It's a BEAN, people, not a radioactive isotope! And it's been a staple in the diets of millions of people around the world for millennia. Soy is nutritious: it’s a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids. It’s versatile: it can be eaten whole, immature (as edamame), fermented (into miso, tempeh or natto), brewed (into soy sauce), soaked (into soymilk), curdled the same way cheese is (into tofu), defatted into a meat analogue (textured vegetable protein), and more.
If I were the meat industry, I'd consider soy an existential threat. And lo and behold, the soy paranoia can largely be traced back to one source: the Weston A. Price Foundation, which advocates a diet rich in meat and dairy, and which receives funding from—surprise, surprise—meat and dairy farmers.
Some people are concerned that soy contains phytoestrogens—an unfortunate name that describes health-promoting non-steroidal plant compounds that protect against many cancers, cardiovascular disease, brain function disorders, and osteoporosis. Soy foods aren't even the largest source of phytoestrogens in our diet—that honour actually goes to flax seeds. In fact, phytoestrogens can be found in a whole variety of plant-based foods from rice to coffee to beer. Meanwhile, we are consuming actual estrogen through mammalian milk—cow’s milk (and cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products)—which is a growing public health concern.
As always, I rely on the Dietitians of Canada as a resource for evidence-based, impartial information. They say soy is a good source of protein, healthy fats (including omega-3 fatty acids), calcium, iron, and antioxidants. They also point out that soy has been thoroughly researched and has been shown only to have health benefits.
In sum, not only are soy foods not the devil, but they are incredibly nutritious, versatile, and delicious, and I try to include them in my family's diet every day. You don't need to eat them, but unless you have any specific reason to avoid them, you might want to consider including them, too.
I’d love to transition my kids but they’re picky! What do I do?!
You’ll have to take what I say with a grain of salt because my kids aren’t especially picky eaters, so I might be tone deaf on this subject. But know this: I started learning about raising healthy eaters before my first child was born, and have been applying these principles since they were in utero, so it’s also possible that I’m not dealing with picky eaters because this approach works.
Here’s what worked for me:
children are first exposed to the family’s food flavours in utero and then through breastmilk. I ate Ethiopian, Chinese, Indian, Jamaican, Mexican, and Japanese foods while pregnant and breastfeeding, along with plenty of the standard plant-based cuisine (bowls, of course!) My kids have been exposed to all of these flavours and have a taste for them.
model healthy eating behaviours. Kids are master imitators. Don’t eat unhealthy foods and expect your kids to eat healthfully. If they see you eating vegetables, legumes and whole grains, they’ll see it as normal and be more open to eating that way, too.
put healthy food in front of your kids. Don’t ask them what they want to eat, because the answer probably won’t be “a plate of veggies.” Instead, serve them a colourful variety of plant-based foods when they’re hungry. They’ll eat it if it's the only thing available.
we are responsible for providing a variety of healthy foods. The kids are responsible for deciding whether and how much they’ll eat. Resist the temptation to bribe, force, or cajole them into eating something or to eating more of something. Healthy eating habits includes learning to respond to hunger cues. Sometimes kids go through phases where they seem to exist on air alone; as long as they’re otherwise healthy, don’t panic.
include your children in grocery shopping and meal preparation (and growing food, if possible). Talk to them about the foods you're purchasing ("this lettuce looks crisp and the bottom is nice and white!") and preparing ("let's add some cilantro to these black beans—it will add a fresh, citrusy flavour"). Allow them to participate in a safe and age-appropriate way. Resist the urge to speed them up or prevent them from being messy... I am definitely talking to myself, here :).
I believe it’s our job as parents to teach our kids healthy eating habits. Of course they’d like the salty, fatty food engineered to taste great—but that doesn’t mean we should acquiesce. On the contrary, knowing that our food environment is dominated by unhealthful foods means we need to be even more vigilant in navigating that food environment on behalf of our vulnerable kids. They need us to help them learn how to recognize and enjoy healthy foods and to teach them that unhealthy foods are treats to enjoy in moderation, if at all.
