Is Soy So Healthy? — Plus Other Queries

(The Washington Post) -

Healthful-eating columnist and dietitian Ellie Krieger answers some questions.

Q: In my quest to eat quickly, especially after a long day, and also steer clear of white starches, I will sometimes opt for food such as California rolls (with brown rice), sweet potato fries or quinoa pasta. Are these substitutions even healthful?

A: Small changes really can add up to make a remarkable difference over time. So opting for brown rice or whole-grain pasta over white is a great idea. But certain foods sound more healthful but actually have a false health halo. Fried sweet potatoes are still fries — probably not substantially more healthful than fried regular potatoes. Similarly, fried “vegetable chips” are not much better than potato chips.

Q: Based on advice from a physician and due to health issues, I’ve been actively reducing the amount of animal protein in my diet. I’ve upped my consumption of plant-, legume- and fish-based proteins as a result, but a friend has said that it wouldn’t hurt to supplement with a plant-based protein powder. I’m not sure whether this is a good idea. Thoughts?

A: You should not need protein powders to get the protein that you need. If you include beans, nuts, seeds, low-fat dairy and/or fish at each meal, you should be fine. Your friend says it “couldn’t hurt,” but while these powders are basically safe, many contain lots of additives and sweeteners, and they can be expensive. Also, a large amount of isolated soy protein has been linked with some negative health effects. I have a bias toward whole foods, which have all the nutrients we need. Stick with those, unless your doctor tells you otherwise.

Q: I’m a middle-aged woman, and I’ve read articles that say soy isn’t as healthful as it is marketed. What are your thoughts? Tempeh seems to be able to take on the flavor of whatever it is cooked with, and has a meaty texture, but I’m just not sure. Are there “guidelines”?

A: The reported issues with soy are linked to excessive consumption of soy protein, so I recommend avoiding concentrated soy protein powders. But there is no reason to avoid soy altogether. Up to two servings a day of traditional soy foods such as edamame, tofu, miso and tempeh is considered safe and healthful.

Q: I received as a gift a three-month CSA Grain Share, where I receive two grain items with each shipment. My new order came recently and contained flaxseed, but I have no idea how to use or prepare it. Do you add flaxseed into other items to boost the nutrition value? Bake with it? Sprout it?

A: Lucky you! Sounds like a fun way to be introduced to some new varieties. As for your flaxseed, it is best to grind it a bit using a coffee grinder or your food processor. Then you can sprinkle it on your morning oatmeal, cold cereal or yogurt bowl, stir it into muesli or add a couple of tablespoons into your waffle, pancake, muffin or quick-bread batter. Store it in the refrigerator, as it is sensitive to light and heat.

Q: My husband is diabetic, and we’re finding that the paleo diet is helping to keep his blood-sugar levels more stable. I’m trying to prepare food on the weekend so there’s less temptation to go out for dinner during the week. Do you have any suggestions for casserole-type dishes? Grain-free, veggie-heavy, with a low to moderate amount of protein works.

A: This is not a casserole, but one dish you might consider is a ratatouille: a stew of tomato, eggplant, zucchini and onion. It is great for making ahead, and you can serve it as a main course with a fried egg or a grilled fish fillet on top.

Q: Any suggestions besides hummus for an easy vegetable sandwich for my work lunch?

A: One easy way to go is to stick with the bean purée concept, but take it in a different flavor direction by using a black bean dip instead and layering it with Southwest-style vegetables such as avocado and jicama.