Hypothyroidism is a condition where the body doesn’t make enough thyroid hormones.
Thyroid hormones help control your growth, repair and metabolism. As a result, people who suffer from hypothyroidism may experience tiredness, hair loss, weight gain, feeling cold, feeling down and many more symptoms ().
Hypothyroidism affects 1 to 2% of people worldwide and is ten times more likely to affect women than men ().
Foods alone won’t cure hypothyroidism. However, a combination of the right nutrients and medication can help restore thyroid function and minimize your symptoms.
This article helps you discover the best diet for hypothyroidism, including which foods to eat and which to avoid — all based on research.
What Is Hypothyroidism?
The thyroid gland is a small, butterfly-shaped gland that sits near the base of your neck.
It makes and stores thyroid hormones that affect nearly every cell in your body ().
When the thyroid gland receives a signal, called TSH (thyroid-stimulating hormone), it releases thyroid hormones into the bloodstream. This signal is sent from the pituitary gland, a small gland found at the base of your brain, when thyroid hormone levels are low ().
Occasionally, the thyroid gland doesn’t release thyroid hormones, even when there is plenty of TSH. This is called primary hypothyroidism and is the most common type of hypothyroidism.
Approximately 90% of primary hypothyroidism is caused by Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease where your immune system mistakenly attacks your thyroid gland ().
Other causes of primary hypothyroidism are an iodine deficiency, a genetic disorder, taking certain medications and surgery that removes part of the thyroid ().
Other times the thyroid gland does not receive enough TSH, the signal to release more thyroid hormone. This happens when the pituitary gland is not working properly and is called secondary hypothyroidism.
Thyroid hormones are very important. They help control your growth, repair and metabolism — a process where your body converts what you eat into energy.
Your metabolism affects your temperature and how fast you burn calories. That’s why people with hypothyroidism often feel cold, fatigued and may gain weight easily ().
You can learn more about the signs and symptoms of hypothyroidism here.
Summary: Hypothyroidism is a condition where the thyroid gland does not make enough thyroid hormone. As the thyroid hormone is important for growth, repair and metabolism, people with hypothyroidism may often feel cold, fatigued and may gain weight easily.
How Does Hypothyroidism Affect Your Metabolism?
The thyroid hormone helps control the speed of your metabolism. The faster your metabolism, the more calories your body will burn at rest.
People who have hypothyroidism make less thyroid hormone. This means they have a slower metabolism and burn fewer calories at rest.
Having a slow metabolism comes with several health risks. It may leave you tired, increase your blood cholesterol levels and make it harder for you to lose weight ().
If you find it difficult to maintain your weight with hypothyroidism, try doing moderate- or high-intensity cardio. This includes exercises like fast-paced walking, running, hiking and rowing.
Research shows that moderate- to high-intensity aerobic exercise may help boost your thyroid hormone levels. In turn, this may help speed up your metabolism (, ).
People with hypothyroidism might also benefit from increasing their protein intake. Research shows that higher protein diets help increase the speed of your metabolism ().
Summary: People with hypothyroidism usually have a slower metabolism. Research shows that aerobic exercise can help boost your thyroid hormone levels. Additionally, eating more protein may help boost your metabolism.
Which Nutrients Are Important?
There are several nutrients that are important for optimal thyroid health.
Iodine is an essential mineral that is needed to make thyroid hormones. Thus, people with an iodine deficiency might be at risk of hypothyroidism ().
Iodine deficiency is very common and affects nearly a third of the world’s population. However, it’s less common in people from developed countries like the US, as they can avoid an iodine deficiency by adding iodized table salt to their foods ().
If you do have an iodine deficiency, add iodized table salt to your meals or eat more iodine-rich foods like seaweed, fish, dairy and eggs.
Iodine supplements are not necessary as you can get plenty iodine from your diet. Some studies have also shown that too much may damage the thyroid gland ().
Selenium helps the body “activate” thyroid hormones so they can be used by the body ().
This essential mineral also has antioxidant benefits, which means it may protect the thyroid gland from damage by molecules called free radicals ().
Adding selenium-rich foods to your diet is a great way to boost your selenium levels. This includes Brazil nuts, tuna, sardines, eggs, legumes and spinach.
