Myths, Fears, & Roadblocks Around Thyroid-healthy Eating
What gets in our way of making thyroid-healthy dietary changes? If we know what to do, and why we should do it, then why is it so hard to actually do it?
Feeling well with hypothyroidism, Hashimoto’s, Graves, or without a thyroid often requires making some healthy changes in all aspects of our lives, including the food we eat. If you’re curious to learn more about what thyroid-healthy eating is, I recommend checking out episode 5 of the Thyroid-healthy Bites show:
The plan for this blog post and episode of Thyroid-healthy Bites is to talk about what gets in our way of making thyroid-healthy dietary changes. I’m going to address some of the biggest myths, fears, and roadblocks around thyroid-healthy eating, including:
- Is all of this even worth it?
- Will I have to be cooking all the time?
- Can I afford to eat this way?
- Is it going to be super restrictive?
I know the struggle because I’ve lived it, and have coached hundreds of other Thyroid Thrivers through the process. I've witnessed many lives being changed by applying the principles of thyroid-healthy eating, and know its power. This experience also taught me that until we address the roadblocks in our way, we're stuck where we are. Wrapping our heads around these questions, concerns, and fears is an essential first step toward eating well, so you can feel well.
Let’s dive in.
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Quick disclaimer: This is for informational and educational purposes only, and in no way should be considered a substitute for professional medical advice and guidance. Always discuss diet and lifestyle changes with your doctor first.
Why is Thyroid-healthy Eating Important?
While some of us are still being told by our doctors that diet and lifestyle won’t make a difference for hypothyroidism, there’s a growing army of experts and patients who wholeheartedly disagree. I am one of them.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that a thyroid-healthy diet and lifestyle gave me my life back. When I finally found better, more whole-health-oriented medical care, food was the first thing my new doctor talked to me about.
With her help, I went from feeling tired all day, every day for four years to suddenly having my life, dreams, joy, and energy back. The fact that I can never get those four years back— the first four years of my son’s life, is what fuels my fire every single day. I am on a mission here at Hypothyroid Chef to make sure that you don’t have to suffer needlessly, unaware, unempowered, and uninformed, as I did.
Food wasn’t the only piece of my healing puzzle— I want to be clear about that. While I was shifting to the anti-inflammatory way of eating my doctor recommended, we were also testing for and treating some underlying root cause issues (namely, gut dysbiosis in my case), addressing micronutrient deficiencies, and optimizing my thyroid medication and dosage. But diet was, is, and always will be the foundation of my house of health.
First Stop: Mindset Blocks
As Thyroid Thrivers, It’s exciting when we discover that diet and lifestyle changes can make a difference. The prospect of having some power over how we feel is enticing. You’re enthusiastic, you’re curious, you start digging into the information, annnnd stuff gets REAL, real quick.
We’re talking about eliminating gluten, not just a little bit but 100%. We’re also talking about cutting out dairy, sugar, soy, sometimes grains, caffeine or alcohol….YIKES. We’re talking about eating more vegetables (which is legitimately scary for some of us). We’re talking about avoiding environmental toxins by buying organic, which costs more.
This can be really… upsetting, I guess, is the right word.
Trust me, I get it. I have had to change not just the way I eat but my entire career and relationship with food (remember, I was working as a chef) so I get the frustration, the fear, the anger, the resentment.
What is ultimately required of us to not only begin but to stay the course is to adopt the proper mindset.
If you can’t get past the mindset roadblock, you’re stuck at the trailhead of your healing journey. You can’t even begin until you get out of a stuck mindset, and into a healing mindset.
Truth Bomb: The reason a healing mindset is required is that making healthy changes requires courage, time, and effort. There is no magic pill, no silver bullet, and no magic wand.
Go ahead and dream. Feel the deep, desperate desire to feel better, have energy, and be happier. Wanting something is the first step in obtaining it. So go ahead, make that vision board. Put everything your heart desires on there: playing with your kids or grandkids, feeling strong, having adventures, following your dreams.
All of those dreams can come true… IF you’re willing to do the work.
You CAN feel better. Believe that! YOU CAN.
