January is National Thyroid Awareness Month, a time to take a closer look at the “idling speed” of the human engine. Surprisingly, 1 in every 10 Americans suffers from thyroid disease, yet close to half of these folks remain undiagnosed.
The most common thyroid disease is an underactive thyroid, hypothyroidism, characterized by an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.
In my nutrition practice, hardly a week goes by that I don’t encounter a case of hypothyroidism in someone trying (unsuccessfully) to lose weight—their weight-loss results vary from sluggish to non-existent. In fact, thyroid health can often be the elephant in the exam room (pun intended).
What is it?
The thyroid gland is a bowtie-shaped organ located at the front of your neck. It secretes hormones that play a role in regulating fat and carbohydrate metabolism, respiration, body temperature, brain development, cholesterol levels, the heart and nervous system, blood calcium levels, menstrual cycles, and skin quality.
With such a broad range of influences, it’s fair to say that thyroid disease is critical to good health.
Recently, the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE) released new guidelines for the treatment of hypothyroidism in adults. These new recommendations narrow down the range of what is considered acceptable thyroid function.
Doctors typically base their diagnosis of thyroid disease on what is within the "normal" range for the thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) test. While previously a score between 0.5 and 5.0 was considered within the normal range, the new guidelines narrow this range for acceptable thyroid function to between 0.3 and 3.04.
Signs and symptoms of hypothyroidism
These can include:
sensitivity to cold
elevated blood levels of cholesterol
slowed heart rate
No “special diet” will correct hypothyroidism; however, there are some general guidelines for keeping your thyroid healthy. Following these nutritional tips might help reduce symptoms:
Whole foods. Choose a diet based on whole foods, with an abundance of unprocessed lean meats, vegetables, whole fruits, and whole grains.
Vitamin B12. Studies show that about 30 percent of those with hypothyroidism are low in vitamin B12. Make sure to get enough of the foods that are high in B12, such as mollusks, sardines, salmon, low fat meat, and dairy. Vegan sources of B12 include fortified cereals and nutritional yeast.
Vitamin D. Get enough vitamin D. Unless you are deficient, the recommended dietary allowance for vitamin D is 600 IU to 800 IU a day. Foods that contain some vitamin D include fatty fish, milk, dairy, eggs, and mushrooms. Sunlight also is a potential source, but the amount of vitamin production depends on the season and latitude.
Iodine. What about iodine? Do not take an iodine supplement unless your hypothyroidism is actually caused by iodine deficiency, a condition that is rare in the developed world. Too much iodine can actually cause hypothyroidism.
Go easy on soy foods. If you take thyroid hormone medication, talk to your dietitian about keeping the level of soy products in your diet constant. This is a hot topic in the health field. My opinion is that because whole soy foods have many health virtues, you may incorporate soy in your diet. Just keep amounts stable and constant. Some references recommend avoiding soy that is extruded or extracted or genetically modified.
Timing of meals. If you are on a thyroid hormone medication, take it on an empty stomach.
Antioxidants. Eat foods high in antioxidants, including fruits (such as berries, cherries, and tomatoes) and vegetables (such as broccoli, artichokes, kale, winter squash, and bell peppers).
The bottom line
Good news: As long as you keep your thyroid function tuned up, you can successfully lose weight and optimize your health.