Oh boy, soy!
September 6, 2009 9:51 PM   Subscribe

My vegetarian diet is making me sick. Help!

I'm a 27-year-old female who has been a vegetarian for nearly 14 years. I was overweight when I started the diet and dropped about 40 pounds in 6 months. I've managed to maintain my weight and remain relatively healthy- until recently.

Two years ago, I was diagnosed with anemia and the doctor found that my thyroid was sluggish. I began taking iron pills daily which provided some relief, but with very unwelcome digestive side effects. A year later, my iron levels improved and my thyroid was no longer sluggish, but the doctor wanted me to continue taking iron during my period.

However, during the past 6 months, I began to gain weight. I exercise daily, take vitamins, and consume between 1000-1500 calories daily, so I had no clue why I packed on 15 pounds. After talking with a friend, who was recently diagnosed with hypothyroidism, I began to suspect that my thyroid was failing me again. I was depressed, tired, and bloated-basically I felt as if I had PMS 24/7. But then my friend asked me how much soy was in my diet.

Though I do eat fruits, veggies, and whole grains, the majority of my diet consists of soy products. My friend mentioned that all of this soy consumption could lead to estrogen dominance, which inhibits thyroid functioning. After reviewing all of the symptoms, I realized that I had every single one of them.

Like everyone else, money is incredibly tight at the moment, and I can't afford to pay for lab tests on my hormones and thyroid functioning. I'm obviously going to cut the soy out of my diet, and will probably give up my vegetarian lifestyle, but what else can I do to get my body back in shape? Any advice would be greatly appreciated!
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (30 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You don't mention exercise. Weight control has two aspects: diet and exercise. It sounds like you're doing one - restricting calories - but you don't mention the other. What's your current exercise routine? Is there room to add to it or step it up? How about weight training?

Have you talked with the doctor about your diet? What kind of diet does s/he recommend?

If you lost weight on a vegetarian diet without making any other changes, it wasn't because it was vegetarian, but because it was lower in calories than your previous diet. If you keep your calories in check and get regular vigorous exercise, there's no reason to assume that you will gain weight with a diet that includes red meats.
posted by Miko at 10:01 PM on September 6, 2009

Some people do negatively react to soy, that's for sure. Maybe only start back on fish and chicken. See how you go with that. Red meat would really help with your iron problems, though. (If you're in Australia, so would kangaroo.) I guess you can't rule out certain food allergies, either, even if you've only seemingly developed problems in recent times; it's good that you'll try to knock out the soy. That might be it. Dairy is another common culprit, along with some others.

I used to know someone who swore by coconut oil, when it came to her thyroid issues, but I don't know much of anything beyond that. You might look through some medical journals online to see if there's any mention of coconut oil benefiting patients with thyroid issues; if you can't find anything, I wouldn't necessarily try it, unless you want to give it a good, objective try (as in journal whether it helps you or not, daily). Anything else would be a waste of money, probably.

As for weight gain, are you stressed, in either positive or negative ways? Stress can do all sorts of weird things to the body, including cause weight gain and fatigue, as well as do a number on your immune system. (Boy, do I know all about that.)
posted by metalheart at 10:01 PM on September 6, 2009

Miko, she said she exercised daily. ("I exercise daily, take vitamins, and consume between 1000-1500 calories daily, so I had no clue why I packed on 15 pounds.")
posted by metalheart at 10:01 PM on September 6, 2009

Would you consider adding sustainable fish to your diet? Tinned sardines are cheap, easy to prepare, very rich in iron and protein, and imo, very delicious.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:06 PM on September 6, 2009

I missed that exercise detail, sorry. Can you increase the frequency or intensity of your exercise?
posted by Miko at 10:09 PM on September 6, 2009

Your thyroid really isn't something to mess with--I know you say you can't afford it, but if there is any way for you to get testing, please, please do. The actual pills that you take for it are really cheap.

Make sure you're not pregnant. Sorry if that seems obvious but it happens.
posted by kathrineg at 10:09 PM on September 6, 2009

From Wikipedia's page on so-called "estrogen dominance":

"Estrogen Dominance is a theory about a metabolic state where the level of estrogen outweighs the level of progesterone in the body. This is said to be caused by a decrease in progesterone without a subsequent decrease in estrogen. The theory is popular among natural health practitioners, but is generally not recognized by mainstream medicine." (my bolding)

By all means cut out the soy and see whether that helps you, but it doesn't seem like there's much foundation to this theory.

