As a thyroid patient, you probably know what it feels like to fight and scratch just to see minor improvements in how you are feeling.
Sometimes it can feel like pulling teeth just to get a small boost in your energy.
Well, what if I told you that there’s something you can do right now that would be an easy win for your thyroid?
Something that will not only help improve your thyroid function but also improve many other systems in your body at the same time?
And it’s something that you can start doing right now:
Stop eating ultra-processed foods.
I know, I know, it may not be a novel or sexy idea, but it’s something that is completely within your control and it’s something that can help your thyroid in as little as 30 days.
Because today we are going to talk about what happens to your thyroid (and your overall health) when you give up processed foods (hint: a lot of good things happen).
Before we get started, though, a simple definition is in order:
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How Can You Tell If A Food Is Processed?
This is surprisingly important because studies show that most people get this wrong.
The average person can easily identify ultra-processed foods like soda, pre-packaged foods (TV dinners), breakfast cereals, and instant soups (1).
But these same people draw a blank when asked whether or not things like milk, flour, cheese, and bread are processed.
So let’s quickly define what processing means and how to determine if a food is safe to eat.
So what does it mean if a food is processed?
All it means is that the food you are about to eat has undergone some change from its original state.
This ranges all the way from freezing food to extensive alterations like the addition of additives, artificial dyes, artificial colors, sweeteners, and preservatives.
And, as you might imagine, the degree of processing matters quite a bit but it’s not that hard to understand.
Here’s an example that will help:
Imagine you are going to eat strawberries from the grocery store.
An example of an unprocessed version of strawberries would be the ripe whole strawberries that you purchase in a container.
These are great and healthy to eat.
An example of a minimally processed version of strawberries would be ripe strawberries in their whole form that come frozen.
These are still great and healthy even though they’ve undergone minimal processing.
An example of an ultra-processed version of strawberries would be strawberry jam.
While the jam definitely contains some strawberries, they’ve been altered so much from their original form that, aside from the taste, you’d have a hard time connecting them to the original unprocessed whole-food strawberries we mentioned first.
Strawberry jam is unhealthy and an example of an ultra-processed food.
The examples of milk and cheese, while still processed in order to be sold in the grocery store, are minimally processed and are still fine to eat (provided you tolerate dairy).
For purposes of this article, when I talk about processed foods, what I’m really referring to are ultra-processed foods.
These should be avoided at all costs and doing so has the potential to provide a ton of benefits to your thyroid and overall health.
6 Ways Giving Up Processed Foods Will Benefit Your Thyroid
#1. Inflammation Will Subside
One of the main reasons to avoid processed foods has to do with their effect on inflammation (2).
Inflammation, of course, is at the heart of many chronic diseases and it also doesn’t do any favors for your thyroid.
In states of inflammation, your thyroid has difficulty processing and activating thyroid hormones.
This is normally done through a process called thyroid conversion where your body takes the T4 thyroid hormone and activates it by turning it into T3 thyroid hormone.
It’s been established in several studies that the food you eat each day can either be pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory.
Diets high in ultra-processed foods just so happen to be pro-inflammatory and, therefore, thyroid-disrupting.
What happens to your thyroid when inflammation decreases?
Your body will be able to more easily create the most powerful thyroid hormone known as T3.
And the more t3 you have in your body, the more thyroid hormone activation you will get.
This is important for all thyroid patients, but especially those who are taking thyroid medication like levothyroxine.
Levothyroxine is considered a T4-only thyroid medication which means it doesn’t contain any active thyroid hormone.
In order to use it, your body must turn it into T3 which is inhibited in the face of inflammation.
This means that it’s very likely that your thyroid medication is not working as well as it should if you eat processed foods.
#2. Gut Health Improves
Ultra-processed foods contain a number of ingredients that have a negative effect on your gut.
Ingredients like emulsifiers, artificial flavors, artificial colors, and preservatives can disrupt gut health (3) leading to conditions like increased intestinal permeability and an imbalanced microbiome.
The exact reason this happens is not completely understood but probably has to do with the fact that processed foods are low in fiber, low in micronutrients, and high in synthetic compounds.
And as it relates to your thyroid, it turns out that you want a healthy gut if you want healthy thyroid function.
This connection is sometimes referred to as the thyroid-gut-axis (4) and together these two organs regulate the immune system (which is particularly important for thyroid patients with Hashimoto’s and Graves’ disease), the absorption of medications (like thyroid medication), and the absorption of nutrients (which are critical for thyroid function).
On top of this, the bacteria in your gut also play an important role in stabilizing thyroid medication by acting as a reservoir for T3 thyroid hormone.
But only certain types of bacteria can do this and when you eat processed foods, the concentration of these bacteria dies off and more pathogenic strains take their place.
