As a health practitioner, you likely often hear from clients that they’re having a tough time losing weight due to what they think is an issue with their thyroid. That’s certainly a possibility since the thyroid plays a profound role in regulating our metabolism by secreting important hormones that control it and thereby nearly every cell and organ in our body.
And since 12 of every 100 U.S. adults develop a thyroid condition during their lifetime—with 60% of them undiagnosed—it’s worth versing yourself on this small but mighty gland that sits at the base of the neck, and on the important nutrients that help support it.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common thyroid diseases, ways to identify them in clients you are coaching, and then dive into the nutrients and foods that can support the thyroid.
A Look at Thyroid Diseases
Thyroid diseases are common and can affect anyone, but women are 5 to 8 times more likely to have thyroid disease than men. They may be the reason why some of your clients experience trouble losing weight or have low energy levels.
Let’s take a look at some of the most common thyroid diseases.
Hyperthyroidism is when the thyroid gland is overstimulated, producing too much T4, and speeding up your metabolism. This can lead to symptoms such as weight loss, irritability, a rapid heartbeat and sweating.
Hypothyroidism is when the thyroid gland is producing too little T4. This can lead to a sluggish metabolism and symptoms of weight gain, tiredness, sensitivity to cold, dry skin and depression.
There are two autoimmune disorders that also affect the thyroid gland.
Graves’ disease causes hyperthyroidism while Hashimoto’s disease, also known as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, causes hypothyroidism.
Identifying Thyroid Disease
As a nutrition coach or health practitioner, you’re in a unique position to help your clients identify the possibility of an underactive or overactive thyroid.
If they come to you complaining of unexpected weight gain or weight loss, low energy or hyperactivity, and feeling more sensitive to heat or cold, don’t overlook these symptoms. Advise them to get their thyroid checked. Then, if proven true, work with their endocrinologist or other physician to manage their condition through diet and lifestyle.
Nutrition and the Thyroid
In general, to manage or prevent illnesses associated with thyroid disease, a diet should include:
- Lean proteins
- Fiber-rich foods
- Heart-healthy fats
“Proper thyroid function depends on key nutrients for the production of T4 and the conversion of T4 to T3,” says Dr. Robin Berzin, MD, the founder and CEO of Parsley Health. “This is the thyroid hormone that is active on the cellular level.”
These nutrients include: iodine, iron, magnesium, selenium and zinc.
Let’s take a deeper dive into these minerals, and the foods that are loaded with them. Adding more of these foods to a diet will help the thyroid function more efficiently.
Iodine is a key player in thyroid function. What’s more, one-third of the world’s population lives in iodine-deficient areas.
While an iodine deficiency is rare in the U.S. and developed countries, it’s important to know that too much iodine can actually be harmful and cause overproduction of thyroid hormones. This may lead to an enlarged and inflamed thyroid gland or thyroid cancer.
You can find iodine mainly in seaweed and animal protein, but you can also find it in iodized salt and fortified foods such as bread, cereal and milk.
Examples of iodine-rich foods include:
- Beef liver
- Dairy products (milk, yogurt)
- Iodized salt
- Seafood (such as halibut, cod, tuna, shrimp and scallops)
- Seaweed (such as nori, wakame, kelp, kombu)
- Whole grains
RELATED: The 9 Best Foods For Thyroid Health
We talk about iron a lot because it’s really that important. Your body needs it to carry oxygen throughout the body. When you’re not getting enough iron, you’re tired and weak. Iron deficiencies are also known to impair thyroid function, and anemia can be one of the first signs of hypothyroidism.
Pro tip: Vitamin C helps your body absorb iron, so if you eat foods that contain both nutrients—like broccoli rabe—you’ll get more bang for your buck.
Other iron-rich foods include:
- Dark chocolate
- Dried fruit (apricot, raisins)
- Enriched/fortified whole grains
- Fish (oysters, sardines, tuna)
- Grass-fed beef
- Legumes (lentil, kidney bean, soybean, chickpea)
- Nuts and seeds (almond, cashew, pistachio, pumpkin and sunflower seeds)
Magnesium is needed to convert the inactive thyroid hormone T4 into the active T3, a more potent form of the hormone.
When magnesium levels are too low, our thyroid isn’t functioning at full capacity. Symptoms of deficiency include: fatigue, constipation, headaches, muscle cramps or spasms. That’s why research has shown magnesium is also associated with reduced PMS symptoms.
Dietary sources of magnesium are the best way to boost your intake. They include:
- Dairy (milk, yogurt)
- Dark chocolate
- Legumes (black beans, edamame,kidney beans)
- Nuts (almonds, cashews, peanuts)
- Seeds (pumpkin seeds, flax seeds)
- Leafy green vegetables (spinach, kale, etc.)
- Whole grains such as quinoa
Selenium is a trace element that plays an important role in the function of the thyroid gland. It also helps to protect the body from free radicals (the bad guys that cause cellular damage and can increase the risk of disease).
Food high in selenium include:
- Brazil nuts
- Brown Rice
- Dairy products (milk, yogurt, cottage cheese)
- Poultry (chicken, turkey)
- Seafood (halibut, sardines, shrimp, tuna, oysters)
Zinc has a few key jobs. It helps your body produce the important thyroid hormone T3 and also helps your brain with cognition and memory.
Oysters are one of the best sources of zinc, and they also contain plenty of selenium, which aids in thyroid hormone synthesis. In other words, start shucking.
Other foods high in zinc include:
- Meat (grass-fed beef, chicken)
- Seafood (oysters, shrimp, mussels, Alaskan crab)
- Legumes* (Chickpeas, lentils, beans)
- Seeds (pumpkin, hemp, flax)
- Nuts (cashews, almonds, peanuts, pine nuts)
- Dairy (milk, cheese)
* Legumes contain phytates and lectins, which are antinutrients that can inhibit absorption of zinc and other minerals. To make zinc more bioavailable from legumes, you can ferment, sprout, soak or cook them to make them more gut-friendly. Canned beans are OK since they soak in a liquid.
Goitrogens are naturally-occurring substances found in many plant-based foods. Consuming high amounts of goitrogens on a regular basis may interfere with thyroid hormone production and contribute to the development of goiters.
A goiter is an enlargement of the thyroid gland due to increased levels of TSH (which stimulates growth of the thyroid gland).
Foods high in goitrogens include:
- Cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, kale, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts)
- Sweet potatoes
When it comes to thyroid function, it’s important to remember that each person is individual. Eating the right nutrients can help to reduce thyroid-related symptoms, improve function, and manage weight, but other lifestyle factors should also be considered.
Make sure to ask the right questions of your client in order to get the full picture of where adjustments need to be made. And if they’re on a thyroid medication, always work with their endocrinologist or other physician as a team for best results.