Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Will soy give you strong bones? Spoiler: maybe, if you’re a rat

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Recently there was a lot of criticism of a NYT article about what’s making us fat that was really about what diets might make mice fat. Along the same lines is this research from the University of Missouri that found soy diets might increase women’s bone strength.

The study was not on actual human women though, of course. No, this study’s participants were rats. These rats are apparently a good proxy for human women because they are selectively bred to have low fitness levels and, “average American women are relatively inactive both before, and especially after, menopause”. Essentially, both American women (particularly older women) and these rats are lazy so they’re totally interchangeable when it comes to research. As it’s much harder to get women to adhere to specific diets, and there are far more variable to control for and ethical considerations when it comes to human experiments, it just makes sense to use rats.

So, these rats were divided into two groups: one group was fed a corn-based diet (you know, just like the average post-menopausal American woman eats) and the other was fed a soy-based diet. The results showed that: “the tibia bones of the rats that were fed soy were stronger compared to the rats who were fed the corn-based diet, regardless of ovarian hormone status”. Leading to the conclusion that: “Bottom line, this study showed that women might improve bone strength by adding some soy-based whole foods to their diet”.

To recap: rats were fed either corn-based rat food or soy-based rat food. The rats fed the soy-based rat food were found to have stronger leg bones. Therefore, human women can increase their bone strength by eating more soy.

This is ridiculous. We are not rats. We do not live the same lives as laboratory rats. We are not all sedentary. We do not eat the same food as laboratory rats. It is a huge leap to say that this study in rats shows that consumption of soy by women can lead to stronger bones. We are not eating a homogenous diet of corn-based rat food. The forms of soy we consume as humans are very different from that in rat food (e.g. tofu, soy beverage, tempeh, edamame, TVP).

Perhaps soy-based foods can increase bone strength in humans but this study doesn’t tell us that. This study tells us that this breed of rat has stronger bones when fed a soy-based diet than when fed a corn-based diet.


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Don’t fear the tofu

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Tofu is one of those foods that many people balk at. As a former picky eater, I’m here to tell you: it’s not that bad, it can actually be delicious. There are a few thing that may help you overcome your fear of tofu…

Not all tofu is created equal. Quality varies widely between brands. In my experience, the best tofu is locally produced (Acadiana Soy here in Nova Scotia is my favourite. It’s available at the Halifax Farmer’s market, Local Source Market, and Pete’s Frootique, check their website for other retailers). If you can’t find local tofu, get the stuff from the produce section of the grocery store. Don’t buy the store brand, it’s usually inferior. There is also shelf-stable tofu, I wouldn’t use their firm tofu but the soft-silken tofu works well for desserts and smoothies.

How you prepare your tofu is going to make a huge difference. Ease yourself into it by adding it to other dishes. You can marinate firm tofu and then pan-fry it so that it’s nice and crispy on the outside and add to stir-fries, noodle dishes, and salads. You can also use tofu in desserts. This Heavenly Pie recipe is one of my favourites. At sushi restaurants, try the Agedashi tofu as an appetizer.

Tofu is a great source of protein (150 g of firm tofu has 21 g of protein). Depending on how it’s prepared (check the label) it can also be a good source of calcium (234 mg). Contrary to popular belief, consuming tofu is not dangerous for women who have suffered breast cancer (1). In fact, consuming healthy foods like tofu is likely to be better for breast cancer sufferers in comparison to many foods and beverages that are common in the Western diet.

If you don’t love tofu, that’s fine, everyone has different preferences. Just don’t write it off without trying it in a few different ways.