However, avoid taking a selenium supplement unless advised by your doctor. Supplements provide large doses, and selenium may be toxic in large amounts (, ).
Like selenium, zinc also helps the body “activate” thyroid hormones ().
Studies also show that zinc may help the body regulate TSH, the hormone that tells the thyroid gland to release thyroid hormones ().
Zinc deficiencies are rare in developed countries, as zinc is abundant in the food supply.
Nonetheless, if you have hypothyroidism, you should aim to eat more zinc-rich foods like oysters and other shellfish, beef and chicken.
Summary: Research shows that iodine, selenium and zinc are especially beneficial for someone with hypothyroidism. However, it’s best to avoid iodine and selenium supplements unless your doctor advises you to take them.
Which Nutrients Are Harmful?
There are several nutrients that may be harmful to someone with hypothyroidism.
Goitrogens are compounds that may interfere with the normal function of the thyroid gland.
They get their name from the term “goiter,” which is an enlarged thyroid gland that may occur with hypothyroidism ().
Surprisingly, many everyday foods contain goitrogens. These include ():
- Soy foods: Tofu, tempeh, edamame, etc.
- Certain vegetables: Cabbage, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, spinach, etc.
- Fruits and starchy plants: Sweet potatoes, cassava, peaches, strawberries, etc.
- Nuts and seeds: Millet, pine nuts, peanuts, etc.
So in theory, people with hypothyroidism should avoid goitrogens. However, this only seems to be an issue for people who have an iodine deficiency or eat large amounts of goitrogens (, , , ).
Also, cooking foods with goitrogens may “inactivate” the goitrogenic substances ().
One exception to the above foods is pearl millet. Some studies have found that pearl millet might interfere with thyroid function, even if you don’t have an iodine deficiency ().
Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, rye and barley.
People who have celiac disease, an autoimmune disease, can’t eat gluten. Their body mistakenly attacks it and causes damage to the surrounding gut area ().
Unfortunately, research shows that people who have an autoimmune disease are at risk of developing another autoimmune disease ().
That’s why some people who have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, the main cause of hypothyroidism, may also have celiac disease (, ).
This also means that some people who have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis might need to remove gluten to help improve their symptoms.
Summary: Two substances that may harm your thyroid are goitrogens and gluten. Goitrogens may interfere with your normal thyroid function, while some people with hypothyroidism may also suffer from celiac disease.
Foods to Avoid
Fortunately, there aren’t many foods that you need to avoid if you have hypothyroidism.
However, foods that contain goitrogens should be eaten in moderation and ideally cooked.
You should also avoid eating highly processed foods, as they usually contain more calories. This can be a problem for someone with hypothyroidism, since they may gain weight easily.
Here is a list of foods and supplements you should avoid completely:
- Millet: All varieties.
- Highly processed foods: Hot dogs, cakes, cookies, etc.
- Supplements: Selenium and iodine supplements should be avoided unless prescribed by your doctor.
Here is a list of foods you can eat in moderation. These foods have goitrogens or are known irritants if consumed in large amounts.
- Foods that contain gluten: Bread, pasta, cereals, beer, etc.
- Soy foods: Tofu, tempeh, edamame beans, soy milk, etc.
- Cruciferous vegetables: Broccoli, kale, spinach, cabbage, etc.
- Certain fruits: Peaches, pears and strawberries.
- Beverages: Coffee, green tea and alcohol — these beverages may irritate your thyroid gland (, , ).
If you have celiac disease because of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis or feel uncomfortable eating foods that contain gluten, then you should avoid gluten completely.
Summary: People with hypothyroidism should avoid millet, processed foods and supplements like selenium and zinc (unless advised by their doctor). Foods that contain gluten and goitrogens are fine in moderate amounts unless they cause discomfort.
Foods to Eat
There are plenty of food options for people with hypothyroidism, including the following:
- Eggs: Whole eggs are best, as much of the iodine and selenium are found in the yolk, while the whites are full of protein.
- Meats: All meats, including lamb, beef, chicken, etc.
- Fish: All seafood, including salmon, tuna, halibut, shrimp, etc.
- Vegetables: All vegetables are fine to eat. Cruciferous vegetables are fine to eat in moderate amounts, especially when cooked.
- Fruits: All other fruits including berries, bananas, oranges, tomatoes, etc.
