"Is Soy Bad?"
This is still one of the most common questions I hear from my clients. Both men and women have concerns about the phytoestrogens in soy so I wanted to share some of the science and research on the topic, and hopefully help ease some of those concerns.
First it is important to point out –– there is no mammalian estrogen in soy.
The plant-estrogens (phytoestrogens) in soy do not act the same way as mammalian estrogen. This is due to the differences in structure, and the type of estrogen receptors that they prefer to interact with.
There are two types of estrogen receptors in the body, ERalpha and ERbeta. Phytoestrogens from soy prefer to bind to ERbeta receptors which actually help reduce the effects of stronger estrogens in the body, including the estrogen-mimicking chemicals (also known as xenoestrogens) found in plastics, pesticides, personal care products, cleaning products, and cologne to name a few.
To learn more about xenoestrogens it is helpful to watch the documentary The Disappearing Male.
One of the ways that phytoestrogens have this protective effect is by physically blocking the stronger estrogens from binding to the receptors.
Mammalian estrogen and xenoestrogens always have a strong estrogenic effect. In contrast, phytoestrogens can have an weak estrogenic, anti-estrogenic, or neutral effect. Phytoestrogens are therefore classified as SERMS (selective estrogen receptor modulators).
Phytoestrogens also decrease the risk of breast cancer and prostate cancer. We wouldn't see this effect if phytoestrogens acted like mammalian estrogen. When the ERalpha receptors in the breast tissue are activated by regular estrogen it stimulates cell proliferation (i.e. increasing breast cancer risk). When ERbeta receptors in the breast tissue are activated by phytoestrogen it blocks the proliferative effects. This is another mechanism for how phytoestrogens have a protective effect.
It is also interesting to note that Hops, used to make beer, has a different type of phytoestrogen that prefers to bind to the ERalpha receptors. Please take note that there have been hormonal imbalances from a high intake of hops.
This brings us to the hormonal effects of animal products. There is actual estrogen in breast milk from mammals. Dairy is a very hormonal fluid since it is designed to support rapid growth in baby animals. There are also traces of real estrogen in all meat since it is a hormone produced by the animal.
"All foods of animal origin contain estradiol, which is at least 10,000x more potent than the already harmful xenoestrogens found in man-made chemicals." - Nutritionfacts.org
In addition to the naturally present hormones in animal products, the environmental estrogens end up accumulating in animal products because they are fat-soluable. So not only are you getting mammalian estrogen, you also get all those estrogen-mimicking chemicals. Check out this research linking fish intake to lower testosterone levels.
There have been two case studies (1, 2) linking soy intake with negative hormonal outcomes in men but these men were consuming 12+ servings a day. I think consuming anything in that amount would lead to some sort of imbalance. To compare, I would like to see what the effects would have been if these men were drinking that much cows milk.
There are no issues with men consuming an average amount of soy (3-5 servings a week). Even up to 1 serving a day should not impact hormone levels. Generally, I recommend no more than 1 serving every 1-3 days, not because of hormonal issues but to help increase the variety of other plant-foods in the diet. It can be easy for vegans to overly rely on soy products but doing so will cut down on the amounts of other beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds needed for a well-balanced diet.
With all that being said, you can definitely be vegan and not consume soy products if you don't want to, there is just no reason not to occasionally enjoy some as long as you don't have a soy allergy, or a tendency to drink 3 quarts of soy milk a day!
Keep in mind that maintaining a healthy weight, exercising, managing stress, and having a balanced gut microbiome also play important roles in supporting optimal hormone levels.
The other concern with soy is that it is one of the most widespread GMO crops, however, the GMO soy is mostly used to feed farm animals, and if you choose organic soy then it is non-GMO. Also, similar to other beans, soy can be difficult to digest for some people. Choosing fermented (tempeh, miso) and sprouted options will help increase digestibility.
If you are interested in learning more, here are some great resources:
Interested in learning what you can do to support optimal hormone balance?
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Collagen has become quite the buzz word in the last few years, and for good reason. It is one of the most abundant proteins in the body, making up 30-80% of our bones, tendons, ligaments, skin, cartilage, and blood vessels.
However, before you go out and buy one of the many collagen supplements on the market it is important to understand how the body actually absorbs and builds its own collagen.
Collagen is a protein, and like all proteins it is comprised of a string of amino acids. Collagen is the term we use when referring to raw collagen proteins, while gelatin refers to heated collagen, and hydrolyzed collagen refers to collagen that has been heated and broken down into shorter amino acid chains.
