What’s the deal with soy? Does it feminize men? Here’s what I found.
Soy Sorry: An Avocadbro Investigation
SOY SORRY – PART 1: Life before soy (scroll down–this starts below)
Summary: Soy has gotten a ridiculously unfair reputation. It’s time we apologize for that. Here’s why:
1) It’s a myth that soy causes ‘man boobs’ or feminizes men.
In fact, for men who eat a moderate amount of soy, there’s no effect at all. Soy is simply a good, lean source of protein. In some situations, soy may actually block the effects of estrogen in the body, including restricting estrogen’s effects in the chest. Soy may be something men want to seek to out in moderate quantities for those anti-estrogenic effects. Shocking, right?
How does soy do it? The compounds in soy that men fear are called ‘phytoestrogens.’ They are hundreds to thousands of times weaker than the true estrogen that all men naturally make in their bodies. (Yup, all men naturally have true estrogen.) These phytoestrogens don’t act like estrogen. Look at the foods that are commonly recommended to either lower estrogen or raise testosterone–like grapes and cruciferous veggies. The ‘pro-testosterone/anti-estrogen’ compounds in them are none other than phytoestrogens!
2) Mainstream medical sources do not claim that soy causes feminization.
Mainstream medical sources either say exactly that (‘Soy doesn’t cause feminization of men’), or they say something like ‘Soy doesn’t cause man boobs or any feminizing effects, unless you somehow eat absurdly huge amounts, every single day, for a long time.’
So what’s an ‘absurdly huge’ amount of soy? It’s an amount you will never eat, unless you’re either (a) insane, or (b) taking a concentrated phytoestrogen supplement as part of an experiment. According to the medical research, the lowest amount of soy that’s been reported before any feminizing effects occur is TWELVE servings per day. Other studies pin this to even higher figures–as high as THIRTY-SIX SERVINGS OF SOY PER DAY before any feminizing effects occur. Even then it’s not a guarantee that there will be any feminizing effects. In case it’s not clear from the ALL CAPS, eating 12 to 36 servings per day of any one thing is absurd. That would be like eating four (or more) full-size packages of tofu every single day. For months at a time. Every food and drink has an upper dosage limit before you should stop consuming it. Even water. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consume it in normal quantities.
3) If soy doesn’t cause feminization of men, then what does?
The causes of feminization of men has been researched a lot. There are a bunch of studies on things like man boobs, muscle growth, and sperm quality. And there are a lot of studies on what raises estrogen and/or lowers testosterone.
From all this research, these are the biggest causes:
- being overweight (ie, excess body fat);
- taking certain prescription or illegal drugs;
- having certain diseases, like liver cirrhosis and certain cancers;
- and experiencing natural hormonal changes that men have no control over.
4) So, what foods are feminizing?
Keep in mind, nothing compares to the feminization effects of the things already mentioned–drugs, disease, excess body fat, etc. But, some foods have things about them that are troublesome. You may not want to hear this, but a compound found in beer is considered quite estrogenic. It’s called 8-PN, and it’s actually a phytoestrogen. However, 8-PN is unlike the other phytoestrogens that are potentially anti-estrogenic. 8-PN has been described as somewhere between 8 to 100 times as potent as the phytoestrogens in soy. In addition to the 8-PN found in beer, there are other estrogenic compounds that are believed to be feminizing in food that people eat on a regular basis called industrial xenoestrogens. Generally, the largest dietary source of these “industrial xenoestrogens” is animal products. This is because animal fat does such a great job of sopping up these estrogenic pollutants.
Long story short, the fears about feminization have nothing to do with soy.
Now, for the much longer version, with plenty of citations:
SOY SORRY – PART 1: Life before soy
My life before soy: The story of how I discovered soy started when I discovered something crazy about milk.
I used to love milk. I’m talking dairy milk. From cows. I was borderline obsessed with it. Whole milk or 2% milk were my jam for my childhood and teenage years.
Why I put down the dairy milk
Fast forward to me being 20 years old. I was still drinking milk on the regular. One night, I ordered a tall glass of milk to go with my dessert while out to dinner. A fine way to wrap up a nice meal. I happened to be sitting next to a doctor relative. With a milk mustache freshly lining my upper lip, my relative mentioned a study that he had recently come across. The study found a link between drinking milk and acne.
