Busting The Goitrogen Myth

goitrogens

 

One of the questions I am frequently asked on my facebook page as well as the comments here on the blog is “Aren’t you worried about eating goitrogens with autoimmune thyroid disease? My (insert alternative health practitioner here) told me that if I eat them, they will cause a goiter!”. A lot of people out there are living in fear of eating nutritious foods like broccoli, cabbage, sweet potatoes, and strawberries.

I’m here to convince you that eating goitrogens, in an regular quantities, is not harmful to you if you have autoimmune thyroid disease. In fact, I think you could be doing yourself harm, nutritionally speaking, by excluding them from your diet.

What are “goitrogens”?

Goitrogens are substances that affect the thyroid’s uptake of iodine, thereby interfering with the function of the gland. In addition to foods, there are many medications and chemicals that are known to affect this process.

Here is a list of common goitrogenic foods:

-Broccoli
-Brussels sprouts
-Cabbage
-Cauliflower
-Collard greens
-Flax seed
-Kale
-Mustard greens
-Pears
-Peaches
-Pine nuts
-Peanuts
-Radishes
-Rutabega
-Soy
-Spinach
-Strawberries
-Sweet potatoes
-Turnips

Although there are many foods not included on the autoimmune protocol in this list – flax seed, pine nuts, peanuts, and soy, among others, most of them are foods that are integral to this diet, like sweet potatoes and cruciferous vegetables.

Why would anyone avoid goitrogens?

It is a myth passed around in the alternative health community that goitrogens cause a goiter, which is an enlargement of the thyroid gland. As Dr. Kharrazian points out in his most recent article, goiters are not caused by iodine deficiency or by eating goitrogens – they are caused by the inflammation from chronic autoimmune thyroid disease (Hashimoto’s). In order to get rid of a goiter, a person needs to address the autoimmune thyroid disease, not remove goitrogens from their diet.

Why you should include goitrogens in your diet

Some of the vegetables that are classified as goitrogens also happen to be very nutritious foods and have qualities that would make us want to go out of our way to include them in our diets. Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, and kale are known for their anti-cancer and antioxidant properties. Root vegetables like sweet potatoes, turnips, and rutabaga provide a rich source of complex carbohydrate, which can be difficult to obtain on a grain-free diet. Cruciferous vegetables as well as sweet potatoes and strawberries contain carotenoids, which are precursors to vitamin A. In addition, a lot of the fruits and vegetables on this list are a good source of the B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin K, calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc and sulfur. By avoiding these foods, you may be setting yourself up for nutritional deficiencies.

Sarah Ballantyne over at The Paleo Mom has written a fantastic article on her blog about this topic, and her research indicates that consuming these foods in moderate quantities actually supports thyroid function. Sarah advises that as thyroid patients, we should make sure we are sufficient in zinc, iodine, and selenium, which is great advice (although iodine supplementation can be problematic – more on that in a future blog post!)

Lastly – these foods taste great, and they are an integral part of the autoimmune protocol (besides the few that are not included, especially soy). Many people get great pleasure from eating cruciferous vegetables, root vegetables like sweet potatoes, and fruits like pears and strawberries.

My Experience

Back when I was first diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease and was thrust into the world of alternative treatments, I avoided goitrogens religiously for a couple of months. I noticed no change, besides sadness for not being able to eat some of my favorite fruits and vegetables. On top of the autoimmune protocol, I found it extremely restrictive.

So I leave it at this – go ahead and eat your goitrogens, provided they are foods that are also allowed on the autoimmune protocol!

 

Have I convinced you that goitrogens are safe? I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments!

 

References:

http://chriskresser.com/solutions-for-snoring-overactive-bladder-and-balancing-goitrogens-in-your-diet
http://www.thepaleomom.com/2013/04/teaser-excerpt-from-the-paleo-approach-what-about-the-goitrogens-in-cruciferous-veggies.html
http://thyroidbook.com/goiter-goitrogens-thyroid-enlargement/
http://www.thepaleomom.com/2012/01/importance-of-vegetables.html

Comments

  1. Lisa Gibson says

    Whew, good to know. I was bummed about having to cut so much. Quick question, does hypothyroidism always (or the majority of the time) lead to Hashimoto’s? Just curious. Thanks for your always informative articles.