Dietary collagen sources include bone broth, gelatin, and hydrolyzed collagen powder - all of these sources are animal-derived. We are often led to believe that the only way to support collagen production in the body is to eat collagen. As you will see below, this is simply not the case.
Like all proteins, when we eat collagen it is digested into its individual amino acids before it can be absorbed by the body. Consuming collagen provides the body with amino acids, the most abundant being glycine, proline, alanine, arginine, and glutamic acid.
When we eat collagen, we don't absorb collagen,
we absorb the amino acids that make up collagen.
There is nothing special or unique about the amino acids provided by collagen. These amino acids are also abundant in a variety of vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, and whole grains.
When these amino acids are supplied by the diet, the body can then make its own collagen, as long as there are also enough antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals in the diet.
For example, one of the first steps in collagen production is the hydroxylation of the amino acids lysine and proline. The enzymes required for this step are dependent on ample vitamin C levels, therefore, without enough dietary vitamin C the body will have a difficult time making collagen regardless of the amount of amino acid building blocks that are consumed.
We can support healthy collagen production by eating enough of the key amino acids, vitamin C, antioxidants, and silica.
Do these amino acids have to come from collagen
supplements or other animal-based products?
No, they absolutely do not, and to give you a few examples I have listed some of the highest sources of the key amino acids below. I have also included some sources of the other nutrients required for collagen production.
As long as you are eating a variety of plant foods there will be no issues consuming enough of these amino acids, or enough protein in general. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. The body needs a full range of amino acids to be able to build all the different types of proteins in the body (hormones, enzymes, and antibodies, as well as structural proteins like muscle, hair, nails, and of course collagen).
Every food has an amino acid profile that shows the ratios of amino acids found in that particular food. By eating a mix of foods, all with different amino acid ratios, we can easily get the full range of these building blocks. It was previously thought that we needed to get the full range in every meal, or at least every day, it is now known that we actually have about 3-5 days to consume all of our amino acids.
Foods that Support Collagen Production:
*Please note that food sources of silica have variable absorption, ranging from 2-50%. Eating a variety of plant foods should supply enough silica, but to really boost collagen production I recommend looking into the different supplements. My favourite is BioSil because the silica is bound to choline which helps with delivery into the cells. There may be others that also have high bioavailability, let me know in the comments which ones you've had success with!
Other collagen-building co-factors: manganese, copper, zinc, vitamin E, sulfur, essential fatty acids, vitamin A, selenium.
The amino acids that make up collagen can easily
be obtained from plant-based sources.
What may be more important than focusing on the amino acid building blocks, is ensuring optimal intake of the co-factors necessary to carry out the steps of collagen production.
Are you a new vegan or interested in eating a more plant-based diet?
Maybe you have tried eating vegan in the past but
ended up with low energy or digestive issues?
Or maybe you are currently vegan but are not experiencing optimal health?
Book your complimentary 15 Min Discovery Call to discuss how Private Nutrition Coaching or a Custom Meal Plan can help you succeed and thrive on a plant-based diet!
When working with my clients, one of the most common challenges we address is how to deal with cravings for processed foods and refined sugars.
Often when we have a craving for a certain food, flavour, or even texture, it is very much linked to our emotional state, stress levels, blood-sugar instability, vitamin/mineral deficiencies, and the balance of our gut microbiome.
Here are two of my favourite go-to strategies for dealing with food cravings:
1. Be Prepared:
I try to always have healthy snacks stocked in my kitchen for times when I get home and am hungry, or times that I have a craving for something that falls into that "20%" category (see Tip #2).
For sweet cravings, I usually have raw vegan brownie bites in my freezer. Raw vegan desserts are made from a variety of whole food ingredients including nuts, seeds, dates, coconut oil, cacao butter, cacao, and fruit - making them high in fibre, antioxidants, healthy fats, and protein.
For salty cravings, I'll have sprouted, flavoured nut/seed mixes, or crackers with cashew cheese. Another go-to are those seasoned seaweed sheets you can get from most grocery stores.
Having balanced meals (in terms of flavours, textures, and nutrients) helps reduce cravings. Balancing our blood sugar levels throughout the day is also helpful, as well as staying hydrated and managing stress.
When we have healthier treats readily available we don't really have to worry about cravings, or view them as something negative. With my clients, we go over what some healthier options are for whatever their favourite treats happen to be - whether that be new options for pre-made snacks, or how to 'healthify' their favourite recipes.