Also, if your diet has been stable all this time, but the changes are recent, it seems odd to blame your diet. If I noticed this kind of change with no obvious event or change to pin it on, I would... see a doctor.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:10 PM on September 6, 2009 [5 favorites]

Can you just switch from soy to beans+olive oil+nutritional yeast? Beans have iron and protein, olive oil will give you good fats, and nutritional yeast will also do the protein and complex B thing. So, a much better nutritional profile than soy products and healthy. Also, dry beans are super cheap, nutritional yeast is super cheap (in bulk from your local hippy coop), and olive oil is cheap enough if you get it at the right place.

Also, are you actually eating enough? If you exercise daily, how is 1000 calories a day enough to sustain you? I get tired and grumpy if I don't eat enough - are you absolutely sure that's not your problem?

Anyway, you probably need to see a doctor if you can swing it financially at all.
posted by mustcatchmooseandsquirrel at 10:16 PM on September 6, 2009 [5 favorites]

I have always been curious why iron was prescribed specifically for use during menstruation. You'd think it would be more useful taken during the rest of the month. It's not like the body is losing something that was in free circulation immediately prior to its exit.
posted by Sallyfur at 10:32 PM on September 6, 2009

You need to get tested for nutritional deficiencies. Most long-term vegetarians know how to manage their iron levels. But other deficiencies can take years to become symptomatic. I became deficient in B12 after 10 years, for example - I felt tired, run-down and clumsy all the time. I got tested by my GP, had a series of inexpensive B12 shots, and have been well ever since.

Don't diagnose yourself with a thyroid problem based on dodgy medical theories and second-hand advice. See a doctor and get the necessary blood tests, both for thyroid function and major vitamins and mineral levels. It probably won't be as expensive as you think.
posted by embrangled at 10:41 PM on September 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure about the idea of kicking the vegetarian habit. If you lost 40 pounds when you went on the diet, it doesn't sound like you're going to lose weight when you get off of it. If you don't feel comfortable eating so much soy anymore (and it does sound excessive), there are so many other things you could substitute it with besides meat. Beans as mentioned above, eggs, low-fat cheeses, seitan, quorn and nuts (nut roast, yum!), for example. But you probably know that better than I do as you've been veggie for longer.

Honestly, it sounds like it's probably your thyroid and you should scrape up the money to test for it. Here's a home test kit for $49 - can you swing that?
posted by hazyjane at 10:50 PM on September 6, 2009

Why are you eating so many soy products? Vegetarians don't need soy for the protein, we get tonnes of protein in a varied vegetarian diet (varied is the key!). I use soy milk in my coffee and cereal in the morning and that is it. (if you are super sensitive to soy milk you can try rice milk or almond milk.)

I have been a vegetarian for 5 years and rarely eat tofu. The other fake soy meats are pretty gross and highly processed so I don't eat those either. It sounds like you just need to introduce some new recipes to your diet. Quinoa is a great addition to a veg diet. It's easy to make and it has lots of iron, magnesium, B6, phosphorus and protein and more. There are lots of fantastic veg recipes around that don't rely on soy products. Indian cooking is a great place to start. I also frequently use vegan cookbooks because they don't tend to rely on cheese for flavour, they have lots of herbs and spices and interesting food combinations. Many of these you can find online instead of investing in expensive cookbooks. Good luck!
posted by sadtomato at 10:58 PM on September 6, 2009 [7 favorites]

You say "soy products". Are these the Morningstar faux meat things? Because if they are, you're eating a boatload of MSG soaked in sodium. I lost a lot of hair, gained a lot of weight, and was nearly narcoleptic after meals due to these products. Please try eating something else.
posted by kellyblah at 11:06 PM on September 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

You don't need soy, there's always lentils and brown rice. I'm a vegetarian and I never eat soy.
posted by rainy at 11:32 PM on September 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

One of my friends is a strict vegan and struggles with hyperthyroidism. Her doctor told her to lay off the sea vegetables. It's not a sub for a good doctor, but some wakame and nori can't hurt.
posted by melissam at 11:40 PM on September 6, 2009

There is a very good reason to quit eating so much soy: dementia. Look up the Lon White Hawaiian study. The take away is that regular consumption of such soy products as tofu, in middle age, is associated with dementia.