What a buzz kill. Right in the middle of dessert.
(I’m pretty sure this was the study, by the way).
That was a pivotal moment in my life. As a college student trying to look and feel my best, I was self conscious about my occasional acne breakouts. The most frustrating part about my breakouts at that age was that they were seemingly inexplicable. I was supposedly done going through puberty, and I knew all the basics about how to keep skin acne-free: I used the best facial cleaning products; I made sure I only used clean towels and pillowcases; blah blah blah. None of those things completely worked.
Hearing that there could be a possible link between milk and acne — that was jarring. Milk — my favorite drink — might be responsible for the bane of my young adult existence. If you include cheese, yogurt, and ice cream, I had probably been consuming milk in some form at least two or three times a day.
That was the last glass of milk I ever had. Fast forward a couple of months later, I waited for my next breakout.
It didn’t happen.
Farewell to acne
I stopped consuming dairy products, and I stopped getting acne.1 I don’t take this story lightly. I’m critical of quack, pseudo-science claims. But for me, as a study of one, I’m convinced that the link between dairy and acne is real. And that changed how I think about food forever.
Since then, I’ve come across similar stories. Like the actor Woody Harrelson, who says he was on a bus once, and a random girl told him to quit dairy and his acne would go away. So he quit milk. And it did.2
Don’t worry, this story has a connection to soy. Because, on a practical level, I still needed something to pour into my cereal.
Soy milk to the rescue
In 2006 (AKA: the year when I quit dairy), if you looked carefully enough in the milk section of a grocery store, you could sometimes find one alternative: it was called Silk soy milk.
At that point in my life, I had never knowingly eaten a soy product before, with the exception of miso soup once in a blue moon. In fact, the only other soy product I was even aware of was soy sauce — and I barely ever ate it. Suffice it to say, I never consumed anything that had “soy” in the name.
That is, until I took my first sip of soy milk. It became my savior. Sure, it didn’t taste exactly like milk, but it was close enough. And it was delicious and creamy.
Months later, I bravely entered a scary place: a natural food market. I hated the weird smell of it and the fact that I didn’t recognize any of the brands. Until I came across the dairy section and noticed my familiar Silk soy milk. That dairy section was like a bizarro world compared to my usual Publix supermarket. There were non-dairy milks everywhere! Cow’s milk was the minority. It was mind blowing. I tried one called Almond Breeze almond milk. I loved it, and it became my new go-to drink.
Even though I swapped out soy milk for almond milk, soy became an even bigger part of my diet. This timeframe coincided with replacing all animal products in my diet. I was on my way to becoming a vegan. While strolling through that same natural food store, I found that there was an entire section of “meats” that weren’t actually meat. Many meats were made from soybean protein. Before long, I swapped out Oscar Meyer turkey for Tofurky deli slices for my lunchtime sandwiches. I discovered soy hot dogs. I found something called Tofutti cream cheese to spread on my bagels. And I filled my freezer with Tofutti Cuties ice cream sandwiches. I realized my favorite takeout Chinese, Thai and Indian places had tofu options for all of my favorite dishes. Gradually, I had become a vegan. Taste-wise, all of these products hit the spot. What wasn’t there to love?
Dairy-Me vs. Soy-Me
Well, there was one huge difference between Dairy-Me and Soy-Me (other than the fact that Soy-Me stopped getting breakouts). In my 20 years of being Dairy-Me, I can only remember one critical comment of my milk-drinking habit: the doctor family member who told me about the link between dairy and acne.
Compare that to Soy-Me. I was getting critical comments about it all the time! Friends and acquaintances were weirded out by soy milk. “Aren’t you afraid of soy?”
What? Why would I be? “Don’t have too much of that stuff.” Apparently, it had something to do with hormones. My guy friends, in particular, wouldn’t touch it. Something about it was supposedly feminizing.
Is there truth behind any of this?
Speaking from personal experience, replacing dairy and meat with soy products was an awesome decision in my life. Soy products were a great source of lean protein. They didn’t cause acne like milk, cheese, and yogurt did. But when so many people have this same fear, it must have truth. Right?