    • says

      Hi Lisa,
      I wouldn’t say that hypothyroidism leads to Hashimoto’s, but Hashimoto’s is usually the cause of hypothyroidism. Dr. K states that 90% of hypothyroidism is caused by Hashimoto’s – most people don’t know this when they get their diagnosis, because doctors do not usually check for antibodies (nor do they care that it is an autoimmune disease, because there is nothing that they can do about it). If you have been diagnosed with hypothyroidism, I highly recommend being tested for TPO antibodies, which will tell you if you have Hashimoto’s. Hope it helps!

    • says

      Thanks, Eileen. Despite their articles, I still get asked this question nearly every day, and I’m sure I haven’t seen the end of it :)

  2. Vicki says

    I was avoiding goitrogens for my thyroid. I wasn’t too rigid about it, I ate raw spinach or cabbage slaw if I was hungry for them, for example, but they were raw. NOW I find out from somewhere that goitrogens are okay in moderation if they are COOKED, like broccoli — they won’t mess with your med then. It is my understanding that goitrogens interfere with the body’s ability to ABSORB THYROID MEDICINE, not actually CAUSE a goiter (except secondary to not getting the med’s effect). You didn’t mention raw or cooked — just “eat them, it’s a myth.” ?? Now I’m thoroughly confused!! Please clarify — Raw, cooked, any way, any amounts, they are fine?? Is that right?? Does this affect every BODY the same way?

    • says

      Vicki,
      It is true that cooking foods lessens their goitrogenic effect. I didn’t mention it in my article, because I don’t believe it to be a problem to eat goitrogens, even raw. If you read my referenced articles, you will find no mention of goitrogens affecting the absorbtion of thyroid medication – I think that is also a myth (although, if you come across any scientific evidence showing it, I will gladly take a look at it!).

      As far as quantity, you should be fine as long as you are eating *normal* amounts of these foods. This does not mean juicing cabbage or eating a goitrogen-only vegetarian diet. I don’t like making specific recommendations in this department because everyone is different. You need to decide for yourself how much vegetables you want to eat in comparison to healthy proteins and fats.

      I hope that helps clear things up for you!

      Mickey

  3. Jeanne Huelskamp says

    I have a goiter. I have been tested and my thyroid is on the high side of normal and close to being hyper however I don’t have any symptoms. I have also been tested for TPO antibodies and I do not have TPO antibodies. If I did I would have Grave’s. I have read MANY articles about eating goitrogen veggies and I have gotten VERY conflicting messages. I LOVE these veggies and I use to eat them everyday. I do not eat them raw anymore. I have cut back because when I do eat a lot of them I start to feel a lump in my throat.

    • says

      Hi Jeanne,
      I am sorry to hear about your goiter. You should click through to Dr. Kharrazian’s article – he advocates for treating the reason behind the goiter, not avoiding goitrogens. I would look for a functional medicine doctor to get you some tests and find out the reason behind your inflammation.

      Mickey

  4. Matty says

    Totally agree that these foods may in fact support thyroid health, thanks so much for
    MYTH BUSTING. With so much info out there, we all get confused. I had Undiagnosed hypothyroidism for years, had to beg my doc to prescribe Armour, which helped yet did not entirely resolve some Hypothyroid symptoms. WHAT DID WORK and continues to make me feel great is a healthy eating program, I aim for 70% veggies, including a little fruit and 30% protein. This has given me amazing energy that at 65 is a pure blessing. Eat your greens people and use common sense, God made them for a reason.

  5. Gayle says

    Scientific evidence is not necessary when I hear so many actual patient testimonies Eating goitrogenic foods causes pain and pressure on my thyroid. That is a fact for me. If I ever have a hyper day instead of the usual hypo I just need to go buy a cabbage. Just cutting it up causes problems, from the raw juice. I do enjoy goitrogenic foods cooked though but minimally.

    • says

      Gayle,
      I know many people believe that goitrogens contribute to their symptoms. I also know that there is scientific evidence that when a patient believes in a treatment or therapy, it has more of a chance of working. The mind is more powerful than we give it credit for in relation to how we feel. That isn’t to say that it is all in your head – if you feel better avoiding them, I think you should go for it. My point is that there is no science backing up that they are harmful for thyroid patients in normal quantities, and I think the community deserves to know this. What does or does not work for each particular body is highly individual. You may be sensitive to cabbage, for some other reason – does the same thing happen when you eat sweet potatoes or strawberries?

      Mickey

    • Donna says

      As I was not affected by “gastric symptoms” from eating these foods, I do not usually eat these type vegetables raw as I never like the “crunchy and fresh taste”. Could some of the pressure be a gastric problem of eating them raw and not digesting as well as the cooked version?