Those of us who have been where you are are cheering you on. We’re also continuing our own work of staying on the thyroid-healthy path because the journey is lifelong. It also isn’t linear. We all have obstacles and untold challenges to face along the way. But with a few wins, some experience, and a growing level of awareness, the obstacles get easier to face and overcome. It’s not a destination, it’s a life practice.
If there is a magic wand you can wave to speed yourself along the path towards feeling better, mindset is it. It costs nothing, and yet, it changes everything.
How do we adopt a healing mindset?
Adopting a healing mindset starts with these core beliefs:
- I am worth the effort.
- I am allowed to have needs.
- I can feel better.
- I deserve to give myself the kind of love and care I give to others.
- I am not alone.
If any (or all) of these beliefs strike a nerve with you, that may be a good indication that there’s some personal inner-work to do. While that sounds like a tall order, it’s as simple as creating some sort of reminder system:
- Sticky notes on the bathroom mirror.
- A love note to yourself on the lock screen of your phone.
- A daily alarm that you use to practice these affirmations.
- A prayer or meditation practice that incorporates these affirmations.
- A habit stacking practice, like repeating these affirmations to yourself in your mind while you’re brushing your teeth.
Whatever reminder system works for you, use it to plant and instill those core beliefs on a daily basis. It may seem awkward or forced at first, but with time, we assimilate the thoughts we think. In other words, our behaviors and choices will change when we clean up our beliefs.
Why is Mindset Important?
Feeling optimal requires that you take optimal care of yourself. That’s the work of the thyroid-healing journey. It requires that we believe in our worth, and our ability to make positive change in our lives.
The healing journey sometimes means:
- Being that person, who has special dietary requests.
- Having needs.
- Asking for what you need.
- Asking for support.
- Saying no.
- Failing, and trying again.
- Changing your environment to a more supportive one.
- Changing your relationships.
- Having a thick skin when some people just don’t get it.
- Advocating for yourself.
- Being honest with yourself.
- Being honest with others.
- Saying goodbye to that which no longer serves us.
- Coming out of the illness closet.
Those all sound good on paper, right? But when you pause and consider what that looks and feels like in real life, it can be scary.
Personally, every item on that list is something I have had to work on and still do. Having needs? Being that person? Eeeek!! But I am a Thyroid Thriver, which means I’m learning to have needs and be that person, because my life and health depend on it, and because I believe that I'm worth it.
Thyroid Thriver, from miles down the path I can tell you with certainty that it gets easier with time. Every win propels and validates us. We figure it out as we go. We stumble. We overcome. We celebrate small wins. Most importantly, we stay committed and keep going. That’s life. That’s the work. That’s the journey. And I promise you, it’s 100% totally worth it!
Now, let’s shift the conversation to some of the more pragmatic, nuts & bolts logistics of thyroid-healthy eating.
Will this require too much time and cooking?
Good health doesn’t come in a bag, box, or bottle. You can’t have it delivered to your house or grab it at the drive-through. Thyroid-healthy eating means preparing whole-food, nutrient-dense meals. This will require some time and effort.
Now, if any of you come across one of those magic wands that can put thyroid-healthy meals on the table, do the shopping, and the dishes, let me know and I’ll add it to My Favorites Store! We all want one! LOL
But seriously, thyroid-healthy eating does not have to be a full-time job! All it takes is a solid system, and you can eat thyroid-healthy meals all day, every day.
It was Ben Franklin who said, “You can do anything you set your mind to.”
It was also Ben Franklin who said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”
So, according to our buddy Ben Franklin, You can do anything you set your mind to IF you plan it.
Nothing could be more true in terms of thyroid-healthy eating.
A good plan or meal-planning system is what makes thyroid-healthy eating doable and sustainable, not just for a few weeks, but for good. Remember: This isn’t a 30-day diet, this is a lifestyle plan.
Having a simple meal-planning system is what has enabled me to stay the course with this since 2015. If I didn’t meal plan, I probably wouldn’t be here today, hanging out with you. Because I would still be exhausted, sick, and watching my life and my dreams slip through my fingers while it took everything I had just to get through the day. Thyroid-healthy meal planning is as simple and as powerful as that.
The Basic Outline of Thyroid-healthy Meal Planning:
- One day a week, spend about 30 minutes picking out recipes and making a shopping list.
- On day one of your cooking week, spend a little extra time on meal prep to set yourself up for a successful thyroid-healthy week.