2. Be Gentle with Your Thoughts:
When it comes to the foods I eat I do not strive for perfection or ever feel guilty about what I eat. I encourage my clients to follow the 80/20 Rule. When we focus on eating fresh, vibrant, whole-foods 80% of the time, the remaining 20% can be flexible (especially if you are starting out on a healthier diet journey).
This way it reduces feelings of restriction and deprivation, and helps us not ever feel guilty about a food choice (which could actually be more harmful than the "unhealthy" food we just ate).
The foods that make up that 20% will be different for everyone. For myself these foods are always vegan and free from artificial sugars, colours, and flavours.
Life happens. Traveling, socializing, and stress all influence what we want to eat and when. I just encourage listening to our body and take note of how you feel when you consume certain foods. The more whole-foods we eat the more our tastebuds change overtime, so after awhile many of us won't even crave the same foods we once used to, or we will have found healthier alternatives to the foods we used to crave.
If you feel like you are eating healthy, but still feel like food cravings are controlling your life, feel free to book a complimentary 15 Min Discovery call. Then we can address the root cause of your cravings and set you up with a Custom Meal Plan full of delicious, whole-food recipes!
I am going traveling to South America soon and was wondering if there are any supplements you recommend I bring with me to prevent getting sick from the food or water? I am usually pretty careful when I go but do often get sick for a day or two. Would love to hear about what you take with you when you travel!
That is a great question, and one I get quite often, especially when I am somewhere tropical and the other people I'm with, or other tourists I meet, are getting sick but I am not. It definitely has to do with your individual microbiome, as well as digestive and immune system functioning, but there are a few supplements I take that I think really help with prevention and even if you do pick something up:
1. Activated Charcoal - I will take this as prevention for the first few days and then periodically throughout the trip. It is also great for when you do have symptoms of a food/water-borne illness as it helps rid the body of the pathogenic bacteria more efficiently.
2. Grapefruit Seed Extract - This acts as a natural antimicrobial agent. I add it to the bowl of water that I wash my fruits and vegetables in and also add a few drops to my drinking water occasionally.
3. Probiotics - These are so important! When we have enough good bacteria in our body and we do ingest some pathogenic bacteria, the good will simply outnumber and out-crowd the pathogenic strains. So many factors influence the diversity and quantity of bacteria that live in our intestines so it is very individual, but for the most part we could all use a nice boost of the good bacteria, especially when we travel somewhere new. Make sure to get a shelf-stable probiotic to bring with you, I really like Dr. Ohhira's.
There are numerous probiotic supplements on the market, if you are interested in learning more about what to look for when choosing a probiotic and which ones have the most research to back up their health claims check out this thorough review of over 200 different probiotic supplements from Reviews.com.
Please book a complimentary 15 Min Discovery Call if you would like support with individual health coaching and custom meal plans.
I have been enjoying this simple yet satisfiying smoothie for breakfast and usually after yoga. I consider hemp protein and matcha two of my favourite travel necessities!
My Matcha Life Foodie's Matcha is perfect for adding to smoothies and provides anti-inflammatory and liver supporting benefits, not to mention the calming and energizing effect of the L-Theanine found in high-quality matcha.
Manitoba Harvest Hemp Powder is proving protein, fibre, omega-3 fats, and many more vital nutrients.
Simply blend with a couple of ripe bananas and water, coconut milk, or almond milk.
I always travel with a good book and my favourite brand of probiotics, and this time the two are very much related.
In "Let Them Eat Dirt" by Brett Finlay PhD and Marie-Claire Arrieta PhD, they discuss the important role that microbes play in our lives, especially during those critical first few years of life since this is when we are building the diversity of our gut microbiome - growing our inner garden.
I find this topic fascinating and have written previous articles about using fermented foods, probiotics, not over-sanitizing everything, playing in the dirt, and only using antibiotics if absolutely necessary. I am so grateful for antibiotics, there is no doubt how important they are, but I do feel they may be over-prescribed in certain circumstances.
If you are interested in learning more about the intricate balance of beneficial microbes in our environment and how to live a lifestyle that promotes the diversity of probiotic species in our bodies, then I highly recommend checking out this amazing book!
If you would like some individual guidance for improving your digestive health and energy levels book your complimentary 15Min Discovery Call.
Making your own chocolates from scratch is surprisingly simple, and when you make your own you are in control of the all of the ingredients you use as well as the quality of those ingredients.