  6. Elaine says

    How about fermented cruciferous vegetables, such as sauerkraut? I have Hashimoto’s and I’ve been consuming fermented veggies every day. I don’t have much though, maybe only a few tablespoons of it.

  7. stephanie says

    I just came across your article. Thank you. I have been reading so much over the last month that I am just really confused. I have thyroid issues for years however my new doc has said i have hashimoto. I know I need to change a lot of things in my diet but it’s so hard to find a starting place. You made me realize I have to do what’s right for me thanks

  8. Tina says

    I am going to respectfully disagree.
    When I have anything goitrogenic, I feel like I have eaten McDonald’s. I thought that I might have been just dreaming this up in my head, but one day, last summer, I was eating a couple of peaches, and that tell tale sign of fever, and feeling a general malaise came over me. I couldn’t figure it out. “I hadn’t had any goitrogens; why do I feel so poorly?”
    I hadn’t realized that peaches were indeed goitrogens.
    I avoid them completely.

    • says

      Tina,
      There are many reasons why you could react to a food – I am definitely a believer in the fact that all of us do better or worse with certain foods. You may have a particular reaction to these foods, and if so I do not think you should eat them.

      The research does not support the recommendation that everyone with a thyroid problem should be avoiding these nutritious foods, and that is what I aim to point out in my article.

      I’m happy you made the connection that they don’t make you feel well – so many people don’t even get that far!

      Mickey

  9. Linda says

    Hi Mickey

    I have had Hashimoto’s for 13 years and it’s only in the last couple of years that I have eaten cruciferous foods because I originally thought they should be avoided. Since eating them again, I have actually been able to reduce my meds twice!! Proof enough for me

    Linda xxx

  10. Katie says

    Hi! I came across your blog while searching for information on goitrogen and nitriles (all news to me)… But just like I haven’t eliminated nightshades or gluten, I’m probably not going to eliminate foods with these characteristics. I’ve really changed my diet around in the past couple years (no additives, preservatives, synthetic vitamins, gmo’s, etc. and eating mostly organic) and I am still slowly tweaking it. I’ve discovered fermentation, the art of soaking nuts, grains, seeds, legumes, etc., and now this. I’m extremely overwhelmed, particularly because I suffer from lupus and, I am almost certain, fibromyalgia that has not once gone into remission. I have a really hard time keeping my house/kitchen clean, let alone cooking, soaking, and fermenting in the tiny area I have available. What do you recommend for someone who is just learning about all these negative properties of whole foods (i.e. goitrogens/nitriles, nightshades, phytic acid, gluten…) and is having a hard time deciding what to eat when they barely have enough energy to cook anything? I’ve thought about elimination diets, but I don’t know what would even be left on the starting list.

    • says

      Katie, I know how overwhelming this all is! I would start with gluten and dairy free, and be 100% strict. Once you get in the habit of that, try and transition to Paleo. I would do without all of the soaking and sprouting and just choose not to eat grains–I think those of us with autoimmunity do better without them, and they are a lot of work to prepare so that they are nutritious and easy to digest. Have you looked into batch cooking some bigger meals once a week, like soups or stews? If you have a big pot, you can make extra, and freeze for portions during the week.

      Remember, this is a process, and most of us don’t go all in at once. Wishing you luck!

      Mickey

  11. Amanda says

    As Jeanne did, I must also respectfully disagree. I regularly have my thyroid tested. It is functioning absolutely fine, but I do have a goiter. There is no treatment because any type of medication will throw my levels off into hyper or hypothyroidism. I cannot eat any of the above mentioned foods, although I highly enjoy them, because of the way they directly affect my thyroid. I too feel as though I have a lump in my throat that can last for days with certain foods (like bok choy and kale). Although these foods may not be physically harmful to me, I will continue to listen to my body when it is telling me what I have eaten is making me uncomfortable.

  12. Susan says

    Thanks for the great post. Here’s a weird question. I started eating Paleo about 1.5 years ago. I have MS and saw Dr Wahls TED talk. I’m a terrible cook, so tend to eat the same things over & over, and I eat TONS of broccoli, spinach, and kale. Also, I think I don’t get enough iodine becUse I never eat sea weed like Dr. Wahls recommends.. Over that past 1.5 years my reverse T3 and TSH have been climbing up and my T3 has been going down. Thyroid antibodies are negative. Lately, I’ve been thinking my thyroid looks enlarged (but I keep thinking “nah, your just imagining it)”. Do you think it’s possible to eat so much of these foods that a person can develop thyroid problems due to the diet I described? Thanks Mickey. Your the bomb!!