Now, soy defenders will spring to defend it, but here a few things to bear in mind. The study was actually very well designed. There was a very consistent dose-response effect. No serious confounders have been identified, which would invalidate the study. The arguments against it, based on environmental cross-cultural comparisons don't hold water under careful scrutiny.

Rather than take my word for it - or anybody else's here in the green, or conspiracy websites - examine the study yourself, and possibly consult with a qualified scientist who has studied the issue (and no, a random MD throwing out a random opinion is not helpful). Personally, I do eat tofu and soy products sparingly - 2-3 times a month at most. And no, I'm not a conspiracy buff - I take a very evidence based approach to diet... prove it, with well designed studies, or it's bunk to me. However, I'm just a voice on the internet - please verify all claims personally - there is no substitute for due diligence.

Given the stakes - your brain function in old age - you owe it to yourself to investigate this thoroughly. And make no mistake, this is deadly serious, and can have devastating consequences.

I look to other sources of protein. I don't eat meat, but I'm not a vegetarian, because I do eat fish, sparingly (1 x week), and I eat cheese (mostly fat free) and whey protein (and beans).
posted by VikingSword at 11:51 PM on September 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

Regarding your thyroid - do you consume a lot of sea weed? Watch your iodine intake! Too much iodine can really mess with your thyroid, and there are unbelievable amounts of iodine in sea weed - it's really easy to massively overdose on it.

Also, some vegetarians have an unfortunate belief in the health benefits of "natural" plant based supplements and practices (random example: kombucha tea) which are pushed by commercial "alternative medicine" suppliers. Avoid them. You never know what might be making you sick.
posted by VikingSword at 11:58 PM on September 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

Agreeing with other vegetarians that it's possible to maintain a vegetarian diet without relying heavily on soy products. I was never a huge fan of meat analogs & have found that there are numerous other ways to get an acceptable amount of protein.

As for the potential thyroid issue specifically, I agree with others who've said that you should try to get some bloodwork done ASAP; it could be any number of things, some of which are more easily dealt with than others, many of which may not be diet-related at all.
posted by oh really at 4:52 AM on September 7, 2009

I agree with mustcatchmooseandsquirrel on the calorie issue. You say you exercise daily, while eating only 1000-1500 kcal a day - I'm not an expert, but that sounds quite low. You should try to change that.

You don't say what kind of exercise you do, but I urge you to look into nutrition and exercise. Don't take this stuff lightly, not eating enough while exercising (or in general, for that matter) can have negative long term effects on your body. The iron deficiency might point towards something like that.
posted by Bearded Dave at 7:09 AM on September 7, 2009

Oh, and about the soy - I think you can cut it from your diet, but you have to find some other source of protein. If you are dead-set on not eating meat, looking at Vegan cookbooks or books on a Vegan diet might help you find substitutes. I found that Vegan cookbooks tend to have more information on nutrition than 'normal' vegetarian ones, simply because they have to plan their diet more. For example, Simply Vegan by Debra Wasserman has a lot of nutritional info beside recipes.

I hope you are feeling better soon!
posted by Bearded Dave at 7:15 AM on September 7, 2009

Are you on any other medications, namely birth control? Have you switched/gone off birth control recently? That could also be a culprit.

My mother, who is lactose intolerant, was told to cut back drastically on soy after she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, so that part doesn't come as a surprise to me. But are you even overweight with the fifteen pounds you've gained? It's not unusual for metabolism to slow in the mid-twenties, and, as several other people have said, it doesn't sound like you're eating enough calories at all. I'd cut back on soy and see if you feel better. If not, get yourself to a doctor and see what's really up--that's a much more important part of taking care of your body than simply maintaining your weight.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:44 AM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding the beans AND RICE as above - it's important to get all the amino acids present in both, as they complement each other's set, so that you have a protein-rich meal.
posted by kcm at 8:23 AM on September 7, 2009

Seconding mustcatchmooseandsquirrel and sadtomato. There's no reason giving up soy means you have to go back to eating meat - unless you want to, of course. I'm a vegetarian and I think soy is pretty useless, to be honest. (Not to mention the way it's usually farmed is an environmental disaster - but that's another issue entirely.)

