Thursday, 6 December 2007


“Every autumn, when the wind turns cold and darkness comes early, I am suddenly happy. It's time to start making soup again.” - Leslie Newman

You may have heard a lot about phytoestrogens in the news, on TV, or your reading in newspapers and magazines. Phytoestrogens are natural compounds that are found in plants, which when consumed may act somewhat like oestrogen, the body’s own hormone (found in females in high concentration, and in males in low concentration, in the blood). Foods high in phytoestrogens include soy products (soy milk, tofu, tempeh and soy yoghurt), flaxseed, legumes (lentils, beans, peas, etc) and whole grains. The phytoestrogens in soy foods are also known as isoflavones.

As phytoestrogens have a very similar chemical structure to the body's own oestrogen hormone, phytoestrogens can bind to oestrogen receptors on the surface of body cells. The effects of phytoestrogens on the body are not fully understood, but it is believed that phytoestrogens may act like weak oestrogen in some situations, or also block the actions of oestrogen in other situations.

Phytoestrogens have the ability to interact with the actions of sex hormones (oestrogens and androgens –female and male sex hormones respectively) in the body. Phytoestrogens have become a topic of interest for the possible prevention of hormonal cancers. High levels of sex hormones (oestrogen in women and androgens in men) over a person's lifetime are believed to be associated with an increased risk of hormonal cancers such as breast and prostate cancer.

Lower rates of breast and prostate cancer in some Asian countries, where soy is very common in the diet, have led scientists to investigate if there is a link between eating soy foods and protection against breast and prostate cancer. It is important to remember that people in these countries also differ from Westerners in many other aspects of their diets: For example, they eat more vegetables and fish, and less meat. They may also have different risks for these cancers because of genetic factors. So it is not completely clear whether it is the soy in the diet, or some other factor, that is responsible for the lower rates of cancer in these countries.

Animal and laboratory studies do support the hypothesis that phytoestrogens have a direct anti-cancer effect. Overall in large studies on people it seems like a high consumption of soy foods may lower the risk of breast and prostate cancers, but only a little. There is no association between soy foods and the risk of other types of cancers. More studies are needed to examine if phytoestrogens have a protective effect against breast and prostate cancer. From the current evidence, it is believed that a moderate consumption of soy foods (eg 1-2 serves of soy foods/day) along with an overall healthy eating plan is unlikely to have adverse effects. This is consistent with The Cancer Council's recommendations and dietary guidelines to eat a diet rich in plant foods. There is no evidence supplements that contain high doses of soy or soy isoflavones are effective in preventing cancer, and are therefore not recommended.

At the same time, it is important to mention, that it is not known whether a diet high in phytoestrogens for women who have breast cancer is safe. Tamoxifen is a common treatment for women with oestrogen receptor positive breast cancer. Tamoxifen works by blocking the actions of oestrogen, and therefore stopping or reducing tumour growth. For women with oestrogen receptor positive breast cancer who are taking tamoxifen, it is still unclear whether eating soy foods or taking soy supplements will block or enhance the actions of tamoxifen. The results of scientific studies are contradictory, and unfortunately there are no clinical trials to definitively answer this question. A moderate consumption of soy foods, as part of an overall healthy eating plan, is unlikely to have any harmful effects.

Supplements that contain high doses of soy or soy isoflavones have not been tested for safety in women who have breast cancer or who are taking tamoxifen. The best advice is to eat soy foods in moderation as part of an overall healthy eating pattern, and not to suddenly increase the amount of soy phytoestrogens in the diet. The Cancer Council recommends that women with breast cancer avoid soy and phytoestrogen supplements.

Research is underway looking at the types of eating patterns that are protective for women who have had breast cancer. Evidence is starting to emerge that maintaining a healthy weight by eating a low-fat diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables and being physically active can improve survival and the overall health of breast cancer survivors.


Lentil soup is mentioned in the Bible: In Genesis 25:34, Esau is prepared to give up his birthright for a pot of fragrant red lentil soup being cooked by his brother, Jacob. The ancient Greek dramatist, Aristophanes, mentions lentil soup in his plays and describes it as the "sweetest of delicacies."

• ½ cup of olive oil
• 3 onions
• 4-5 cloves of garlic
• 2 ripe tomatoes
• 500 mL of tomato puree
• 250 mL of V8 juice
• 500 g of lentils
• 2 vegetable stock cubes
• 2 bay leaves
• Pepper, salt, a few leaves of rosemary, touch of oregano, some paprika

Soak the lentils overnight in about 2 litres of water. Drain the next day and reserve the lentils until later – reserve half the water. Heat the oil and add the chopped onion stirring until golden-brown. Add the sliced garlic and the diced peeled tomatoes. Cook for a few minutes and then add the drained lentils. Stir thoroughly in order to coat the lentils with the oil and onion mixture. Add the tomato puree and V8 juice. Heat to boiling point and add the stock cubes, bay leaves and seasonings. Stir for a few minutes until the stock cubes are dissolved. Add some of the reserved water to obtain a thick soup-like consistency. Simmer for about 1.5-2 hours until the lentils are thoroughly cooked, adding water from time to time so that the lentils do not dry out or become too gluggy. Serve very hot with herb foccacia bread and kokkineli wine (Greek dry red wine).

Nice vegetarian dish with lots of phytoestrogens! You never know you may be able to trade someone’s primogeniture with it too!

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