    • says

      Susan,
      I think it is possible, but you would have to be eating a LOT of these foods (I think the Dr. K article I referenced goes into more detail about this). Have you thought about incorporating more iodine-rich foods, like seaweed and fish into your diet, and cutting back on the greens to see if anything changes?

      Good luck!

      Mickey

  13. mary tegtmeyer says

    Thanks so much for your book so clear and beautiful I am turning 60 weigh 190 ten lbs down not eating the things that make me sick. No energy because just starting sleep apnia device .Hypogysimea gets me if I don,t have enough protien or starch will that make weight loss impossible I love the veggies you were talking about and batch cook not to say oh there is nothing made .So done with feel ill everyday,thanks again

  14. Helene says

    Thanks for this post. I have a multinudolar goitre and have been undergoing 2-yearly check ups for a slightly hyperactive thyroid gland for nearly 15 years now. I eat lots of broccoli (had a lovely raw broccoli salad with a New England Pot Roast today and will have steamed broccoli with fish tomorrow evening) and vegs and switched to a mainly Paleo diet last year. I have never felt better in my life (weight, energy, concentration, happiness…) and am curious as what my check up will show in 1 year’s time!
    Have found 2 other links that are relevant to people with Graves':
    https://gravesdiseasecure.wordpress.com/tag/goitrogenic-foods/
    http://www.thepaleomom.com/2013/04/teaser-excerpt-from-the-paleo-approach-what-about-the-goitrogens-in-cruciferous-veggies.html

  15. ChelseaH says

    This is great news! I started reading about the need for those of us with autoimmune thyroid disease to avoid these fruits/ vegetables and was resisting removing them from my diet. I’m glad to know others are feeling the same way!

  16. Tiffany Mladinich says

    I have Hashimotos and goitrogen foods greatly bother me. My thyroid swells within a half hour after eating a goitrogen food. Goitrogens inhibit iodine uptake, and therefore suppress the thyroid. This is not opinion, but anatomical fact. Not a problem for some, but seriously problematic for others. It even says that soy interferes with thyroid medication right on the bottle. Too many other nutritious foods that are not problematic for me. I will avoid them as long as I have this reaction…and so should others that experience it. Hypothyroidism is not a one size fits all.

    • says

      Tiffany,
      I don’t doubt you have a reaction, but also consider that it could not be because of the goitrogens, it could be one of the many other compounds in these foods. Check out both of the articles I reference, which were written by experts in autoimmune and thyroid disorders, who have come to the conclusion that the research does not support that theory. I don’t think it is wise to recommend that everyone stop eating these otherwise nutritious vegetables, although I am sorry they do not work for you.

      Mickey

  17. Danielle says

    Hello Miceky,
    Curious to hear your thoughts on soy. Would you agree that even organic soy (milk, tofu etc) interfers with thryoid function and the effectiveness of medication?
    Thanks,
    Danielle

    • says

      Danielle,
      I’m not sure that I would recommend avoiding soy because of its goitrogenic effects, but there are many other reasons not to consume it, the main one being that it is a powerful endocrine disruptor. I would not consume it with or without a thyroid condition!

      Mickey

  18. Millie says

    Hi, I have hypothyroidism (hashimoto’s) and it runs in my family. I make green smoothies with spinach and kale. I do add about a cup or two of spinach and kale per serving. Am I using too much ? I also love strawberries and peanut butter. I am not too worried about consuming strawberries or peanut butter because I do not eat those too frequently.

    • says

      Hi Millie,
      Its impossible for me to know if you are using too much–I would listen to feedback from your body. If you don’t feel your best, perhaps try going without for a couple of weeks to see if there are any changes. Hope it helps!

      Mickey

  19. Jeaneah says

    I looked at http://thyroidbook.com/goiter-goitrogens-thyroid-enlargement/, and I didn’t see anything about Dr. Kharrazian actually recommending for people with Hashimoto’s to include goitrogenic foods back into their diet. All he seems to be saying is that goitrogenic foods will not cause a goiter, which he defines as enlargement of the thyroid gland due to elevated sustained levels of TSH or HCG. In fact one of the main points of his article seems to be wanting to educate people about the difference between having a goiter and autoimmune thyroiditis, which he very clearly distinguishes as swelling or inflammation of the thyroid that can happen due to autoimmune antibodies attacking the thyroid which can be painless and can come and go. Unlike a goiter.

