I’m a vegetarian. Thus far, so is my 1-year-old daughter.
Anyway, a big source of protein for her (now that she’s about 70% on solids), is soy. I do have some concerns now though, since I’ve been coming across some literature suggesting that soy could be harmful to babies- particularly baby girls- in their future years. Your thoughts?
You’ve probably been reading about phytoestrogens. Here is a thoughtful article discussing the issues. Mark’s Daily Apple, a primal eating blog that I’ve been enoying lately, gives a nice summary as well. Basically, the plant estrogens in soy mimic estrogens in the body and can contribute to cancer risk and tumors. Studies also show that the phytic acid in soy can inhibit mineral absorption, too.
My issue with soy is not so much the plant estrogens - although they may indeed play a role in our hormonal futures. It’s the processing and prevalence of soy in our diets that is of utmost concern to me.
As this nutritionist’s blog post points out,
we are eating soy products today at levels never before seen in history. We are isolating soy proteins, isoflavones, and other substances found in the bean, adding them to an astoundingly large numbers of manufactured foods. There is soy flour, soy oil, lecithin (extracted from soy oil and used as an emulsifier in high-fat products), soy protein isolates and concentrates, textured vegetable protein (TVP), hydrolyzed vegetable protein (usually made from soy) or unidentified vegetable oils.
Almost all the soy consumed in the US is heavily processed. As a general rule, I recommend against processed foods, as they tend to lose nutritional benefit during the process. When you read about how great soy is for you, it’s usually Asian cultures being referred to. Well, guess what? They’re also eating a lot more fish and seaweed than we are (which counteracts the mineral absorption issues with soy), and the very small amount of soy that they do eat tends to be whole (think edamame) or fermented!
GMO, oh no!
Furthermore, unless you are buying organic soy products, you’re playing roulette with GMOs. This hamster study and this rat study have some freaky implications. The rodents fed GM grains experienced stunted growth, lower birth rates and higher infant mortality, and finally infertility within a few generations.
Even if the genetic modifications aren’t messing with our bodies, the pesticide residues are another big red flag for me. In the US, 85% of soy is genetically altered to be able to survive massive amounts of weed killer. I’m not willing to go so far as to say we need to ban all pesticides and herbicides and force Big Agra to go organic (I don’t believe that’s sustainable). But I do think that the amount of chemical spray on our crops is irresponsible and out of control, thanks largely to the bioengineering of Roundup Ready seed.
Check out the Pesticide Action Network’s database at WhatsOnMyFood.org to see the pesticide levels in soybeans (and lots of other foods). They use “USDA’s Pesticide Data Program (PDP) cross-referenced with toxicology data from EPA and other authoritative listings” to determine pesticide levels on many common foods. Regardless of your agreement with their politics (it sounds like they hope for a government mandated pesticide-free future), their methodology seems sound.
Good sources of vegetarian protein for toddlers
So you’re probably wondering by now, if not soy and definitely not meat (right? no meat?), then what?
First, go read this article of mine and scroll to the end where I overview toddler nutritional needs and show you some awesome online resources for finding nutrient content of foods. It will be helpful, I promise. You might also want to scan Dr. Sears’s Eating Vegetarian article for some reassurance that vegetarian toddlers can be perfectly well-nourished.
If you’re still nursing, remember that in the second year (12-23 months old), 15 ounce of breastmilk provides approximately 43% of daily protein requirements. All the more reason to keep nursing through the picky-eating toddler years!!
Here are a few things that my then-vegetarian toddler enjoyed (she’s an avid meat lover now).
Quorn - an equally over-processed yet soy free fungi-based fake meat; to wean yourself from reliance on soy products.
Quinoa - a fantastic high protein supergrain.
Lentils - puy lentils keep their shape and are great for teeny fingers. Red lentils are my favorite to hide veggies in.
Seeds - pepitas, sunflower seeds, chia seeds (add water to make a gel, then mash with a banana, maple syrup, and cocoa powder for a super healthy “chocolate pudding”)
Local, pasture-raised organic eggs (check your local CraigsList - better quality eggs for cheaper than you can get at the store!)
Whole grains - nut butter spread on whole grain toast with applesauce is still a protein-packed family favorite around here. But think in terms of cous cous, bulgar, basmati, etc. too.
Nut butters (make sure there’s no added oils or sugars; branch out from PB with almond, hazelnut, or macadamia butters. We like sunflower seed butter, too.)
Greek yogurt (organic, of course)