You say that you're vegetarian, rather than vegan - personally, I'd examine your dairy consumption as well as your soy consumption, if hormones like estrogen are the problem. Dairy tends to be loaded with the synthetic hormones that commercially-farmed dairy cows are given (these hormones are present in commercially-farmed meat as well, but not in free-range and organic meat). You may want to consider seeing how you feel after cutting down on dairy for a while, as well as cutting down on soy products. And yes, when you can afford it, see a doctor.
posted by ellehumour at 8:30 AM on September 7, 2009

I have a recommendation on the iron. I dissolve some tablets in an citrus solution and take a few tiny swigs a day. That way I get a regular, low dose intake and it doesn't wreck my digestive track like the mega dose tablets do. The citrus helps encourage the absorption of iron. Or, you can get this premixed IrnBru (Iron Brew) a very popular drink in the UK.
posted by effluvia at 8:59 AM on September 7, 2009

You may want to figure you Basal Metabolic Rate out: try this site. Too few calories in, especially combined with daily exercise and a stereotypically low-protein vegetarian diet (not saying this is your diet, especially with all the soy), is a recipe for shedding muscle mass, fatigue, and a whole host of other things that will just make you feel bad. And paradoxically, sometimes weight gain--too few calories over an extended period can cause your metabolic rate to drop as calorie-burning muscle is used up, and then suddenly your low-calorie diet is too many calories, which then get stored as fat unless you're doing some sort of weight/resistance training to stimulate muscle growth (result: tired and bloated). I'm betting you do a lot of cardio.
posted by Benjy at 9:19 AM on September 7, 2009

It's not really typical to have a diet that is mainly soy. Try to replace some of that soy with beans/rice. Do you eat eggs (you didn't say you're vegan)? If so, that might be a good place to get protein. I would suggest seeing a dietician.
Dairy tends to be loaded with the synthetic hormones
Really, the concern with dairy is not such a strong one anymore. Most dairies in the US, including the "big" companies, have now switched away from artificial growth hormones. You don't need to cut down on dairy unless you're eating too much of it, you can just make sure you're buying products that are from cows that were not treated with hormones.
posted by ishotjr at 9:24 AM on September 7, 2009

I_am_Joes_spleen really has the best advice. The rest is commentary.

Also, if your diet has been stable all this time, but the changes are recent, it seems odd to blame your diet. If I noticed this kind of change with no obvious event or change to pin it on, I would... see a doctor.

We can debate the merits and demerits of soy/vegan/vegetarian/etc. until the cows come home. But *you* OP have been eating this way for years and have felt like this and gained like this only in the last six months.

Nobody on this forum knows what this could mean. Just go to a doctor who can rule out horrible things, which while less likely to happen to exercising vegetarians, can still happen. Don't be a statistic, even if it is a rare one.
posted by xetere at 10:39 AM on September 7, 2009

Your thyroid problems might be entirely unrelated to your diet. You won't know if they are unless you get blood work. Stop messing around and go get the tests. I was diagnosed with Hashimoto's thyroiditis at the age of 19. It's much more common than you'd believe and getting on (the very inexpensive) medication saved my life.
posted by Sara Anne at 11:32 AM on September 7, 2009

People may think of soy as a vegetarian staple since it is frequently used as a meat substitute, and a lot of people eat meat as a staple. I think that's fallacy. I would hold off on adding meat to your diet until you see a doctor; it may not be necessary.

Small, frequent meals are best for weight loss. As a vegetarian, those meals should include spinach whenever possible. You should also be eating quinoa, lentils and nuts. When you're daily calorie allowance is small and doesn't include meat, you need to make sure those calories count nutritionally. Good luck.
posted by Hdog at 1:05 PM on September 7, 2009

Oops, I wanted to stress the "until you see a doctor". Because that would be best.
posted by Hdog at 1:07 PM on September 7, 2009

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