Making chocolates is also a great way to start incorporating different superfood powders and herbal extracts so you can easily turn your chocolate treat into a nutrient-dense medicinal food!
Here is one of my favourite chocolate recipes, however, once you try making them yourself you will easily be inspired to start coming up with your own flavour and superfood combinations.
Enjoy ! :)
Orange Coconut Chocolates:
1/4 cup cacao powder
1/2 cup cacao butter (melted)
2-3 tbsp dark maple syrup, coconut syrup, or yacon syrup
1/2 tsp vanilla bean powder (or natural vanilla extract)
3 tbsp shredded coconut (sugar- and preservative-free)
1/2 tsp Simply Organic Orange Oil
Melt cacao butter in the dehydrator or over low heat on the stove-top. In a bowl, add melted cacao butter and stir in remaining ingredients until thoroughly mixed.
Pour chocolate into moulds and set in freezer for 5-10 minutes. Store in the refrigerator or on countertop in airtight container.
Anxiety can occur as an acute episode of highly intense feelings of stress that overwhelm the individual (such as panic attacks), or as more generalized chronic feelings of stress, uneasiness and being wound-up.
Chronic anxiety can often include headaches, chronic fatigue, insomnia, digestive distress, muscle tension, dry mouth, excessive perspiration, increased heart beat, and may cause you to startle easily.
Over time, too much stress and anxiety will age you faster because they put your body into 'emergency mode' - where your energy is diverted away from maintenance and repair and towards physically having to react to the stressful event.
Here are my Top 3 Tips for Reducing Anxiety:
1. Upgrade Your Diet:
Reduce (or avoid completely) your intake of stimulants like caffeine, nicotine, and refined carbohydrates like sugar, baked goods, and white bread. Eat a nutrient-dense whole-food diet in order to balance out blood sugar levels throughout the day and prevent vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Deficiencies of B complex vitamins, iron, taurine, magnesium, and chromium can all lead to increased feelings of anxiety and decreased ability to adapt to stress. Other biochemical imbalances that can lead to anxiety include low histamine/high copper, lactic acid build-up, and undiagnosed food allergies.
2. Use Calming Herbs and Nutrients:
GABA, Passionflower, Magnesium, Kava, and Valerian all promote a calming effect in the body and can be very useful when trying to reduce anxiety. Some of these supplements do interact with medications, and Kava and GABA for example need to be avoided if you drink alcohol. Always check with your health care provider before taking any of these supplements. There are some great combination formulas available that combine many of these herbs and nutrients. Adaptogenic herbs are another great option, especially if you experience a lot of stress.
3. Grow Your Inner Garden:
Balance your gut bacteria with fermented foods, and a wide variety of plant-based whole-foods, as well as a high-quality dairy-free probiotic. We are starting to find out how the balance and types of gut bacteria we have greatly influences our neurotransmitter levels and nutrient absorption.
Read More About the Gut-Brain Connection:
It can be overwhelming to try to jump into this yourself and there are numerous benefits to working one-on-one with a nutritionist, such as individualized recommendations, support, and help with deciphering the confusing and conflicting health information out there.
Book your complimentary 15 Min Discovery Call today to find out how I can best support your health goals.
This TED Talk about stress, biochemistry and work-life balance is one of my favourites. It not only highlights how much pressure we put on ourselves but also clearly explains what happens to our hormones when we are continuously operating in 'fight or flight' mode and how this affects our weight, mood, energy levels, and overall well-being.
I can very much relate to this –– it is very easy to get caught up in day-to-day tasks and forget to dedicate some time to essential rest and relaxation. This is all too common, especially for us entrepreneurs, so this video is a great reminder to take better care of ourselves and learn how to avoid 'burn-out'.
This is extremely important, because if our life is not balanced between work and rest then we won't have the energy to do the things we love.
There is a big price to be paid for constantly running off of adrenaline and cortisol as it leads to hormone imbalances, infertility, lack of quality sleep, low energy, mood imbalances, and impedes healthy weight management (the body doesn't want to burn fat when we are in constant 'fight or flight' mode). It is easy to constantly be working but this is not sustainable or healthy.
This is a topic that my clients often ask me for help with. It is all too common for women entrepreneurs to end up in this unhealthy cycle of adrenal fatigue and then relying on coffee and sugar just to get through the day.
If this sounds like you and you would like to learn about specific foods, herbs, and lifestyle factors to support and balance your stress levels, just click on the link below and book your complimentary 15 Minute Discovery Call.