- Throughout the week, breakfasts, lunches, and snacks are primarily provided by the food you’ve already made, and leftovers from the evening meal.
- Spend no more than an hour making dinner most nights (about 5 nights/week), and the fridge will be filled with thyroid-healthy whole-food meals you’ve already prepared.
It’s not rocket science, but it is a game-changer. This approach has stood the test of time for me personally, as a busy working mom who can’t spend all day in the kitchen. We’ve used this model for years. It’s totally customizable and and 100% doable!
Can I Afford to Eat this Way?
One of the most common fears I hear about thyroid-healthy eating is I can’t afford to eat organic, or I can’t buy these expensive ingredients.
We all have unique circumstances and limitations to work within. Financially over-extending yourself to eat well is not something I would encourage anyone to do. I would like to address this roadblock from both a mindset standpoint and a practical money-saving standpoint.
Let’s start with mindset.
Limiting beliefs are such a common roadblock and are a part of being human. They’re also rampant around food and money. When we become aware of our own limiting beliefs, real change can happen.
Take a moment to ponder whether your resistance to spending money on thyroid-healthy whole foods is based on actual financial truth, or on a storyline you've been telling yourself. Is that story really true? Be super-duper honest with yourself.
Sometimes it really is the cold, hard truth of our situation. But sometimes, we might be surprised by what we discover.
It’s like working out. Do you really not have time, or is it just not a priority? Do you really not have money for healthy whole foods, or is it just not a priority? People get really mad about this one, but I have a responsibility to put these questions out on the table.
Sometimes "I can't afford that," is just a story we tell ourselves. Sometimes, money is a real roadblock. If that roadblock is your reality, you're not alone. In 2022, 70% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.
If this is you, don’t let this make you believe that you can’t afford to THRIVE. There’s always some aspect of our lives we can tweak to support our health, that doesn’t cost a dime.
Here’s an example: Take a few belly breaths and practice any form of gratitude over your food before you eat. This may sound trite, but the results are real. You will get more nutrition from your food while lowering cortisol and improving digestion, just by practicing relaxed, mindful eating.
Also, don’t let the rigid ideas that are often presented in this health and wellness space make you believe that because you maybe can’t afford 100% ideal food, you’re not able to support your health. Thyroid-healthy eating isn't about doing it perfectly. It’s about taking every little step we can, no matter how small, and celebrating each one. Progress, not perfection, is the name of the game.
Stressing about our food is in many ways worse for you than eating food that’s less than ideal. We need to be at peace with our food, and that comes from meeting ourselves where we are, and doing our personal best, without comparing ourselves to others.
While it may be true that organic is ideal for thyroid health, you’re not a bad person because you bought regular broccoli instead of organic broccoli. You and only you get to define what works for you, and what doing your best looks like, okay?
I don’t know how to fix our economic problems or our broken food system. But I do have a few ideas and tools that you may find helpful.
7 Ways to Make Thyroid-healthy Eating More Affordable:
- Use the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists. These list the produce items that are most important to buy organic, and those where it doesn’t matter as much. This tool can help you prioritize where to put your food dollars, especially in terms of organics.
- Buy food that’s in season. Not only is it more nutrient-dense, but it’s also cheaper. Berries, greens, green beans, peas, and herbs are all examples of produce that can be bought cheaper when it's in season and then frozen.
- As a money-saving investment, consider getting a chest freezer or extra fridge & freezer. If you have the space and can find a cheap used one, this will quickly pay for itself. Not only can you freeze some of the big-batch recipes you’ve made for instant thyroid-healthy meals, but you can also stock up when things are on sale and store them in the freezer. Because we rely on more fresh food as Thyroid Thrivers, an extra freezer serves as a go-to convenience pantry. We have an extra fridge in our garage that is 30+ years old that I rely on heavily.
- For high-quality meat, consider purchasing a whole animal or half-animal directly from local farms or ranches. We've done this a few times and have gotten some of the best pasture-raised beef, bison, and lamb for way less than retail. Anywhere you can cut out the middle man will save you $$. Again, an extra freezer will enable you to stock up on and store that meat. If you hunt or have friends who do, that extra freezer could also mean having a place to store free venison or other wild game meats!
