Weight loss can be challenging at the best of times. A clean diet, exercising regularly, sleeping well and hydrating adequately are the pillars of all weight loss plans. Often when a person with low thyroid hormone production starts focusing on weight loss, minimal to no pounds come off, despite doing everything right. Until thyroid hormones are optimal for the individual, which might include the correct dose of thyroid prescriptions, the struggle to lose weight is real.
What is Hypothyroidism?
The thyroid gland sits within the lower aspect of the anterior neck and is in the shape of a butterfly. This important organ of the endocrine system is responsible for the rate of metabolism and essentially controls all processes within cells, tissues and organs. That is a huge responsibility for such a small organ! The two most important thyroid hormones are T3 and T4, both are made in the thyroid as well as elsewhere in the liver, kidneys and cells. When lower levels of either T3 or T4 are produced, the metabolic rate is decreased. Symptoms can present as weight gain, difficulties with weight loss, depression, fatigue, hair loss, dry skin, brittle nails, feeling cold, low libido and headaches. It is estimated that about 5% of the population has been diagnosed with hypothyroidism, however there are many more undiagnosed people.
Can You Lose Weight with Thyroid Issues?
The bottom line is yes, you can. The most success will come if thyroid hormone levels are checked and balanced if needed. Balanced means making or ingesting through pharmaceuticals enough thyroid hormone. Subclinical hypothyroidism is very common and can be addressed with low amounts of thyroid hormone prescription and supplements to promote natural production of hormones. With proper balance, weight loss can be achieved along with lifestyle and diet programs.
How Can Thyroid Issues Hinder Weight Loss?
With a slow metabolic rate, fat will not be used as energy and weight loss is a challenge. Once thyroid hormone levels are optimal and any other hormonal condition is addressed, weight can be lost using the same types of ways that people with normal thyroid function lose weight.
Is it Harder to Lose Weight with Thyroid Issues?
It can be difficult to see large amounts of weight loss when hypothyroidism isn’t treated. Proper testing of the blood levels of thyroid hormones should be performed to determine if weight loss difficulties are due to low metabolism. This is easily confirmed when a physician who is skilled at thyroid health reviews labs such as TSH, T3, T4, reverse T3 and thyroid antibodies.
Can Hypothyroidism Contribute to Weight Gain?
Not only can weight loss be a challenge, but gaining weight is a symptom of hypothyroidism. It is not normal to gain weight when diet, exercise, sleep and stress levels have not changed. Hypothyroidism is one of the main causes of weight gain, however other factors may include insulin resistance, elevated cortisol/stress, or estrogen and progesterone imbalances.
How to Lose Weight With Thyroid Issues / Hypothyroidism
The most important factor is to have hypothyroidism diagnosed and treated. Depending on the severity of the condition, prescription drugs, dietary changes, vitamins, minerals and herbs can be customized into a specific thyroid hormone protocol to enable weight loss. Lifestyle factors such as sleep, stress, hydration and exercise are also very important. Dietary changes to the best proportion of macronutrients and caloric intake will also promote weight loss for those with hypothyroidism.
Have Hormones Tested
All thyroid hormones and antibodies should be tested to determine if thyroid hormones are being made, transported and used by the cells. Nutrients also contribute to a healthy thyroid and should be evaluated along with thyroid markers. A complete list of laboratory testing would include TSH, free T4, free T3, reverse T3, anti-thyroglobulin antibodies, anti-TPO antibodies, SHBG, iron, Vitamin D, selenium, iodine, Vitamin B12, zinc and magnesium. Sometimes it is helpful to look at other hormones of the endocrine system such as insulin, estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, DHEA and cortisol.
Reduce / Eliminate
Dietary considerations for all people working on weight loss will always involve reducing refined sugars and high-sugar foods. When too much sugar is consumed, the body changes it into fat and stores it away. For those with a slower metabolism, this can occur at a higher rate. Trans fats, processed foods and empty calories are the first “foods” to eliminate. Specifically for hypothyroidism, once the hormones are controlled, the dietary guidelines would be the same as for anyone else trying to lose weight.
Reduce Carb Intake
A lower carbohydrate intake can promote weight loss. Approximately up to 25% of a meal or snack can include complex carbs such as whole grains, sweet potato, yam, beans or lentils. This is often less than what people consume, think about ordering a plate of pasta at a restaurant, much more than 25% of the plate is covered with noodles.