This month's Q&A comes from my sister Megan Barker from Coaching By Megan, she wanted to interview me about my thoughts on the meal replacement Soylent.
Megan: As a entrepreneur and a business coach, my time and energy are very valuable. I was recently chatting with a friend about this and how some people struggle with maintaining a healthy, balanced diet when they are super busy. My friend then went on to tell me how she started using Soylent as a meal replacement. I had never heard of it before so I had a quick look at the ingredients but didn't think this would be a product you would recommend. What are your thoughts on using Soylent as a meal replacement?
Shawna: This is a very timely topic. Although this product has been out for a few years, there was a recent article in the Globe and Mail about a chef's perspective on the product and the ingredients he would change to improve the flavour. However, for this article we are going to look at the ingredients in terms of nutrition and health. Since I looked into the ingredients when the product first came out, I have been very vocal to my clients and students about why it is important to avoid this product, and then teaching them about healthier alternatives.
Megan: Okay that's what I thought. So what is it about the ingredients that aren't good for us?
Shawna: The main ingredient is soy protein isolate which is very hard to digest (soy should always be sprouted or fermented first in order to fully digest) and because it isn't organic soy that means it is genetically modified and highly contaminated with the herbicide glyphosate - which is classified as a 'probable carcinogen' by the World Health Organization.
Megan: This is very concerning, especially since on the Soylent website they mention that it was formulated by a medical doctor. Why do you think they would be okay with these ingredients?
Shawna: Well many medical doctors, and even dieticians, do not look at the benefits of the whole food or take into account how different foods are digested and what happens after digestion. Throughout my entire 5 years of studying nutrition at UBC this is what I experienced, basically the focus is on the numbers of a handful of nutrients and not the whole food, or how the food is grown and prepared, or digested and absorbed. With food we know for a fact that 'the whole is greater than the sum of its parts'.
Megan: Okay so we covered the first ingredient but there is a whole paragraph of ingredients. What else should we be aware of?
Shawna: The next ingredient is maltodextrin from GMO corn, this ingredient is used as a thickening agent. Basically it is just shorter pieces of starch, which then breaks down into glucose once it is digested. Here the concern is due to the quality of the starting material, that it quickly turns into sugar in the body, and can negatively effect the good gut bacteria.
Megan: So far I am just really confused about how this even got approved as a healthy drink, especially as a meal replacement! Do the other ingredients at least supply some nutrition?
Shawna: Well it's really just more starches, gums, thickeners, and fillers; basically what I call 'non-foods'. Plus canola oil (another GMO ingredient), which promotes inflammation, is contaminated with glyphosate, and contains high levels of damaging free radicals.
Megan: So how did it meet the nutrient requirements to be able to be called a meal replacement?
Shawna: With the addition of synthetic, isolated vitamins and minerals. These cheap forms of vitamins and minerals are not recognized or absorbed by the body very well. In other words they have low bioavailability. A couple years ago I wrote about the importance of food-based nutrients and the negative health effects of certain synthetic, isolated vitamins and minerals used in the supplement industry. Nobody should rely on these synthetic vitamins and minerals for their nutrition. This product contains 26 synthetic vitamins and minerals. This is just a handful of the nutrients we are supposed to get from food and it will never be able to replace the 100's of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and antioxidants that exist in real, whole foods.
Megan: What about the sweeteners and flavours?
Shawna: The flavours are coming from 'natural and artificial flavours' and it contains the artificial sweetener sucralose. Sucralose has been linked to decreased levels of good bacteria in the large intestine. This may not sound like much but it is actually very important because our health is dependant on the health of our gut microbiome.
Megan: So what is your final take-home message.
Shawna: Soylent and other similar 'meal replacement' drinks actually do more harm than good and should be avoided. They promote inflammation, contain GMOs (glyphosate), are hard to digest, cause havoc to the gut microbiome, contain rancid oils, and the synthetic vitamins and minerals are not bioavailable.
Megan: What would be a good alternative for busy entrepreneurs to maintain their health while saving time?
Shawna: Smoothies from whole foods like fruits, vegetables, dark leafy greens, nuts, and seeds are actually really easy to make and taste delicious! If you would like to ensure they contain a full range of vitamins and minerals you can add a whole-food supplement powder like Pranin A-Z. Or for those looking for the same convenience as having an all-in-one product a great option is Garden of Life Raw Meal.
Interested in learning more? Book a complimentary 15 Min Discovery Call with Shawna.
Shawna Barker BSc., RHN is a nutritionist, college instructor, and raw food educator.