Hypothyroidism is a condition in which the body doesn’t make enough thyroid hormones.
Thyroid hormones help control growth, cell repair, and metabolism. As a result, people with hypothyroidism may experience tiredness, hair loss, weight gain, feeling cold, and feeling down, among many other symptoms.
Hypothyroidism affects 1–2% of people worldwide and is 10 times more likely to affect women than men.
Foods alone won’t cure hypothyroidism. However, a combination of the right nutrients and medication can help restore thyroid function and minimize your symptoms.
This article outlines the best diet for hypothyroidism, including which foods to eat and which to avoid — all based on research.
- What it is
- Effects on metabolism
- Important nutrients
- Harmful nutrients
- Foods to avoid
- Foods to eat
- Meal plan
What is hypothyroidism?
The thyroid gland is a small, butterfly-shaped gland that sits near the base of your neck.
It makes and stores thyroid hormones that affect nearly every cell in your body.
When the thyroid gland receives a signal called thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), it releases thyroid hormones into the bloodstream. This signal is sent from the pituitary gland, a small gland found at the base of your brain when thyroid hormone levels are low.
Occasionally, the thyroid gland doesn’t release thyroid hormones, even when there is plenty of TSH. This is called primary hypothyroidism and the most common type of hypothyroidism.
Approximately 90% of primary hypothyroidism is caused by Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease in which your immune system mistakenly attacks your thyroid gland.
Other causes of primary hypothyroidism are iodine deficiency, a genetic disorder, taking certain medications, and surgery that removes part of the thyroid.
Other times, the thyroid gland doesn’t receive enough TSH. This happens when the pituitary gland is not working properly and is called secondary hypothyroidism.
Thyroid hormones are very important. They help control growth, cell repair, and metabolism — the process by which your body converts what you eat into energy.
Your metabolism affects your body temperature and at what rate you burn calories. That is why people with hypothyroidism often feel cold and fatigued and may gain weight easily.
Summary: Hypothyroidism is a condition in which the thyroid gland doesn’t make enough thyroid hormone. The thyroid hormone is important for growth, repair, and metabolism. People with hypothyroidism may often feel cold and fatigued and may gain weight easily.
How does hypothyroidism affect your metabolism?
The thyroid hormone helps control the speed of your metabolism. The faster your metabolism, the more calories your body burns at rest.
People with hypothyroidism make less thyroid hormone. This means they have a slower metabolism and burn fewer calories at rest.
Having a slow metabolism comes with several health risks. It may leave you tired, increase your blood cholesterol levels, and make it harder for you to lose weight.
If you find it difficult to maintain your weight with hypothyroidism, try doing moderate or high-intensity cardio. This includes exercises like fast-paced walking, running, hiking, and rowing.
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Research shows that moderate to high-intensity aerobic exercise may help boost your thyroid hormone levels. In turn, this may help speed up your metabolism.
People with hypothyroidism might also benefit from increasing protein intake. Research shows that higher-protein diets help increase the rate of your metabolism.
Summary: People with hypothyroidism usually have a slower metabolism. Research shows that aerobic exercise can help boost your thyroid hormone levels. Additionally, eating more protein may help boost your metabolism.
Which nutrients are important?
Several nutrients are important for optimal thyroid health.
Iodine is an essential mineral that is needed to make thyroid hormones. Thus, people with iodine deficiency might be at risk of hypothyroidism.
Iodine deficiency is very common and affects nearly one-third of the world’s population. However, it’s less common in people from developed countries like the United States, where iodized salt and iodine-rich seafood are widely available.
If you have an iodine deficiency, consider adding iodized table salt to your meals or eating more iodine-rich foods like seaweed, fish, dairy, and eggs.
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Iodine supplements are unnecessary, as you can get plenty of iodine from your diet. Some studies have also shown that getting too much of this mineral may damage the thyroid gland.
Selenium helps “activate” thyroid hormones so they can be used by the body.
This essential mineral also has antioxidant benefits, which means it may protect the thyroid gland from damage by molecules called free radicals.
Adding selenium-rich foods to your diet is a great way to boost your selenium levels. This includes Brazil nuts, tuna, sardines, eggs, and legumes.
However, avoid taking a selenium supplement unless advised by a healthcare professional. Supplements provide large doses, and selenium may be toxic in large amounts.
Like selenium, zinc helps the body “activate” thyroid hormones.
Studies also show that zinc may help the body regulate TSH, the hormone that tells the thyroid gland to release thyroid hormones.
Zinc deficiencies are rare in developed countries, as zinc is abundant in the food supply.
Nonetheless, if you have hypothyroidism, aim to eat more zinc-rich foods like oysters and other shellfish, beef, and chicken.
Summary: Research shows that iodine, selenium, and zinc are especially beneficial for those with hypothyroidism. However, it’s best to avoid iodine and selenium supplements unless a healthcare professional advises you to take them.
Which nutrients are harmful?
Several nutrients may harm the health of those with hypothyroidism.
Goitrogens are compounds that may interfere with the normal function of the thyroid gland.
They get their name from the term goiter, which is an enlarged thyroid gland that may occur with hypothyroidism.
Surprisingly, many common foods contain goitrogens, including:
- Soy foods: tofu, tempeh, edamame, etc.
- Certain vegetables: cabbage, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, spinach, etc.
- Fruits and starchy plants: sweet potatoes, cassava, peaches, strawberries, etc.
- Nuts and seeds: millet, pine nuts, peanuts, etc.
In theory, people with hypothyroidism should avoid goitrogens. However, this only seems to be an issue for people who have an iodine deficiency or eat large amounts of goitrogens.
Also, cooking foods with goitrogens may inactivate these compounds.