Living in Soy Fear
I lived with that subconscious fear for a few years. Although I enjoyed my soy meats and soy cheeses and soy yogurts very much, the worries from acquaintances and Internet blog posts continued.
Despite having no personal evidence of soy negatively affecting me, those fears got to me. For about two years in 2012 and 2013. I was a full on vegan, but I avoided soy almost completely. That two-year experiment was a complete waste. I learned that whether I ate soy or didn’t, there was no difference in how I looked or felt. If anything, the only difference in not eating soy was a negative: I had one less lean protein source. So, after that no-soy experiment failed, I started buying and ordering delicious soy foods again.
Meanwhile, the fears about soy seemed to persist. In more recent months, the pejorative term “soy boy” has been used to insult men who are seen as feeble and emasculated. According to Urban Dictionary, a soy boy is a slang term “used to describe males who completely and utterly lack all necessary masculine qualities. This pathetic state is usually achieved by an over-indulgence of emasculating products and/or ideologies.
The origin of the term derives from the negative effects soy consumption has been proven to have on the male physique and libido.“
This definition was written by Dr. Walter Willett, Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition from the Harvard School of Public Health. Just kidding. It was written by a random Internet user called “Sandman_Aktual.” Assuming he’s the same Sandman_Aktual from other websites, I recommend his video game reviews. I don’t recommend his reviews of the research on the effects of soy consumption on men.
Smashing the anti-soy propaganda machine
Based on my personal experience, I felt soy had an unfair, undeserving reputation. I realized that this unfounded fear is keeping people, especially men, from making dietary choices that they might really benefit from. I know what Internet commenters who insult “soy boys” think about soy. But what do actual health and nutrition experts think?
This led me on an adventurous quest through mountains of articles, journals, and studies about soy. In doing this research, I’ve read way more about topics like man boobs and female sex hormones than I ever thought I would.
It turns out, the weight of the evidence is overwhelmingly pro-soy.
What I’ve learned
My confident conclusion from four-plus years of researching this topic is as follows: eating normal amounts of soy does not feminize men.
In fact–and this part is shocking to me–the opposite is potentially true. A normal amount of soy may even be anti-estrogenic, particularly in the chest area. Yet the anti-soy myth regularly creeps its way into conversations about soy and veganism. What’s worse, and equally as shocking, is there are foods, drinks and substances that men regularly consume that have way more evidence linking them to feminization than soy. By the end of this post, you’ll see why people who use “soy boy” as an insult should really use “beer boy” if they want to be more scientifically accurate.
While nothing here should be construed as medical advice, I want to provide a decently comprehensive guide to the topics of soy, man boobs, and feminization. The facts in this post are sourced from legitimate, mainstream medical and nutrition sources. I’ve attempted to cite every claim. Feel free to comment if there’s a question or study that you’ve felt should be addressed, but wasn’t. Researching soy and man boobs isn’t my full time job. It’s a bizarre hobby that I hide from friends. But it’s a job that needs to be done.
So let’s shred this myth with all the other food myths. MSG isn’t bad for you. “Fat free” doesn’t mean good for you. The Great Wall of China is not visible from space. Okay, that last one isn’t food related, but did you once believe that as a fact? Turns out, it’s not true, which should help reinforce the fact that, sometimes, commonly held beliefs are completely wrong.
Let’s end this era of soy slander.
DISCLAIMER: Every claim in this article is cited from a credible, mainstream medical source. If you have any concerns or questions about anything you read in this article, please comment below. I am not a doctor. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
- Full disclosure: A couple years after quitting dairy and being acne-free that entire time, I moved to a new city for a summer. And…my breakouts came back. I thought my dairy/acne discovery was a complete failure. Until I realized I had unknowingly been consuming a ton of dairy all summer! (Proving the connection even more.) That summer, I lived right near an Indian restaurant. And I became addicted to a dish there called chicken tikka masala. I didn’t let a drop of that savory tikka masala sauce go to waste. Until, one day, toward the end of the summer, someone told me that their tikka masala sauce was mostly yogurt, ghee and heavy cream–three products straight from the udders of a cow. Whoops. No wonder my breakouts came back. Fortunately, the breakouts disappeared shortly after I stopped. This footnote is also a good time to mention that Trader Joe’s sells a delicious non-dairy vegan chik’n tikka masala. I highly recommend it.