Consult with a Medical Practitioner for Appropriate Medications
With any medical condition, a trained and certified medical or naturopathic physician should be consulted for the appropriate prescribing of medications. Supplements can also contain ingredients that should be limited or may have contraindications for some groups of people, thus seeking appropriate advice for supplements, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants is also important. Thyroid hormones are prescription drugs and must be monitored with regular blood work and follow-up appointments.
Limit Your Diet to Thyroid-Friendly Foods
If you are eating a wide variety of whole foods and moderating your portions, you are eating thyroid-friendly. Non-starchy vegetables along with healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, fish and avocado should be part of each meal. Mixing up the types of vegetables and eating both raw and lightly steamed varieties is optimal. Soy can be consumed once or twice per week if desired, but should be limited. Iodine-rich foods such as sea vegetables, seaweed, fish and seafood are often thyroid-friendly but that depends on the individual and the specific type of thyroid condition.
What to Eat
Think about the plate as a pie-chart. 50% should ideally be non-starchy vegetables such as salads, peppers, cruciferous vegetables and other leafy greens. 25% (or about ½ cup) of complex carbohydrates which could be quinoa, brown rice, yams or other whole grain/whole food starch. The last 25% is for protein – either animal or plant based. On-top of the pie-chart, 1-2 tablespoons of healthy oils or fats like nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil or fish will round out the healthy proportions.
What to Avoid
Again, try to avoid processed foods such as pre-made meals or “just add water” packages. Using real ingredients such as fresh produce, unprocessed meat, fish, beans and healthy oils like olive, avocado and coconut will support a healthy metabolism. Sugar is always the enemy, but even worse are artificial sugars and refined sugars. There is evidence that points to aspartame being a cause of weight gain rather than supporting weight loss – avoid at all costs!
Water is the key to life! Ancient primary living beings began in water and we haven’t evolved to survive without it in over 1 billion years. Water flushes away by-products of metabolism and helps rid the body of toxins. When fat starts shrinking, the stored toxins are liberated and need to move efficiently through body fluids to be excreted. Drinking an average of 2 litres per day keeps toxins from reabsorbing and muscles ready to keep on moving.
Setting a limited time to consume calories in the day can boost metabolism in some individuals. Those with insulin resistance or high blood sugar can greatly benefit from intermittent fasting (IF). The textbook approach of IF is to eat all meals and snacks within an 8 hour time frame and have 16 hours where no calories are consumed. There are many variations with this window and for some people, 10 hours of caloric intake and 14 hours of fasting makes a huge difference with weight loss. However, if thyroid hormones are not optimal, menial loss will be observed, even with IF.
Improve Lifestyle Habits
One of the main blockers of weight loss is stress. This comes down to the hormonal level; the stress hormone cortisol will inhibit the most active thyroid hormone from being maximally produced. Basic stress reduction techniques, yoga, reading, slowing down the general pace of life are all ways to lower cortisol. Other lifestyle habits that can be tweaked for optimal weight loss regardless of thyroid function are sleep and exercise.
The more hours slept before midnight, the better the quality of sleep. For example, a 7 hour sleep from 1am-8am will provide less rest, less cortisol reduction and less energy than sleeping from 10pm-5am. Sleeping in a completely dark and silent room will also promote a deeper sleep with which the body will benefit by reduced inflammation, more healing and better energy.
Limit Screen Time
Putting down phones and shutting off laptops at least one hour before bed will yield higher natural melatonin levels produced by the brain. This promotes a more rested sleep and also has antioxidant properties to repair cellular damage.
Moving every day, in some capacity, will reduce risks of diseases. For weight loss, a combination of cardiovascular exercise, weight lifting and stress-reducing movement such as yoga or walking rounds out a good exercise plan. Taking advantage of natural cortisol peaks in the day such as the morning may help exercise translate faster to weight loss. Hypothyroidism can impede exercise motivation, stamina and recovery.
Consume Recommended Vitamins / Supplements
Once diagnosed with hypothyroidism, an individualized treatment protocol can be developed with natural supplements. Using food as medicine first, sometimes it is necessary to add in extra thyroid nutrients such as selenium, zinc, magnesium, Vitamin Bs, Vitamin D, inositol and tyrosine. There are herbs that support hypothyroidism and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and are safe to use with thyroid prescriptions and other vitamins. A personalized treatment plan can be developed by a Naturopathic Physician which is based on symptoms, labs and other concurrent conditions to optimize thyroid function and support weight loss.