When you have a thyroid problem, losing weight can feel daunting. Before you go into a complete overhaul of your eating or adopt a complicated program counting calories, carbohydrates, or fat, there are some simpler ways to start. Let’s take a look at these baby steps — the basic, easiest changes you can make now — that will get you quickly on the path to a healthier diet and weight loss, despite having a pre-existing thyroid condition.
Practice mindful, slower eating
One of the most basic things you can start doing right away is to practice mindful eating. Nutritional psychologist Marc David is the founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating and author of the book “The Slow Down Diet.” According to David, mindless eating — eating quickly and distractedly — slows or stops our ability to shift from “fight or flight” into “rest and digest” mode. It also blocks the release of hormones that help us properly digest food, feel full, and burn fat.
How can you start practicing more mindful eating?
- First, slow down. Make time to eat properly. Chew your food thoroughly and eat more slowly.
- Second, breathe. David recommends that you take three deep cleansing breaths before each meal and snack, to shift into “rest and digest” mode. You can also take a deep belly breath between bites.
- Third, stop multitasking while eating. Don’t eat standing up, in your car, while reading, watching TV, or while talking on the phone.
Limit the number and timing of your meals
While some nutritional experts recommend “grazing” and multiple mini-meals throughout the day, this approach may not be best for people with thyroid conditions. Consider the advice of the late Byron Richards, author of “The Leptin Diet,” and limit yourself to two to three meals per day, with no snacks, and avoid food after 8 p.m. Giving your body longer breaks between meals, and a substantial overnight break of eight or more hours, helps sensitize your hormones to respond more effectively to hunger and satiety signals, and allows time for the body to shift into fat-burning mode for energy.
Cut back on processed foods
There’s no way around this recommendation. A healthy diet that results in weight loss for you as a thyroid patient will involve cutting back on processed foods. The more you can emphasize whole foods in their natural forms and start to cut back on foods that come from packages, the better choices you will make. Stock up on fresh and frozen vegetables and fruits, lean meats, poultry and fish, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats. Start cutting back on the amount of cookies, candy, crackers, cereals, low-carb pasta, and other processed foods you eat.
Cut back on sugar and simple carbohydrates
Foods that contain sugar — or that easily convert into sugar — are a barrier to weight loss, especially for people with thyroid disease. One of the most obvious things you can start doing is to cut back on sugary, high-glycemic foods, including foods that are high in “simple” carbohydrates.
Complex carbohydrates — high-fiber whole grains, or high-fiber vegetables and fruits, like sweet potatoes and blueberries — are lower on the glycemic index scale and have a lower impact on blood sugar. Sugary foods such as table sugar, honey, molasses, and processed foods that contain sugar — desserts and low-fiber sugary cereals, for example — are high-glycemic simple carbohydrates. They are rapidly absorbed, and quickly raise blood sugar.
As for baby steps, start cutting back on sugar. (This also goes for artificial sweeteners such as sucralose, saccharine, and aspartame, which are increasingly implicated in weight gain, without evidence that they contribute to weight loss.) Later, you can consider recommendations like those of cardiologist Ron Rosedale, M.D., creator of “The Rosedale Diet,” who says that for weight loss, cut out all forms of sugar — including most fruits — and sugary soft drinks.
One pro tip from nutrition expert Dirk Van Lith, M.D. is to start carrying psyllium fiber capsules with you to take with meals, especially low-fiber carbohydrates or sugar, to help make lower-fiber foods more high-fiber, and reduce their glycemic impact.
Increase your dietary fiber
A diet high in fiber has many benefits, especially for people with thyroid disease:
- When you eat high-fiber, you feel fuller, longer, allowing you to eat less.
- It helps lower the glycemic impact of sugary and high-carbohydrate foods.
- It helps reduce constipation, a common hypothyroidism side effect.
Start choosing more high-fiber foods, and if you can’t reach a target of 25 to 30 grams a day of fiber from food, consider adding fiber supplements.
Also, be aware that if you substantially change the fiber content of your diet, you should have your thyroid levels rechecked within eight to 12 weeks. Changes to your fiber intake can affect the absorption of your thyroid medication.
Staying well hydrated is an important way to help level the playing field for weight loss. Research shows that increasing your water intake can lead to loss of body weight due to reduced appetite and fat loss. It’s not hard to up your intake of water, caffeine-free beverages, and foods — soups count too! Some experts recommend that you take in as much as one ounce of water for each pound of your target body weight.
Get more sleep
Here is perhaps the laziest suggestion of all, but one that goes a long way in the weight loss battle: Get more sleep. Experts recommend you aim for at least seven to nine hours per night, to increase your metabolism, allow for healthy hormone levels, help reduce your appetite and activate better fat-burning.
Incorporating more probiotics into your diet — in particular, powerful spore-based probiotic supplements that can fight the inflammatory, weight loss-sabotaging condition known as metabolic endotoxemia — is a simple change you can make. Consider taking a daily probiotic supplement, and incorporate more probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, kefir, miso, kimchee, sauerkraut, and kombucha into your daily diet.
Clean up the toxins
Toxins in food make weight loss more difficult. One baby step you can take is to start choosing grass-fed, hormone-free, pesticide-free, organic versions of your favorite meats, poultry, dairy products, and produce.
Switch to “good fats”
Good fats like those in olive oil, olives, avocados, healthy nuts, and the fats found in fish make you feel full and help your metabolism function effectively. Consider replacing unhealthy fats in your diet with the good fats.
Watch thyroid-sabotaging foods
Goitrogens are foods that promote the formation of a goiter, slow down your thyroid, and interfere with the conversion of thyroxine (T4) into triiodothyronine (T3). Some common goitrogenic foods include soy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, spinach, and watercress. You don’t need to cut these foods out of your diet entirely, but be careful not to overconsume them, especially raw. Remember that cooking or steaming deactivates much of their thyroid-slowing potential.
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Mary Shomon is a thyroid disease, hormonal and autoimmune health writer, and patient advocate. For two decades, Mary has been a leading force advocating for more effective, patient-centered thyroid and hormonal health care. Mary is the New York Times bestselling author of “The Thyroid Diet Revolution,” “Your Healthy Pregnancy with Thyroid Disease,” “Living Well With Hypothyroidism,” and 10 other books on thyroid disease and integrative health. She co-stars in two PBS health specials, “Healthy Hormones,” and “Vibrant for Life.” Follow her on Twitter at @thyroidmary or at her Facebook communities: ThyroidSupport and ThyroidDiet.