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Is Soy Dangerous for Kids?

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In the second installment of her "Dangerous or Safe?" series, pediatrician Dr. Cara Natterson sets the record straight on soy -- once and for all.
The controversy over soy has been brewing for decades, though it seems to have recently secured a fixed spot on the list of things that concern parents most. The fears about soy largely have to do with naturally occurring chemicals called phytoestrogens. As their name implies, these chemicals are structurally similar to the female sex hormone estrogen, and as a result, many people fear that phytoestrogens behave like estrogen in the human body.

("If I give my son soy products, will he develop breasts?" or "If I give my daughter soy milk, will she get her period at 9?" are not uncommon questions.) Soy comes from soybeans. It has the highest protein content of any vegetable and is the basis of a number of different food products including tofu, soy sauce, and soybean oils. Phytoestrogens are a natural component of soy.

Estrogen is a hormone produced by the human body. Hormones are a type of steroid. Steroids are a class of chemicals that share the same general chemical structure; they can be naturally occurring (like testosterone and cholesterol) or they can be manufactured drugs (like prednisone or anabolic steroids). What steroids share in common is their general chemical backbone; their specific effects on different organs and tissues vary dramatically.

While phytoestrogens look chemically similar to estrogens, they do not behave like them in the body. This is because phytoestrogens are NOT steroids. Therefore, they do not affect organs and tissues in the body (like breast tissue) the same way estrogen does. Furthermore, when a person eats a soy product, it is cleared from the body in a single day. Compare this to synthetic estrogen, which is a true steroid; these chemicals are often stored in the body for years. Even though phytoestrogens look chemically similar to estrogens, they do not behave similarly in the body.

There's a lot of disagreement over whether phytoestrogens are beneficial or dangerous. Some researchers have published studies showing that soy and its components are protective against heart disease and breast cancer, especially when exposure occurs during childhood. Other studies suggest that phytoestrogens have adverse effects on reproductive function, immune function, and the thyroid gland. Some studies even suggest that they can ultimately lead to certain types of cancer.

Find out what else Dr. Cara Natterson has to say, including whether or not you should feed your kids soy.

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Dr. Cara Natterson, author of Your Toddler: Head To Toe, is a pediatrician and mother of 2. To buy a copy of her book, click here. She is currently working on the forthcoming book entitled Dangerous or Safe?

Read more from Dr. Cara.

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16 comments so far | Post a comment now
Amber August 1, 2008, 7:36 PM

My son had a dairy allergy so after I was finished breastfeeding at 15 months he drank soy milk. Now he’s 2 1/2 and I tried his brothers’ Lactaid with him and he no longer has a reaction. Yay. I was never worried about soy giving my son breasts.

(And I’ve never had soy anything growing up and started my period at 8 so it happens, soy or not)

Lisa  August 4, 2008, 7:46 AM

So after reading an entire page about soy and phytoestrogens, the article still did not state whether soy was safe for children.

Hollywoodland August 4, 2008, 12:38 PM

I agree with Lisa. What’s up, Mom’s Logic editors? This ‘article’ teases us about giving the pediatrician’s opinion on whether soy is good or bad for kids then ultimately says well, yes and no with a prompt to read her book. Are you kidding? What a waste of my time.

Florida Girl August 4, 2008, 2:27 PM

My 9 year old son has been on soy products for 2 years and has had no adverse side effects. In fact, I have seen a lot of improvement in his ADHD since the switch. Milk allergies can have a lot of side effects on kids. I have not seen any of those with soy.

Kristin, NY August 4, 2008, 2:29 PM

Yes, I agree an answer would have been nice.
From a parent of a Soy Milk drinking daughter

Melissa key August 4, 2008, 2:59 PM

Actually in the video, if you watched it, Dr. Cara does give the bottom line on soy. It’s fine to drink if you buy organic soy which has not been genetically modified.

Anonymous August 5, 2008, 11:17 PM

I think the people who said they did not see the advice from Dr. Natterson did not read page 2 of the article?

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dayspring May 17, 2011, 10:07 AM

You say the phytoestrogens do not behave like estrogens in our body, but my experience tells me otherwise. After drinking organic chocolate Silk soy milk (8 or more oz.) every day for three weeks, I developed postmenopausal spotting and my breasts became tender. This happened twice, many months apart, perhaps even a year or more. Both times I had a uterine biopsy because of the spotting which showed nothing. My doctor claims there’s not enough estrogen in soy to cause those problems, but I have to disagree. I put 2 and 2 together and have stopped drinking soy milk, and I have not had any further problems.

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