Thyroid Awareness Month: Diet myths & truths
[5 MIN READ]
In this article:
- The thyroid is an important gland that regulates body temperature, metabolism and digestion.
- January is Thyroid Awareness Month – a great time to debunk myths about how nutrition and diet affect thyroid health.
- Different foods impact people’s thyroid health differently. Talk to your doctor about your specific dietary needs.
The thyroid gets blamed a lot. Always cold? It’s probably your thyroid. Tired? Check your thyroid. Gaining weight? It must be your thyroid. Although the thyroid regulates a lot in the body – including temperature, metabolism, and digestion – it gets more negative attention than it deserves.
Your thyroid sits at the front of your neck. It’s an endocrine gland shaped like a butterfly that makes thyroid hormones called triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4). Both hormones are important for body function. When these hormone levels are off, you may have a thyroid condition and need treatment.
It’s true that thyroid conditions are pretty common. According to the American Thyroid Association, 12% of Americans will have a thyroid condition during their lifetime. But there are a lot of myths about what affects the thyroid, such as what you can and cannot eat if you have thyroid disease.
January is Thyroid Awareness Month – a great time to explore myths concerning nutrition, diet, and your thyroid.
Myth: If you’re having issues with weight, you have a thyroid condition
When people have a hard time losing or gaining weight, they often look to the thyroid. And while your thyroid plays a role in your body’s metabolism, there are a lot of factors that go into weight management. There’s a complex relationship between thyroid disease, metabolism and your weight. There are also different thyroid conditions:
- Hypothyroidism is when your body doesn’t make enough thyroid hormones. This condition can lower your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is how many calories you burn when you’re at rest.
- Hyperthyroidism is when the body makes more thyroid hormone than it needs. This can increase your BMR and possibly make it harder to gain weight.
- Hashimoto’s disease is the most common cause of hypothyroidism. It’s an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks the thyroid gland. People with other autoimmune disorders are more likely to develop Hashimoto’s disease.
Fortunately, thyroid medications can help re-balance your thyroid hormone levels. While a thyroid condition can contribute to some minor weight gain or loss, weight changes are impacted by a lot of other factors, including how much sleep you get, the foods you eat, and how much you exercise. So, just because you have a thyroid condition doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have weight issues. And just because you have weight issues, doesn’t mean you have a thyroid condition.
Myth: You can manage a thyroid condition with diet only
Diet and nutrition are powerful ways to support your health. However, there’s no concrete evidence that diet alone can improve a thyroid condition. If you have a thyroid condition, it’s important to get the proper treatment.
There are many approved ways to treat thyroid conditions, including:
- Thyroid medication: Helps balance thyroid hormone levels
- Beta-blockers: Slows heart rate and lessens effects of too much thyroid hormone
- Radioiodine: Destroys the cells that make thyroid hormones
- Surgery: Removes all or part of the thyroid gland
The best advice for thyroid treatment is to talk to your provider, so they can find the right option for you. In general, living a healthy lifestyle is good for you and could help your thyroid. But it’s important to combine your healthy lifestyle with other appropriate treatments.
Myth: More iodine is good for your thyroid
Iodine is an element that does impact your thyroid. The only known function of iodine in the body is to help the thyroid gland make T3 and T4 hormones. And since the body doesn’t produce iodine, it must come from our diet. If we don’t eat enough iodine, we usually don’t make enough thyroid hormone. This can lead to a thyroid condition, such as hypothyroidism.
In the U.S., we usually don’t have to worry about not getting enough iodine – foods like iodized salt, dairy products, and even multivitamins help us get enough from a balanced diet. Iodine deficiency can be a problem in other areas of the world though.
More iodine isn’t always the answer. Studies have found that not getting enough iodine or getting too much iodine is linked to a higher risk of having a thyroid disorder. Too much iodine can also mess with thyroid hormone levels, especially for people who already have a thyroid condition.
If you eat a balanced diet, you should be getting an appropriate amount of iodine. Your provider can usually check your iodine levels with a urine or blood test.
Myth: Foods like soy, gluten, and cruciferous vegetables are bad for your thyroid
The important point to remember about nutrition and diet is that some foods can affect people differently. If you have a thyroid condition, talk to your provider about what’s best for your diet. A few foods get a lot of attention when it comes to the thyroid.
Soy shows up in many foods, such as dressings, soy milk, tofu, and soy sauce. There’s a lot of debate about the effects of soy on thyroid health. One study found that ingredients in soy can increase levels of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), which affects how much T3 and T4 the thyroid makes. Other studies and a study from 2018 found that soy had no significant impact on thyroid hormone levels.
Some people may find that gluten causes thyroid inflammation, but it’s really based on the individual. Gluten is in foods made with ingredients like wheat, barley, or yeast. One study showed that not eating gluten could be helpful for women with Hashimoto’s disease. But again, gluten has different effects on different people.
Cruciferous vegetables include broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale and other green, leafy vegetables. Overall, they have a lot of beneficial vitamins and nutrients that are good for your health. But similar to soy, some researchers think that these types of vegetables can prevent the thyroid from making thyroid hormone. However, it’s unclear how many cruciferous vegetables someone needs to eat to impact the thyroid. It’s likely way more than people typically eat.
There haven’t been enough studies with humans to conclude that people with thyroid problems should avoid cruciferous vegetables. For the studies that do exist, results have been linked more to a lack of iodine than a specific vegetable.
Myth: You have to stop eating certain foods if you’re taking thyroid medication
Some foods, supplements, and other medications can impact how effective thyroid medication is in the body. Depending on your medication, you may be advised to take your thyroid medication on an empty stomach an hour or more before eating. If you take thyroid medication, ask your provider what they recommend.
More research is needed on diet and the thyroid
The thyroid gland does a lot to regulate the body. While research shows that iodine intake can impact the thyroid, there’s not a lot of data about how other foods and diets impact thyroid function. It’s important to eat a nutritional, well-balanced diet. And to work with your doctor or nutrition expert on foods you can and should eat based on how they affect your body.
If you suspect that you may have an issue with your thyroid or want to rule it out as a possible culprit for certain health issues, visit your primary care provider to have your thyroid checked. Simple blood tests can determine whether or not an issue is present. And starting the year off knowing all of your health numbers is a great way to ensure the healthiest year yet.
Find a doctor
If you think you might have a thyroid condition, our endocrinology experts can help. You can find a provider using our provider directory.
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.