One exception to the above foods is pearl millet. Some studies have found that pearl millet might interfere with thyroid function, even if you don’t have an iodine deficiency.
Summary: Goitrogens are dietary substances that may affect thyroid function.
Foods to avoid
Fortunately, you don’t have to avoid many foods if you have hypothyroidism.
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However, foods that contain goitrogens should be eaten in moderation and ideally cooked.
You may want to avoid eating highly processed foods, as they usually contain a lot of calories. This can be a problem if you have hypothyroidism, as you may gain weight easily.
Here is a list of foods and supplements you may want to avoid:
- Millet: all varieties
- Highly processed foods: hot dogs, cakes, cookies, etc.
- Supplements: Adequate intakes of selenium and iodine are essential for thyroid health, but getting too much of either may cause harm. Only supplement with selenium and iodine if a healthcare professional has instructed you to do so.
Here is a list of foods you can eat in moderation. These foods contain goitrogens or are known irritants if consumed in large amounts:
- Soy-based foods: tofu, tempeh, edamame beans, soy milk, etc.
- Certain fruits: peaches, pears, and strawberries
- Beverages: coffee, green tea, and alcohol — these beverages may irritate your thyroid gland.
Summary: People with hypothyroidism should avoid millet, processed foods, and supplements like selenium and zinc unless a healthcare professional has advised otherwise. Foods that contain goitrogens may be fine in moderate amounts.
Foods to eat
There are plenty of food options if you have hypothyroidism, including:
- Eggs: whole eggs are best, as much of their iodine and selenium are found in the yolk, while the whites are full of protein
- Meat: all meats, including lamb, beef, chicken, etc.
- Fish: all seafood, including salmon, tuna, halibut, shrimp, etc.
- Vegetables: all vegetables — cruciferous vegetables are fine to eat in moderate amounts, especially when cooked
- Fruits: all other fruits, including berries, bananas, oranges, tomatoes, etc.
- Gluten-free grains and seeds: rice, buckwheat, quinoa, chia seeds, and flax seeds
- Dairy: all dairy products, including milk, cheese, yogurt, etc.
- Beverages: water and other non-caffeinated beverages
People with hypothyroidism should aim to eat a diet based on vegetables, fruits, and lean meats. These are low in calories and very filling, which may help prevent weight gain.
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Summary: There are plenty of healthy food options for people with hypothyroidism, including eggs, meat, fish, most fruits and vegetables, gluten-free grains and seeds, all dairy products, and non-caffeinated beverages.
Sample meal plan
Here is a 7-day meal plan for hypothyroidism.
It provides a healthy amount of protein, has a low to moderate amount of carbs, and can help you manage your weight.
Make sure to take your thyroid medication at least 1–2 hours before your first meal, or as a healthcare professional advises. Nutrients like fiber, calcium, and iron may stop your body from absorbing thyroid medication properly.
- Breakfast: toast with eggs
- Lunch: chicken salad with 2–3 Brazil nuts
- Dinner: stir-fried chicken and vegetables served with rice
- Breakfast: oatmeal with 1/4 cup (31 grams) of berries
- Lunch: grilled salmon salad
- Dinner: fish baked with lemon, thyme, and black pepper served with steamed vegetables
- Breakfast: toast with eggs
- Lunch: leftovers from dinner
- Dinner: shrimp skewers served with a quinoa salad
- Breakfast: overnight chia pudding — 2 tbsp. (28 grams) of chia seeds, 1 cup (240 mL) of Greek yogurt, 1/2 tsp. of vanilla extract, and sliced fruits of your choice. Let sit in a bowl or Mason jar overnight
- Lunch: leftovers from dinner
- Dinner: roast lamb served with steamed vegetables
- Breakfast: banana-berry smoothie
- Lunch: chicken salad sandwich
- Dinner: pork fajitas — sliced lean pork, bell peppers, and salsa — served in corn tortillas
- Breakfast: egg, mushroom, and zucchini frittata
- Lunch: tuna and boiled egg salad
- Dinner: homemade Mediterranean pizza topped with tomato paste, olives, and feta cheese
- Breakfast: omelet with various vegetables
- Lunch: quinoa salad with green vegetables and nuts
- Dinner: grilled steak with a side salad
Summary: This sample week-long meal plan is suitable for people with hypothyroidism. It provides plenty of options for a delicious and healthy menu.
Tips for managing your weight
It’s very easy to gain weight with hypothyroidism due to a slow metabolism.
Here are a few tips to help you maintain a weight that is healthy for your body:
- Get plenty of rest. Aim to get 7–8 hours of sleep every night. Sleeping less than this is linked to weight gain, especially around the belly area.
- Practice mindful eating. Mindful eating, which involves paying attention to what you’re eating, why you’re eating, and how fast you’re eating can help you develop a better relationship with food. Studies also show that it can help you lose weight.
- Try yoga or meditation. Yoga and meditation can help you de-stress and improve your overall health. Research also shows that they can help you manage your weight.
- Try a low to moderate carb diet. Eating a low to moderate amount of carbs is very effective for managing weight. However, avoid trying a ketogenic diet, as eating too few carbs may lower your thyroid hormone levels.
Summary: While it’s easy to gain weight when you have hypothyroidism, plenty of strategies can help you manage your weight. For example, you can try getting plenty of rest, eating a good amount of protein, and practicing mindful eating.
Hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid, is a health condition that affects 1–2% of people worldwide.
It can cause symptoms like tiredness, weight gain, and feeling cold, among many others.
Fortunately, eating the right nutrients and taking medications may help reduce your symptoms and improve your thyroid function.
Nutrients that are great for your thyroid are iodine, selenium, and zinc.
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Following a thyroid-friendly diet can minimize your symptoms and help you manage your weight. It encourages eating whole, unprocessed foods, and lean protein.