If you have an underactive thyroid gland, what you eat may affect your thyroid disease, including the absorption of your thyroid medication. Ahead, what to know about eating a plant-based diet for hypothyroidism or Hashimoto's thyroiditis.
What is a vegan diet?
A vegan, or “strict vegetarian,” diet abstains from all animal meat and dairy products. It is densely plant-based, focused on whole fruits and vegetables. Research suggests that a vegan diet has a variety of health benefits, including weight loss, improved kidney function, 11-19% lower risk of cancer, and a reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases.
There is no evidence that a vegan diet will prevent or treat hypothyroidism or Hashimoto’s. However, eating a healthy vegan diet will likely benefit your health in general.
What you can eat on a vegan diet
- Fruits and vegetables
- Legumes like peas, beans, and lentils
- Nuts and seeds
- Bread, rice, and pasta
- Dairy alternatives like soymilk, coconut milk, and almond milk
What you cannot eat on a vegan diet
- Beef, pork, lamb, and other red meat
- Chicken, duck, and other poultry
- Fish or shellfish
- Cheese or butter
- Milk, cream, ice cream, and other dairy products
- Mayonnaise (because it includes egg yolks)
What are the risks of a vegan diet?
If you try a plant-based diet for hypothyroidism, keep a close eye on your iodine intake! Iodine is a vital nutrient in the body and essential for thyroid hormone production. Since animal products tend to be rich in iodine, vegans can be at higher risk of developing iodine deficiency.
An additional concern is that soy products, often a natural protein replacement for meat may adversely affect thyroid function by interfering with the absorption of thyroid medication. Still, soy products have many health benefits, including potential anti-inflammatory effects. So while hypothyroid patients do not necessarily need to avoid soy, it's worthwhile to make sure your iodine intake remains adequate.
Eating a vegan diet may leave the body short on nutrients like protein, calcium, omega-3s, zinc, and vitamin B12 if you don't pay attention. You can substitute many of these nutrients in plant-based foods like:
- Nuts, beans, or quinoa for protein
- Broccoli, kale, or almonds for calcium
- Flaxseeds, vegetable oils, or plant-based supplements for omega-3 fatty acids
- Spinach, peanut butter, or fortified cereals for iron
How does a vegan diet impact Hashimoto's?
Hashimoto's disease is an autoimmune condition in which a person's antibodies attack their thyroid and cause inflammation. It is the number one cause of hypothyroidism in the United States. Hashimoto's can become more severe over time, so taking early action is beneficial and can slow the progression of the disease.
Diet and nutrition are critical aspects of any treatment plan for Hashimoto's and hypothyroidism. Some may argue that vegan (or vegetarian) diets are not the best choice for those who are trying to heal from Hashimoto's, specifically. This carbohydrate-heavy diet can exacerbate blood sugar issues, prevent the healing of intestinal permeability (leaky gut), and contribute to nutrient deficiencies that may trigger Hashimoto's.
Hashimoto's relationship with iodine, specifically, can be confusing and somewhat contentious. Research suggests that too much iodine may be a trigger for Hashimoto's disease.
With this knowledge, whether or not you adopt a plant-based diet for hypothyroidism, you should aim for 150-400 micrograms (mcg) of iodine per day from a combination of foods, fortified foods, and supplements. People with Hashimoto's generally tolerate supplements containing up to 150 mcg of iodine without increasing thyroid antibodies. However, you should have a lab test to confirm your iodine levels and it might be better to take thyroid supplements that don't contain iodine.
Download a sample thyroid diet plan:
Should I eat a vegan diet with hypothyroidism?
The data available about the health benefits of a vegan diet for hypothyroidism are inconclusive. We recommend you focus on foods that make you feel your best, instead of strictly sticking to one diet or another solely for the sake of it. Incorporating more nutrient-rich plant-based foods into your diet certainly won't hurt.
How to start eating a vegan diet
If you're inclined to try a vegan diet, you can go all-in by cutting out all poultry, meat, eggs, and dairy at once, or take a more gradual approach. Start by increasing your intake of omega 3s and eating an anti-inflammatory diet that is high in leafy greens and whole grains and low in processed foods.
There are also some less strict alternatives to a vegan diet:
- A pescatarian diet includes no meat or poultry, but you can still eat fish
- A lacto-ovo vegetarian diet is plant-based, plus dairy and eggs
- A flexitarian is a primarily plant-based diet that occasionally includes animal products
A note from Paloma Health
Paloma Health offers personalized dietary guidance and health coaching. Work with a thyroid nutritionist can help you choose the right foods as you start a specific diet for hypothyroidism.