Thyroid disorders are extremely common in the U.S. — approximately 20 million Americans suffer from some sort of thyroid condition and 60 percent are unaware that they even have one. Women are 5 to 8 times more likely to develop a thyroid condition than men.
Despite so many people suffering from these conditions, there is still a lack of research on how to properly support thyroid health via lifestyle factors.
Most thyroid disorders are caused by an autoimmune reaction like Hashimoto’s or Graves’ disease, causing hypo or hyperthyroidism. Because of this classification, people immediately assume that following an autoimmune protocol diet will be beneficial toward thyroid function.
But is that really the case? What research exists behind this diet? Let’s break it down.
What is the autoimmune protocol (AIP) diet?
This is an extremely restrictive elimination diet sometimes recommended to those who suffer from autoimmune conditions. Its goal is to reduce inflammation by eliminating proposed foods that cause inflammation.
The following foods are recommended to avoid:
- All types of grains, even gluten free grains
- Legumes — beans, peanuts and peas
- Dairy and eggs
- Processed foods and refined sugars
- Industrial seed oils such as canola and vegetable oils
- All nuts and seeds
- Nightshade vegetables — potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and beets
- Coffee, chocolate and certain spices such as coriander and cumin
- Gums and alternative sweeteners
- Emulsifiers and food thickeners
So, what is there left to eat? Meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, non-starchy vegetables, minimal fruit intake, and coconut and olive oil. While people who try this diet may feel like there are potential benefits, it’s important to note the drawbacks of such a restrictive diet. Seeing as one is expected to follow this diet for the rest of their life. It is not only unrealistic for many people, but it can also cause nutritional deficiencies, unintended weight loss, and increased risk for eating disorders, disordered eating and food fear due to the lack of options.
Show me the research
Currently, there isn’t solid research on this protocol. I found one study that tracked participants with thyroid disorders who followed the AIP diet. They found zero improvement in thyroid labs but did find a slight decrease in inflammatory markers (C-reactive protein or CRP) and positive observational survey results from participants.
Since this study was observational, it’s possible CRP improved due to placebo effect and an increased intake of vegetables, as most people lack veggie intake. Please note that the AIP diet is not supported by the American Gastroenterological Association nor the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists.
Other ways to help out your thyroid
Did you know that carbohydrates actually help your thyroid work more efficiently? They help the key thyroid hormones produce more effectively, giving your overall thyroid health a boost.
Related: Not all carbs are created equal
Eat enough food
Since your thyroid manages your metabolism, it is important to make sure you don’t under-fuel your body.
Women should aim to get no less than 1200 kcals per day and men no less than 1500 kcals per day. If you are active, you should add on at least 200-500 kcals extra, depending on how intense and frequent your workouts are. I’m personally not a fan of counting calories, but in case you are, this gives you an idea.
Remember, your body uses energy to breathe, digest food, sleep, process information and thousands of other tasks. If you are undereating, your body will slow down and preserve what it can to survive. Your thyroid is going to be one of the regulators for this. Therefore, if you aren’t eating enough, you can bet that your metabolism will decrease and impact thyroid function, amongst other things.
Ditch the scale
For those who have hypothyroidism, it can be frustrating to put on weight and struggle to lose it. I‘d like to remind you, it’s not your fault!
Don’t blame yourself. This is normal. Thyroid disorders can be difficult to manage, and weight is hard to change permanently — in fact, 90-95 percent of diets and weight loss attempts fail over time in the general population.
Studies have also shown that those who have a higher BMI were able to control their thyroid hormones better than those who were trying to lose weight and manage their thyroid hormones.
Since current society values people being a certain size, it is understandable that you may feel like you need to lose the weight. However, if you never lose the weight or you don’t want to lose the weight, that is 100% okay. Your health is not defined by your weight. It’s your body, so do what feels best for you. Just be sure to talk with a registered dietitian if you do have concerns about your weight.
The bottom line on the AIP diet
Currently there is not enough research to back the AIP diet. As a dietitian, I cannot recommend it as a way to manage a thyroid disorder nor any other autoimmune disorder.
Keep in mind that those with one autoimmune condition are at a higher risk of developing other autoimmune conditions. Make sure to monitor any changes in how you feel, new symptoms or changes in bowel movements.
Always remember to talk to your doctor about current medications and supplements you may be taking and any symptoms you’re experiencing. Speak with a registered dietitian about your dietary concerns and goals. Make sure you’re voicing any questions or frustrations, so you can team up to make the right decisions for your thyroid — and your overall health.