It can be tough to maintain a healthy underactive thyroid diet. One of the most frustrating symptoms of having a disease like hypothyroidism is the consistent fatigue and lack of energy you feel. You yearn for the days when you were able to climb mountains, build skyscrapers or even just had enough energy to appreciate a warm, sunny day.
What most people do not know is that medication alone is not enough to help you regain your vigor and zest for life. The secret to overall well-being for you and your thyroid is to change your diet.
The Paleo Diet and Hypothyroidism
Did you know that people with hypothyroidism or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis should exclude foods like milk or whole grain bread from their diet? Although these foods have been touted for their many health benefits in the past, dairy and grains are probably two of the most deleterious foods that someone with hypothyroidism can ingest.
It may sound disheartening to find out that once thought “healthy” foods are unhealthy, but when it comes to an underactive thyroid or an autoimmune condition, research shows that a Paleo-style diet is ideal to improve symptoms. In many cases, it may even put an autoimmune disease into remission. A Paleo diet is free from grains, pulses, legumes, dairy and sugar.
A Polish review of the Paleo diet revealed that the Paleo diet is able to make favorable changes in risk factors such as weight, waist circumference, C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation), glycated hemoglobin or HbA1c (a measure of blood glucose control), blood pressure, glucose tolerance, insulin sensitivity and lipid profiles (like cholesterol). (1) In other words, the Paleo diet can ultimately reduce symptoms of inflammation associated with hypothyroidism.
What Not to Eat for An Underactive Thyroid Diet
To a society that has learned to eat a diet predominantly made of processed, white flour, excluding gluten and grains from the diet sounds like a nightmare. However, there is increasing research that links the consumption of gluten-containing foods to the rising epidemic of autoimmune conditions. Excluding gluten alone could, for many people, improve symptoms of hypothyroidism.
Gluten is responsible for exacerbating a condition called leaky gut or intestinal permeability. This happens in everyone. One of the functions of the intestine is to protect the rest of the body from bacteria or particles that can exist within the gut, but not in the rest of the body. One such particle is gluten.
Gluten opens the “doors” of the intestines so that big protein particles like gliadin (part of the gluten molecule) escape into the blood. (2) When this happens occasionally, the immune system is called upon to clear the gliadin. When it happens over the course of months and years, the immune system dysfunctions and begins to attack healthy tissue. This is ultimately what happens in the case of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Gluten begins a cascade of events that eventually ends up in the demise of the thyroid gland. Therefore, you can appreciate, when gluten is removed, many people with hypothyroidism start to feel better.
Which foods contain gluten?
Foods that contain gluten typically include foods made from wheat, barley and rye. Examples are bread, pasta, biscuits, crackers, cakes (baked goods), croutons and breadsticks. Less obvious sources of gluten (unless marked as gluten-free) are soy sauce, sauces and marinades, ready-made broths, hamburgers made with breadcrumbs, beer and brewer’s yeast.
Also, keep in mind that naturally non-gluten containing grains like rice and oats could be contaminated with gluten from the factory they are packaged in. Watch out for foods that seem gluten-free, but aren’t (like these), Make sure you choose foods that are labeled as gluten-free.
Should all grains be excluded?
In the beginning of a protocol to heal hypothyroid symptoms, it is important to exclude all grains. This includes grains that are considered healthy like oats, quinoa and buckwheat. Also, remember that corn is a grain too! These too can trigger an autoimmune response in sensitive individuals. Once symptoms improve, you can introduce these grains slowly in order to assess if they are tolerated.
Since people with hypothyroidism typically have issues with a leaky gut, excluding dairy in this group of people also helps alleviate symptoms of hypothyroidism. Just like the immune system can attack gluten, casein, one of the proteins found in milk, can also trigger an autoimmune response. Therefore, avoiding dairy is also needed to heal.
Which foods contain dairy?
Dairy is found in foods that have milk as a base. These include milk, cheese, yogurt, butter and whipping and sour cream. Also, check labels for words like lactose, casein, whey and dairy product solids to make sure you are avoiding all things dairy. (3)
Although you may relate soy to health, it should be excluded entirely from the diet. This is so because soy contains isoflavones which have been found to be an endocrine disruptor. What this means is that soy interferes with the delicate balance of hormones within the body. For example, one study found that eating soy products had the same hormone altering results as women given tamoxifen, a drug used in breast cancer. (4) In animal studies, isoflavones have been shown to decrease thyroid function. (5) One small British study found that a modest isoflavone exposure (16mg/day) increased the likelihood of progressing from subclinical to overt hypothyroidism. (6) As you can see, soy products are simply not a good idea for hypothyroidism.
Although it may be obvious to exclude foods like soy milk or soy protein from the diet, what my not be so obvious is where soy is hidden. Soy lecithin is an additive made from soy that is ubiquitous in most processed foods. Therefore, it is very important to avoid processed foods and to always check the label before purchasing or eating a packaged food.
Most people with hypothyroidism have issues with blood glucose balance and metabolic syndrome (a group of metabolic risk factors which include insulin resistance) caused by a diet filled with processed sugar. (7,8) Therefore, it becomes imperative for thyroid patients to balance blood sugar in order to optimize thyroid function.
How to avoid sugar:
The simple answer here is simply to stay away from processed foods. You can also download this free guide to quitting sugar. Without being very strict, the only sugar that you should consume is from fruits. Even so, in order to balance blood sugar, it is important to mix fruits with a protein source (like nuts) to avoid a glucose spike in your blood. Eating in this fashion will help you to balance your blood glucose, lose weight and enhance thyroid function.
5. Goitrogens (Sometimes)
A goitrogen can be defined as a food that blocks the thyroid from working optimally. Goitrogens can be found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, kale, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, collard greens, cabbage and more. But, before you remove these food from your diet completely read on….
Technically, goitrogens fight for the absorption of iodine which is an essential ingredient needed for thyroid hormone formation. This ultimately decreases thyroid function. Most people with hypothyroidism believe that they should avoid these foods, however, there is evidence that shows it is not as clear cut as this.
It is actually ok to eat goitrogenic foods like cruciferous vegetables when you are not deficient in iodine and selenium. (9) If you check for these deficiencies, eating foods that contain goitrogens are actually good for thyroid health. They contain liver detoxifying as well as anti-cancer properties. Therefore, not eating these foods is more risky than including them in your diet.
If you suspect you may be deficient in iodine or selenium or if you aren’t sure, you can make sure to cook goitrogenic foods (steamed broccoli, sauteed kale, etc.) and avod eating them raw. The process of cooking breaks down goitrogens and makes it safe for healthy thyroid function.
Healing Is All About Changing
At the end of the day, making the changes discussed above is quite challenging. However, once your fatigue and mood are lifted, you start to lose weight, your hair stops falling out and your memory improves, sustaining a Paleo diet as a lifestyle will far outweigh your need to eat a pizza. Nutrition is the game-changer for many chronic ailments. When it comes to your thyroid, it is the difference between not having the energy to get out of bed and climbing that mountain!
About Tina Christoudias of My Nutrilosophy
Tina Christoudias is a Harvard-trained registered dietitian with nearly 18 years of experience as a nutrition counselor. Having had personal experience with hypothyroidism, she specializes in diet protocols for Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and hypothyroidism and has recently finished her book, Tired of Feeling Tired, A Nutrition Solution To Treating Hypothyroid Symptoms. She is a strong advocate of the Paleo diet and is co-founder of My Nutrilosophy, a website dedicated to providing the latest science-based nutrition information on topics like hypothyroidism, infertility, cancer, gut health and general wellness.
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