- Subscribe to a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and get loads of seasonal produce while supporting local farms. A CSA is like a produce subscription from a local farm or group of farms. We’ve been subscribing to one for years. Because we live in Montana, it only lasts through the growing season, but we get a big box of local organic produce for $18/week, for about 5 months of the year. Sometimes it’s more veggies than we can eat!! In the late fall, at the end of harvest season, the farm offers 100 pounds of produce for $100. It’s seriously a truckload of food, and much of it lasts through the entire winter. Winter squash, storage onions, cabbages, beets, carrots, potatoes. It’s the end of February and I’m still using ours up. Once again, most of it is stored in that extra 30-year-old fridge in our garage. While some of you may not have access to CSAs, some of you may be surprised that you DO. These are often word-of-mouth affairs, so inquire locally, or check out localharvest.org to search for a CSA in your area.
- Shop in bulk. Where I live we have Costco as well as a restaurant supply wholesale store. Other places have Sam’s Club or other wholesale food stores. The tricky thing is that you don’t always know what these stores going to have in stock. At Costco, they consistently have a TON of organic produce, organic animal protein, and organic pantry products. I occasionally use Costco to stock up on organic meats for the freezer, such as packs of organic ground bison, chicken breasts, chicken thighs, or organic ground turkey. Note: Be careful buying perishables in bulk, because if you don't have a plan to use them up, they can end up in the trash. This brings me to my final tip...
- Practice zero-waste cooking. Alongside the destructive idea that food should be cheap, easy, and convenient, comes the notion that food is disposable. Each year Americans throw away 108 billion pounds of food-- and then we complain that food is too expensive! It doesn't make sense. This consumerist mindset is bad for the planet and bad for us. When we shift to buying high-quality, nutrient-dense, organic food, one of the benefits is that we start to value our food more. Part of this means throwing as little of it away as possible. There are countless ways to practice zero-waste cooking, but the basic idea is that we adopt habits around shopping and cooking that minimize waste. Some practical ways you can do this are by meal planning (instead of buying whatever and having no idea what to do with it), repurposing all those leftover bits and bobs in the fridge (throw together a big salad or a "clean-out-the-fridge" soup!), and spacing out your shopping trips an extra day or two, to give yourself time to use up your perishables, before buying more. Even things like carrot peels, onion skins, celery leaves, and bones can be stashed away in the freezer for the next time you make a pot of bone broth. While absolute-zero waste might be unattainable for most of us, these simple habit changes can go a long way towards stretching our food dollars, improving our diets, and minimizing food waste.
Personally, I value and prioritize eating well. It's more important to me than things like clothing or a brand new car. I also realize that having good food to eat is a privilege too many are forced to go without. I wish I knew how to fix that, but I can't. All I can do is my personal best, within my personal means and limitations. That's all any of us can do.
I’m not going to lie and tell you that thyroid-healthy eating doesn’t come with a price tag, but genius means working within limitations, and hopefully, some of these ideas have opened your mind to the possibility that maybe fresh, whole foods are not as out of reach as you believed. Either way, just do your best and be at peace with your food.
Will Thyroid-healthy Eating be Too Restrictive?
This one is near and dear to me because I am a food lover. It’s has been my favorite medium and creative outlet since I was a little girl. As an adult, it became my livelihood and part of my identity. So, I understand completely, the real emotional connection we have to food, and the deeply-rooted fears we have around changing the way we eat.
I recently heard from one of the Thyroid Thrivers in our community who said, “Nothing seems as easy or satisfying as warm toast.”
I felt this one, deep in my heart. Toast! The ultimate comfort food. The smell of bread in the toaster? The best! I miss toast too, and I get it.
Dietary restrictions are a reality of thyroid-healthy eating. At the same time, eating a thyroid-healthy diet, meaning one that is free of gluten and often dairy, is not only 100% doable, but 100% enjoyable too.
Let’s take toast for example. You don’t have to give up toast! You just have to update the kind of toast you eat and shift to a way of eating where toast isn’t a mainstay in your diet.