Simply put, removing processed foods has the potential to improve your gut which can help…
- Increase T3 levels through thyroid conversion (20% of T3 production comes from the gut)
- Improve the effectiveness of your thyroid medication by improving its absorption
- Stabilize T3 levels meaning you may be able to reduce your dose of thyroid medication
- Enhance thyroid function across the board
- Improve the immune system which can help treat autoimmune thyroid conditions like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and Graves’ disease
#3. Stress On The Liver Decreases
As far as organs in the body go, your liver has one of the biggest indirect effects on thyroid function.
It’s estimated that around 80% of the total amount of T3 floating around in your body comes from T4 to T3 conversion that occurs in the liver.
And this makes sense given your liver’s job as an enzyme factory responsible for activating and deactivating hormones, compounds, and pretty much anything else that makes its way into your body.
In order for this process to work, though, your liver needs to be able to do its job.
And unfortunately for people consuming ultra-processed foods, it can’t.
The consumption of processed foods is associated with a condition known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease or NAFLD (5) which presents with elevated liver enzymes.
This elevation in liver enzymes is seen as low-grade damage to the liver which, if left untreated, will eventually destroy it.
As you can imagine, it’s hard for the liver to do its many jobs effectively if it’s under constant stress and damage from your diet.
The great news is that your liver (unlike other organs in your body) has regenerative capacity which means it can self-heal, provided you let it.
Giving up processed foods and replacing them with whole foods allows your liver to heal which ultimately allows it to continue to create T3 and support thyroid function throughout the body.
#4. Fewer Food Cravings
The more you eat of these foods the less appealing whole foods become by comparison as your taste buds are sensitized to abnormal inputs that they would have never normally come into contact with.
Why does this matter for thyroid patients?
Because one of the best tools at your disposal to improve your thyroid is your diet.
And in a world where doctors often fail to help thyroid patients feel better with the use of medications, diet becomes increasingly important to the thyroid community.
But how can you eat a healthy diet when your body is screaming for hyper-palatable foods like chips, fast food, cereal, and ice cream?
You can’t, not really.
You can throw in a few healthy meals here or there but in order to eat healthy you’re going to have to completely get rid of the processed foods.
And this process is actually easier than you might think.
Fortunately, your taste buds and body rapidly recalibrate back to normal levels once you remove these foods from your diet.
Within 2-3 weeks of avoiding processed foods, you will start to find whole foods like strawberries to be very sweet (even though they probably won’t start out that way when you first give up processed foods!).
It’s hard for strawberries to compete with a soft drink loaded with 50 grams of sugar, but after a few weeks, everything resets back to normal which means you can more easily eat a healthy diet to support your thyroid.
#5. You’ll Get More Micronutrients
Eating processed foods provides you with a very poor trade-off:
Tons of calories with very few nutrients.
It’s been documented that processed foods are low in fiber, protein, potassium, zinc, magnesium, vitamins A, C, D, E, B12, and niacin (8).
To give you an idea of how important these nutrients are for your thyroid, consider these effects:
- Zinc: needed by the body to convert T4 into T3 and for thyroid hormone to bind to the nuclear thyroid receptor.
- Magnesium: needed to create ATP for iodine entry into the thyroid gland to create thyroid hormone.
- Protein: needed to build muscle mass which is one of the largest targets of thyroid hormone activity.
- Vitamin A: needed for thyroid hormone to bind to the thyroid hormone receptor (deficiency by itself is enough to cause hypothyroidism)
- Vitamin D: needed to protect against thyroid cancer and autoimmune thyroid disease.
- Vitamin B12: b12 deficiency symptoms mimic hypothyroid symptoms which complicates diagnosis and management.
It’s pretty easy to see why not having enough of these micronutrients would cause problems for your thyroid and why consuming real whole foods is beneficial.
This is probably also why people who switch to a whole-food diet see improvement in general symptoms like energy levels, skin health, gut health, and well-being when they cut out processed foods.
Yes, these nutrients are important for your thyroid but they provide other functions to other organs as well!
#6. You’ll Lose Weight
It’s no surprise that people who eat processed foods end up with higher rates of obesity and weight gain.
One study found that people who eat ultra-processed foods consume about 500 calories per day more than people who eat unprocessed foods (9).
Beyond the fact that nobody wants to gain unwanted pounds, extra weight gain negatively impacts thyroid function.
Most people connect low thyroid function with weight gain, which definitely happens, but the relationship is bidirectional.
The more weight you gain, the worse your thyroid functions so it can often be a chicken and egg game trying to figure out which came first.
Regardless, we know this for sure:
Cutting processed foods often leads to weight loss which will have a positive impact on your thyroid health (and your mental health!).
I know that the idea of removing processed foods from your diet isn’t a novel one, but why do so many people continue to eat these foods knowing that they cause problems?
I believe one reason is education.
The more you understand how something negatively impacts your body, the less likely you are to continue that behavior.
My hope for you is that this added information gives you the push to eliminate these foods from your diet.
If you need help knowing what to eat, then I’d recommend checking out my perfect thyroid diet.
It will give you a great starting point and it excludes highly processed foods.