Will Going Vegan Save Your Thyroid?
Have you heard that a vegan diet could heal your thyroid and reverse autoimmune disease? When it comes to popular thyroid diets, plant-based is right up there alongside Paleo and autoimmune protocols.
But is there any evidence that a vegan diet can rebuild your thyroid health? Or is it just another fad? Let's take a closer look at how a vegan diet can affect your thyroid and whether it's a fit for your needs.
A quick overview of a plant-based/vegan diet
A vegan diet is one that does not incorporate any animal-based or animal-sourced foods. It excludes:
Animal-derived ingredients such as whey, gelatin, albumin and casein
Instead, they will consume plant-based foods including fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes, plant-based oils, grains and vegan sweeteners such as maple syrup. Vegan-friendly processed foods and meat alternatives can also be incorporated into a vegan diet.
Someone might choose to follow a plant-based approach for several reasons. Some follow a vegan approach for ethical reasons, some for health reasons and some as part of their religious practice.
As there are several food groups eliminated, veganism takes a lot of planning and education to consume a well-rounded diet. But many people find their health improves when going plant-based.
How a vegan diet may support your thyroid
There are a few ways that a plant-based diet can be supportive of thyroid health.
Plants are an excellent source of many vital nutrients
There’s a reason why practitioners encourage people to eat their fruit and veg! Plant-based foods are often incredibly rich in important nutrients.
Several of these nutrients can support a healthy thyroid. For example, selenium is found in Brazil nuts, mushrooms and seeds. Iodine is plentiful in seaweed. Tyrosine can be found in protein sources such as legumes, nuts and seeds.
The more variety you incorporate into a vegan diet, the greater the variety of nutrients you’ll be consuming.
A plant-based diet may help to reduce inflammation
Inflammation plays a big role in thyroid issues. But many of the foods found in a plant-based diet can help to reduce inflammation naturally.
Foods that contain anti-inflammatory nutrients and antioxidants include:
Brightly coloured fruit and vegetables
Nuts and seeds
Beans and legumes
Herbs and spices
Eating a variety of these foods may help to lower inflammation.
A wholefood-based vegan diet is great for your gut
One of the root causes of thyroid disease is poor gut health. But eating a plant-rich diet can help to nourish the gut back to health.
Plants are an excellent source of prebiotic fibres that feed the good bacteria in the gut. Eating a wide variety of plant-based foods feeds a variety of good bugs in your tummy.
The downsides of a vegan diet for thyroid health
Despite the upsides of a plant-based approach, there are several concerns when it comes to veganism and thyroid health.
A vegan diet can be high in goitrogens
If you have a thyroid condition, you’ve probably heard of goitrogens before. These compounds interfere with your thyroid, making it more difficult to produce thyroid hormones.
Goitrogens are found in common plant-based foods such as:
Soy products such as tofu, tempeh, soy milk and edamame
Cruciferous vegetables such as boy choy, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale
Some fruits and starchy plants including corn, millet, pear and sweet potato
For most people, consuming goitrogens isn’t a big deal. But if your thyroid is already struggling, it may make the situation worse.
There are some ways you can minimise the effects of these compounds. Firstly, cooking goitrogen-rich foods can significantly reduce the levels. Getting sufficient thyroid supportive nutrients such as iodine and selenium may also reduce the impact.
But if you are following a plant-based diet and have a thyroid condition, you may want to keep your intake of these foods on the lower side.
A vegan diet is often deficient in thyroid-supportive nutrients
Although a vegan diet is rich in many beneficial nutrients, there are some that tend to be deficient – even in a wholefood-based vegan diet.
Zinc is a major concern when it comes to a plant-based approach. There are few vegan-friendly foods that are rich in zinc. Those that do contain zinc are often rich in copper, which competes with zinc for absorption.
Some research does suggest that people on a vegetarian or vegan diet can adapt to this reduced intake. They appear to absorb and retain more zinc than people on an omnivorous diet. So a normal, healthy person may not see any negative effects of a lower intake of zinc.
But when you add in a thyroid condition, a low zinc intake can be a significant problem. Zinc is needed for optimal thyroid function, and also plays an essential role in balancing autoimmunity. So your body needs more zinc to heal the underlying causes and minimise thyroid issues.
Another nutrient at risk is omega-3 fatty acids. Although this is not the most essential nutrient for the thyroid itself, it is critical for reducing excess inflammation.
We know that inflammation plays a role in the thyroid, autoimmunity and flare-ups in symptoms. Letting it go unchecked because of low omega-3 levels is a recipe for disaster!
There are plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Unfortunately, these are not as beneficial as those from animal sources. Plant-based omega 3s need to be converted into a form that the human body can use – and the rate of conversion has been reported as 5-8% or even less than 1% in studies.
Vegan does not automatically equal healthy
If you’re eliminating animal-based products, all of the foods you’re eating will be wholefood and nourishing, right?
Not quite. There are a lot of foods out there that are vegan-friendly but far from good for you.
Many of these foods contain ingredients that are incredibly inflammatory, which we know is a big problem for thyroid conditions.
For example, some ‘vegan’ foods here in Australia include:
Kellogg’s Coco Pops
Copha Vegetable Shortening
These are not foods that are going to heal your thyroid!
If anything, they could trigger a flare-up in your symptoms, especially if you have an autoimmune thyroid condition.
If you plan on using a vegan diet to support your thyroid, you want to skip the junk and pick nourishing wholefoods whenever possible.
What does the research say?
When it comes to looking at thyroid disease in vegan and vegetarian populations, there are a handful of studies available.
One study looked at hypothyroidism in an Adventist church community. It found that a vegan diet was associated with a lower risk of hypothyroid disease, but a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet was associated with a higher risk. The researchers did not have an explanation for the different risk levels.
Another study of the same population found a vegan diet was associated with a lower risk of hyperthyroidism.
However, what these studies don’t tell us is whether it was eliminating animal products that bestowed these benefits.
For example, one study looked at the different foods consumed by those with Hashimoto’s versus controls with no thyroid disease.
It found that people with Hashimoto’s consumed more processed meat and animal fats. But the control group ate more red meat. So it may not be the meat consumption itself that is the problem, but the consumption of processed meats.
More research is needed to confirm whether eating plenty of wholefoods on any diet approach may be the best answer!
The bottom line – is a vegan diet good for your thyroid?
Some people thrive on a plant-based diet and others don’t. But when it comes to the reported benefits of veganism for thyroid health, we need to look at the whole picture.
There are aspects of a vegan diet that are incredibly nourishing for the thyroid. But there are others that could be problematic. As some nutrients are difficult to obtain on a vegan diet, you may be at risk of deficiencies that can worsen thyroid issues.
What if you’re already on a vegan diet for other health concerns or due to ethical reasons? No matter the reason for following a plant-based diet, if you have a thyroid condition seeking professional guidance is key!
Are you looking to control your thyroid condition with a plant-based or vegan diet? You don't have to do it alone. Tara is here to guide you through the process of finding the right shifts and tweaks that work for you. To book an appointment, click here.