- Gluten-free grains and seeds: Rice, buckwheat, quinoa, chia seeds and flaxseed.
- Dairy: All dairy products including milk, cheese, yogurt, etc.
- Beverages: Water and other non-caffeinated beverages.
People with hypothyroidism should eat a diet based around vegetables, fruit and lean meats. They are low in calories and very filling, which may help prevent weight gain.
Summary: People with hypothyroidism have plenty of options for a healthy diet. They can eat eggs, meats, fish, most fruit and vegetables, gluten-free grains and seeds, dairy and non-caffeinated beverages.
Sample Meal Plan
Here is a week-long meal plan for someone with hypothyroidism.
It provides a healthy amount of protein, has a low to moderate amount of carbs and should help you maintain a healthy weight.
Make sure you take your thyroid medication at least one to two hours before your first meal or as advised by your doctor. Nutrients like fiber, calcium and iron may stop your body from absorbing the thyroid medication properly ().
- Breakfast: Gluten-free bread with eggs.
- Lunch: Chicken salad with 2–3 Brazil nuts.
- Dinner: Stir-fried chicken and vegetables served with rice.
- Breakfast: Oatmeal with 1/4 cup (31 grams) of berries.
- Lunch: Grilled salmon salad.
- Dinner: Fish baked with lemon, thyme and black pepper served with a side of steamed vegetables.
- Breakfast: Gluten-free bread with eggs.
- Lunch: Leftovers from dinner.
- Dinner: Shrimp skewers served with a quinoa salad.
- Breakfast: Overnight chia seed pudding — 2 tbsp (28 grams) chia seeds, 1 cup (240 ml) Greek yogurt and 1/2 tsp vanilla extract with sliced fruits of your choice. Let sit in a bowl or mason jar overnight.
- Lunch: Leftovers from dinner.
- Dinner: Roast lamb served with steamed vegetables.
- Breakfast: Banana-berry smoothie.
- Lunch: Gluten-free chicken salad sandwich.
- Dinner: Pork fajitas — sliced lean pork, bell peppers and salsa served in corn tortillas.
- Breakfast: Egg, mushroom and zucchini frittata.
- Lunch: Tuna and boiled egg salad.
- Dinner: Homemade gluten-free Mediterranean pizza topped with tomato paste, olives and feta cheese.
- Breakfast: Omelet with various vegetables.
- Lunch: Quinoa salad with green vegetables and nuts.
- Dinner: Grilled steak with a side salad.
Summary: This is a sample week-long meal plan for someone with hypothyroidism. It provides you with plenty of options for a delicious and healthy menu.
Tips for Maintaining a Healthy Weight
It’s very easy to gain weight with hypothyroidism due to a slow metabolism.
Here are a few tips to help you maintain a healthy weight.
- Get plenty of rest: Aim for 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night. Sleeping less than this is linked with fat gain, especially around the belly area ().
- Practice mindful eating: Paying attention to what you're eating, why you’re eating and how fast you’re eating can help you develop a better relationship with food. Studies also show that it can help you lose weight (, ).
- Try yoga or meditation: Yoga and meditation can help you de-stress and improve your overall health. Research also shows that they are effective at helping you maintain a healthy weight ().
- Try a low to moderate carb diet: Eating a low to moderate amount of carbs is very effective for maintaining a healthy weight. However, avoid trying a ketogenic diet, as eating too few carbs may lower your thyroid hormone levels (, ).
Summary: While it’s easy to gain weight with hypothyroidism, there are plenty of things you can do to help maintain a healthy weight. For example, you can try to get plenty of rest, eat a good amount of protein and practice mindful eating.
The Bottom Line
Hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid, is a common health problem.
It can cause symptoms such as tiredness, weight gain, feeling cold and many others.
Fortunately, eating the right nutrients and taking medications may help reduce your symptoms and improve thyroid functions.
Nutrients that are great for your thyroid are iodine, selenium and zinc.
On the other hand, eating gluten may cause uncomfortable symptoms for some people with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, the main cause of hypothyroidism. That’s because Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and celiac disease are closely linked. Some people may have both diseases.
Following a thyroid-friendly diet can help minimize your symptoms and help you maintain a healthy weight. It encourages eating whole, unprocessed foods and lean protein.