Every once in a while I get a mean hankering for avocado toast smeared with garbanzo bean miso paste. So good, but because gluten-free bread can be problematic (i.e. hard to digest, spikes our blood sugar, etc.) I’ve gotten out of the regular habit of eating bread. However, I always keep a loaf of gluten-free bread in the freezer for when nothing else will suffice. I just grab a couple of slices of GF bread from the freezer and pop them in the toaster. Avocado toast craving, satisfied!
While relying too heavily on things like gluten-free substitutions isn't recommended, having some substitutions on hand is a tool we can use to adhere to our health goals, without feeling overly deprived or left out.
Substitution ingredients can also be used to re-create beloved recipes. You may need to make adjustments, but there are ways to have nearly all those traditional foods and family recipes we love. They may be a little different than what you’re used to, but life is different. You’re different.
I have found gluten-free pizza crust, flour, bagels, and bread that I love. I’ve found dairy-free ice cream, grain-free tortillas, tortilla chips, and crackers I love. They are not staples in my diet, because now I primarily eat and crave whole foods like roasted beets, wild-caught salmon, and fresh blueberries. What these substitution foods do is help us navigate those cravings, giving us a little wiggle room and freedom to not feel so restricted and deprived.
Too much self-denial and restriction is not a happy place to be and is ultimately unsustainable. Not being able to participate in things like holiday traditions or celebrations is a bummer. The good news is that thyroid-healthy eating does not require that you do that!
When your health depends on it, you’ll find that you get just as excited about that occasional piece of gluten-free avocado toast, or a gluten-free Christmas cookie, as the real thing. You can find ways to scratch the itch, without going off the rails. Ultimately, you get to decide what those rails are.
While gluten-free is the primary directive for thyroid-healthy eating, there are many other avenues of thyroid-healthy eating. Within the box of a whole-foods, unprocessed diet, you can define your hardline, "no-way" foods, and those you let yourself have a little more wiggle room with. Sometimes 100% elimination of certain foods (especially gluten) is necessary, but sometimes we are able to reintroduce foods with time. We may also find, with time, that a certain amount or a certain type of a food (like raw milk cheese, for example) is well tolerated.
Changing our overall eating habits may be required, but we can use things like gluten and dairy-free substitutions to keep us on course and enable us to participate in those special occasions and holiday traditions, without abandoning our health. With time, we also find a personalized approach that works for us and is flexible.
Over time, our tastes also change. We become surprised that sugar-laden foods we once loved now taste far too sweet. We reel from indulging in junk food, as if we have a chemical hangover (we often do), eventually becoming totally turned off to it. We find ourselves wondering, how did I used to eat or drink that all the time?
With time, it also becomes easier to navigate social events and holidays. I have always loved to cook, eat, and share food with others and I still do. Friends still enjoy my cooking and often have no idea that it's Paleo or AIP compliant. I'm also feeding a family who has no interest in being gluten or dairy-free, yet enjoys the real, whole foods I prepare. I love my thyroid-healthy diet because I know that it is the most powerful tool in my toolbox. It has benefitted not just my own health but the health of my family. I notice little ways in which it has inspired extended family members and friends. Best of all thyroid-healthy eating enables me to feel vibrant, happy, and alive. You can too.
It may take time to adjust but it will get easier. Perhaps faster than you think, you will feel better, and you will be propelled forward by the proof of your vibrant health.
There is no aspect of your healing journey more empowering, in my opinion, than discovering which foods work for you, which foods don’t, and then using that knowledge to reclaim and maintain your health. This isn’t the end of the world. In fact, in many ways, it’s the beginning of a whole new healthier you.
From a logistics standpoint, remember that you don’t have to start with big changes unless, of course, you, your doctor, or your nutritionist feel a bigger change is necessary. You should always consult with your doctor or other health care providers before making dietary changes.
Ultimately, this is your healing journey, so whether you need to dive in and start with a strict elimination diet like the Autoimmune Protocol, or choose to start with a smaller step like eliminating processed foods, or sugar, or gluten from your diet, you’re still making progress and moving in the right direction.
Every small step is a win, and the path we take will look different for each of us. One of us might be tackling a soda habit, while another may be making their own fermented foods and rocking the AIP. It’s all good! Don’t compare your Chapter 1 to someone else’s Chapter 20.
The most important thing is to begin, and then keep going. One small step after another will take you very, very far. Keep going, Thyroid Thriver! You got this.