these now…
Phytic acid, as mentioned above, can absorb toxic metals. However, this metal-gathering trait of soy also encourages it to hone in on those metals we need for health. Absorption of zinc, iron, calcium, and magnesium can be negatively affected. As magnesium has been previously found to be lower in PCOS patients, and with a deficiency of this important mineral potentially contributing to high blood pressure, constipation, stress, depression and pain, this is an important consideration.
Secondly, PCOS patients are often relatively ‘estrogen dominant’ as many lack regular ovulation and the accompanying rise in progesterone in the second half of their menstrual cycle. One small study showed FSH [follicle stimulating hormone] levels were significantly suppressed by daily ingested soy. Lowered absolute or relative levels of FSH are common in PCOS and can contribute to anovulation and the cysts, or immature follicles, that form part of the Rotterdam criteria for a PCOS diagnosis.
So, with the above pros and cons…
As stated by Jefferson, “For the most part, the studies conducted to date suggest that a diet containing lower levels of soy, e.g. 1-2 servings of soy/d, as part of a well-balanced diet should not pose harmful effects on the function of the ovary as it relates to ovulation.”
There are many beneficial health reasons for women with PCOS to consume soy. I eat soy regularly. A reduction in high blood pressure, better insulin sensitivity, a reduced inflammation level and a lowered risk of breast cancer, just to mention a few pros. As a vegetarian, I also enjoy tofu and the crucial protein it brings me.
For those who choose not to drink dairy – my hand is up! – it is also a source of ‘milk’ for a soulful cup of tea.
However, I have spoken to some women who just don’t feel well when they consume soy. If this is you, opt for other ways to increase the nutrients soy offers. Protein can be found in nuts, seeds, and eggs; magnesium through spinach and almonds; fiber from leafy greens, a variety of vegetables and other legumes.
If you do wish to include soy, how should you do so?
Firstly, enjoy it. There are a multitude of nutrient-rich food options, so be health conscious and aware that if you don’t like one food type, there are others. I start with this because some people just plain don’t like soy. It’s true, I don’t understand this, but there you go!
Secondly, eat it. Rather than consider a supplement, consume soy products. This way you ingest the full array of contained nutrients rather than a single, processed ingredient. It’s wonderful thrown into a stir fry or mixed in a pumpkin and pine nut salad.
Thirdly, include soy no more than once per day as the research indicates it is only with higher intakes where a potential con could rear its ugly head.