Men’s Health magazine, which once suggested male readers should avoid soy, has now come out with an article touting the benefits of soy consumption. Well, it’s about time.
While it is fair to say that no single article, be it intended for health professionals or the lay public, is responsible for the myth that soy causes male feminization, a 2009 article in Men’s Health warrants being singled out.1 The title alone reveals the hyperbolic tone of the article: “Is this the most dangerous food for men?” And the article itself includes this text: “But there may be a hidden dark side to soy, one that has the power to undermine everything it means to be male.”
Much of the article focused on a case-report published in 2008 that described an older man who developed feminizing effects, including gynecomastia, allegedly as a result of his soy consumption.2 The article also cited a small pilot epidemiologic study published in 2008 that found soy intake was associated with lower sperm counts among men attending an infertility clinic.3
While this very long article did briefly mention that the male in question consumed 3 quarts of soymilk per day, it failed to mention that 12 cups of soymilk is a ridiculous amount of soy to consume, and that it is about 9 times more soy than older Japanese men (following a traditional diet) typically consume.4 Furthermore, it’s pretty obvious given the number of calories the soymilk would have provided, that soy consumption occurred in the context of a completely unbalanced and likely nutrient deficient diet. Instead of focusing on the excessive amount of soy consumed, the article discussed the feminizing effects as if they would occur in response to more sensible and modest amounts of soy. And therefore, it appeared as though soy represents a threat to men who even infrequently consumed soy.
The article was so biased against soy, for the first and only time I actually spoke with an editor of the magazine to complain. After butting heads for a few minutes, he told me, in effect: “We have to come out with articles every month.” The clear meaning was that the pressure to publish attention-grabbing stories causes one to diverge from the science to varying degrees.
Better late than never. Fast forward 9 years to an article in Men’s Health (https://www.menshealth.com/nutrition/soy-milk-best-non-dairy-milk) published earlier this year in which the benefits of soymilk were highlighted by citing a peer-reviewed article which concluded that of the many plant milks evaluated, soymilk comes out on top nutritionally, as it comes closest to matching the nutrient content of cow’s milk.5 More importantly, the article in Men’s Health also went on to say that “phytoestrogens (the family of plant-based hormones that isoflavones belong to) have also been linked to a dip in testosterone when you down too much — but before you freak out, know that up to four servings a day isn’t a big deal, Men’s Health nutrition advisor Alan Aragaon, M.S. explained to us previously.” Aragon had made that point in an article in Men’s Health published in December of 2015. (https://www.menshealth.com/nutrition/do-new-milks-deliver)
Once something is ingrained in the public’s mind it is not easily dislodged. The retraction or correction to any story typically gets a lot less coverage and has a lot less impact than the original story. But to be clear, clinical studies show that neither soy nor isoflavones lower levels of testosterone6 or raise estrogen levels7 in men. In some of the studies conducted, the equivalent of as much as six servings of soy per day didn’t result in any hormonal disturbances.
And what about that previously mentioned small study linking soy to lower sperm counts?3 The clinical studies show that isn’t the case.8,9 In fact, even the research group that published those initial findings about lowered sperm counts3 subsequently found that soyfood intake in men was unrelated to clinical outcomes among couples presenting at an infertility clinic.10
Finally, long-term studies show that in response to resistance exercise training such as weight lifting, soy protein promotes muscle mass and strength to a similar extent as whey protein, which is considered to be the gold standard in the weight-lifting community.11,12 When considering all the data, it’s pretty obvious that not only should men not fear consuming soy but they would be wise to consider incorporating soy into their diet as research suggests soy may reduce risk of developing prostate cancer.13
It may be that the damage done to the image of soy by that 2009 article in Men’s Health may never be completely undone.1 But at least Men’s Health is beginning to portray soy in a way that is consistent with the scientific literature.
- Thorton J. Is this the most dangerous food for men? Men’s Health (June). 2009.
- Martinez J, Lewi JE. An unusual case of gynecomastia associated with soy product consumption. Endocr Pract. 2008;14:415-8.
- Chavarro JE, Toth TL, Sadio SM, Hauser R. Soy food and isoflavone intake in relation to semen quality parameters among men from an infertility clinic. Hum Reprod. 2008;23:2584-90.
- Messina M, Nagata C, Wu AH. Estimated Asian adult soy protein and isoflavone intakes. Nutr Cancer. 2006;55:1-12.
- Vanga SK, Raghavan V. How well do plant based alternatives fare nutritionally compared to cow’s milk? Journal of food science and technology. 2018;55:10-20.
- Hamilton-Reeves JM, Vazquez G, Duval SJ, Phipps WR, Kurzer MS, Messina MJ. Clinical studies show no effects of soy protein or isoflavones on reproductive hormones in men: results of a meta-analysis. Fertil Steril. 2010;94:997-1007.
- Messina M. Soybean isoflavone exposure does not have feminizing effects on men: a critical examination of the clinical evidence. Fertil Steril. 2010;93:2095-104.
- Mitchell JH, Cawood E, Kinniburgh D, Provan A, Collins AR, Irvine DS. Effect of a phytoestrogen food supplement on reproductive health in normal males. Clin Sci (Lond). 2001;100:613-8.
- Beaton LK, McVeigh BL, Dillingham BL, Lampe JW, Duncan AM. Soy protein isolates of varying isoflavone content do not adversely affect semen quality in healthy young men. Fertil Steril. 2010;94:1717-22.
- Minguez-Alarcon L, Afeiche MC, Chiu YH, et al. Male soy food intake was not associated with in vitro fertilization outcomes among couples attending a fertility center. Andrology. 2015;3:702-8.
- Candow DG, Burke NC, Smith-Palmer T, Burke DG. Effect of whey and soy protein supplementation combined with resistance training in young adults. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism. 2006;16:233-44.
- Denysschen CA, Burton HW, Horvath PJ, Leddy JJ, Browne RW. Resistance training with soy vs whey protein supplements in hyperlipidemic males. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2009;6:8.
- Applegate CC, Rowles JL, Ranard KM, Jeon S, Erdman JW. Soy consumption and the risk of prostate cancer: An updated systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrients. 2018;10.