I found two books especially helpful on this topic. In French Kids Eat Everything (And Yours Can Too), author Karen Le Billon details how her family moved from Canada to France and completely changed how they think about and approach eating, cooking, snacking, and food preparation. In France, children are expected to be—and are—adventurous eaters who enjoy vegetables and participate fully in family meals. Schools and culture reinforce families' efforts to ensure children are taught to love and appreciate food. By the end of their stay, Le Billon's own children were cured of their extreme pickiness, thanks to the family applying the principles they'd learned in France. The book is definitely not vegan, but in spite of that, I found the information so fascinating and helpful.
Dr. Joel Fuhrman's Disease-Proof Your Child: Feeding Kids Right is another book not to miss. Most of the book is an overview of research on how a nutrient-dense, plant-based diet is key to best protecting children from infections, illnesses, and allergies; helping children develop cognitively; and minimizing children's risk of developing cancers, autoimmune diseases and other lifestyle illnesses later in life. Later in the book he also provides useful tips for transitioning picky kids from junk food diets to plant-based diets, and provides clinical examples of success stories. He is also a father himself, so he speaks of what he knows. Dr. Fuhrman's firm, encouraging message on the non-negotiability of instilling healthy eating habits in our children has stayed with me.
What supplements did you take while pregnant/breastfeeding? What supplements do your kids take?
I took Rainbow Light's Prenatal One while pregnant and breastfeeding, along with an algae-based DHA/EPA (those are the long chain omega 3 fatty acids) for insurance on top of my daily dose of flax seeds. Pregnant women—vegan or not—are typically advised to take a prenatal vitamin and omega 3 supplement, so this is consistent with medical guidelines. I just got my omega 3s from the same place fish get them: algae.
Now that my kids are nursing less and so not obtaining as much DHA/EPA from my milk, I've also started to give them a plant-based source of these long-chain omega 3 fatty acids, again as insurance. We also consume omega 3 from flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, expeller-pressed canola oil, and soy foods.
Vitamin D is essential to supplement for many of us, certainly those of us living in Canada year-round. Vitamin D is produced in our bodies when a component of the oil in our skin (7-dehydrocholesterol) reacts with UVB (but not UVA) rays from the sun. Once upon a time, our equatorial ancestors had no trouble producing vitamin D from sun exposure. Our more northern ancestors probably would have obtained vitamin D from large quantities of fatty fish, which is impractical and undesirable in modern times. Today, when many of us live in northern regions and spend much of our time indoors and clothed, we simply have to supplement.
Our family takes vitamin D in the winter, when there aren't sufficient UVB rays from the sun hitting Vancouver. In the summer, we don't add a supplement, but we do make sure to get mid-day sun exposure, and we take it easy on soaps too (for many reasons—one being so as not to wash away the oil needed for vitamin D synthesis).
The dairy industry likes to talk about milk as a source of vitamin D, but vitamin D isn't naturally occurring in cow's milk. It's only in there because they add it in. So why swallow a baby calf's hormonal growth fluid when you could just go right to the source, and take your own supplements?
Vitamin B12 is the other supplement we add. It's essential. Vitamin B12 is produced by bacteria and once upon a time, when we lived more closely to the natural world, we would have consumed plenty of this vitamin through soil and even traces of feces. In our modern, sanitized food environment, up to 15 percent of us are deficient in vitamin B12; according to the Institute of Medicine, vitamin B12 must be supplemented not only for vegans, but also for individuals over the age of 50, with pernicious anemia, or with gastrointestinal disorders.
Vitamin B12 and long-chain omega 3s are transmitted through breastmilk. Vitamin D essentially isn't. All breastfed babies in northern locations should be supplemented with vitamin D (unless mom is mega-dosing).
Now that they're older, my children take a chewable multivitamin (which does contain vitamins D and B12) so I don't have to stress about any potential nutritional gaps. Even if they weren't vegan I'd give them a multi because that's just how I roll.