Achieving Optimal Thyroid Health For Vegetarians and Vegans
Published April 15 2013
To no surprise, most of the patients I consult with are omnivorous. However, every now and then I will consult with someone who is a strict vegetarian or vegan. And since diet plays such a critical role in restoring one’s health back to normal, I thought it would be a good idea to dedicate an article to vegetarianism and thyroid health. And while there are definitely some health benefits to being a vegetarian, many vegetarians aren’t consuming a healthy diet.
It is very difficult to be a healthy vegetarian. And it is even more difficult to be a health vegan. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible to accomplish this, as there are many people who are vegans and vegetarians who are living a healthy lifestyle. Numerous studies show that vegetarians have a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other chronic health conditions (1)(2)(3)
Eating An Unhealthy Vegetarian Diet Is Common
My sister has a friend who became a vegan because she is an animal lover. This is a common reason why people become vegetarians, and by having three cats and a dog of my own I completely understand. Although I’m not a vegetarian, after reading the book Diet For A New America many years ago I did give up meat for a few months. And looking back I definitely wasn’t eating a healthy vegetarian diet during this time. In any case, while it’s great to avoid eating meat due to religious or ethical reasons, you want to make sure you are consuming enough protein, and in addition getting all of the necessary vitamins and minerals.
For example, some vegetarians are deficient in vitamin B12 (4)(5), and iron (6), which are both found in meat. As a result, it’s a good idea for vegetarians and vegans to get an iron panel and have their vitamin B12 levels tested, and if they’re deficient then they might need to take some nutritional supplements. The main problem is when vegetarians and vegans eat diets consisting of plenty of refined foods and sugars, pizza, and other junk food.
Since they can’t eat meat it’s quite common for vegetarians and vegans to eat a lot of grains (bread, pasta, rice, etc.). This can be an issue for a couple of reasons. First of all, many people are sensitive to gluten, and many people who are vegetarians eat a high amount of foods consisting of gluten. A second reason why this can be a problem is eating a lot of grains (even gluten-free grains) can over time cause problems with the blood sugar levels. So for example, a vegetarian might eat toast and oatmeal for breakfast, a big bowl of pasta for lunch or dinner, have fruits as a snack, etc. And while this might be healthier than the diet of the average person, it still is lacking two of the most important components of any diet, which I’m about to discuss.
Eating Sufficient Vegetables and Protein
Now to be fair, even though some vegetarians don’t eat many vegetables and instead load up on grains, fruits, processed foods (cookies, potato chips, etc.), and perhaps some nuts and seeds, I’d like to think that the majority of vegetarians eat a good amount of vegetables. Everyone knows they should be eating plenty of fresh (and preferably organic) vegetables, but of course this doesn’t mean that everyone does this. In any case, everyone, and not only vegetarians, should try to eat at least five to seven servings of vegetables per day, and more than this would be even better.
But one of the problems I see with vegetarians is that many don’t consume enough protein. And many who do consume enough get their protein from unhealthy sources. For example, they might eat a lot of unfermented soy products, such as soy chicken nuggets, soy burgers, and soy protein bars. There is a lot of controversy over soy, but besides soy having the potential to inhibit thyroid function, most of the soy in the United States is genetically modified. Having some organic fermented soy is fine, but other than this I would really try to avoid consuming soy. This admittedly can be a challenge for some people, as even if you avoid eating foods such as soy chicken nuggets, soy burgers, and soy milk, soy is commonly used as an ingredient in many other foods. And I’m not suggesting that a small amount of soy every now and then is going to cause problems with everyone, but of course if you eat mostly whole foods then this shouldn’t be an issue.
Since eggs are a wonderful source of protein, vegans admittedly have a more difficult time getting healthy sources of protein into their diet. Nuts, seeds, lentils, and beans are some healthy sources of protein. On the other hand, due to the lectins and phytic acid they also can be difficult to digest, and so you want to minimize your consumption of these foods, and might want to consider soaking them. But even if you do this you’re still going to have a difficult time getting a sufficient amount of protein from these foods. One recommendation I commonly give to my patients who are vegans and vegetarians is to have a couple of smoothies per day with some added protein or whole food powder. Vegetarians who aren’t allergic to whey can add whey protein to their smoothies, while vegans can use a rice-based or pea-based protein. This also is an excellent way of getting in a few servings of vegetables per day, as I add a plateful of green leafy vegetables to my smoothies.
Although iodine is a controversial topic when it comes to thyroid and autoimmune thyroid conditions, iodine is of course important for the formation of thyroid hormone. And some studies show that some vegetarians and vegans might not consume enough iodine, even in countries which are considered iodine-sufficient (7). Another study I came across showed that U.S. vegetarians are iodine sufficient, but U.S. vegans may be at risk for low iodine intake (8).
In summary, people who are vegetarians and vegans can receive good results when following a natural treatment protocol. But it can be challenge to be a healthy vegetarian, and those people who consume a large amount of refined foods and don’t eat enough protein and vegetables won’t receive optimal results. On the other hand, those vegetarians and vegans who are eating mostly whole foods and are making sure that they are consuming enough protein, vitamins, and minerals have an excellent chance of restoring their health back to normal.