    The most definitive thing he says about this topic is “Normal consumption of goitrogenic foods do NOT cause goiter (consuming large amounts of juiced goitrogens, such as cabbage juice, would not be considered normal consumption).” He does not refute the fact that goitrogenic foods can block uptake of iodine into the thyroid which can then interfere with proper thyroid hormone function. And perhaps I am misreading his article, but he doesn’t seem to speak to the issue of whether this class of foods are safe for people with Hashimoto’s (or even if you just have low thyroid). So even after reading his article, I still see no indication that’s it’s safe to include goitrogenic foods in one’s diet if you have Hashimoto’s.

    • says

      Hi Jeaneah,
      Thanks for your comment! Did you read the article by Sarah Ballantyne? I researched both her post as well as Dr. Kharrazians to write mine. I do believe it is safe for those with Hashimoto’s to include moderate amounts of goitrogens in their diet, based on these two articles, as well as my personal experience. That being said, I do know there are other reasons why people could react to these foods, so they may not be for everyone.

      Mickey

  20. Misha says

    Mickey,
    Thanks for this post. It is always good to have varying sources of information. I found another article at World’s Healthiest Foods that provides both an explanation of goitrogens and claimed impacts on health, as well as references scientific articles that do not support avoidance of foods or substances with goitrogenic effects for those with thyroid diseases: http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=george&dbid=250
    I also wish to put my two cents in support of your response to Tina to pay attention to what works for you as an individual. Sometimes what works for several others will not work for you. My partner has been dealing with auto-immune eye inflammation for two years. I found out about the AIP, purchased your book, and supported him by joining in on the AIP diet. He responded positively to it with much needed weight loss and some improvement in vision, while for me I felt sluggish the entire diet and did not lose any weight but rather gained some in addition to weight I’d gained since we moved about 3 years ago. Granted I did not have a diagnosed autoimmune condition, but in general I thought the emphasis on veggies (which supported my personal eating tendencies) would be positive. Up until we moved, I was either a vegetarian or very occasional heavy meat eater, and ate a traditional Indonesian diet including fermented soy products, lots of greens including cruciferous veggies, rice, and low to no gluten. Then, just 4 months after the AIP experiement, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s. I’ve returned to my traditional diet in addition to starting on low dosage of T4, and am seeing positive physical results. We’ll see soon if the tests confirm whether my feeling better goes hand in hand with improvements of TOP antibodies, TSH, rT3 etc. I believe that the AIP can and does work wonders for some. But, it may not work for everyone. The best thing to do is to try and and see if it works for you, and if not, make some adjustments and try other things until you find what works for you.
    All the best!

    • says

      Thanks for adding your thoughts Misha–I don’t believe in one-size-fits-all diet prescriptions, and I’m happy you experimented and found something that works for you. :)

      Wishing you the best,

      Mickey

  21. Misha says

    Mickey,

    Thanks for this post. It is always good to have varying sources of information, and this summary helps provide a counter perspective to a lot of the information out there. I found another article at World’s Healthiest Foods, titled “An Up-to-Date Look at Goitrogenic Substances in Food,” that references several scientific articles that do not support total avoidance of foods or substances with goitrogenic effects for those with thyroid diseases. That article focuses less on goiters, and more on general impacts on thyroid function.

    I also want to thank you for your continued response (and in previous posts) to pay attention to what works for *you as an individual*, that AIP is perhaps not for everyone. Sometimes what works for several others will not work for you without adjustments or at all. My partner has been dealing with auto-immune eye inflammation for two years. I found out about the AIP, purchased your book, and supported him by joining for two months on the AIP to see if it would help with some weight gain and fatigue and reveal some allergens (other than dairy which I already knew about). He responded positively with much needed weight loss and some improvement in vision, while for me I felt even more sluggish the entire diet and gained weight in addition to weight I’d gained since we moved about 3 years ago. Granted I did not have a diagnosed autoimmune condition, but in general I thought the diet would be positive. It was actually easy since I avoided processed foods, ate mostly vegetables, and tended only to eat some grains (such as rice and corn). Prior to our move, I was either a vegetarian or very occasional meat eater, and ate a traditional Indonesian diet including fermented soy products, lots of greens including cruciferous veggies, rice, and low to no gluten or dairy. Then, just 4 months after the AIP experiment, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s. I’ve returned to my traditional diet in addition to starting on low dosage of T4, and am seeing positive physical results. We’ll see soon if tests confirm whether my feeling better goes hand-in-hand with improvements of TOP antibodies, TSH, rT3 etc. I will be willing to try the AIP again with some modifications if my test results and subsequent adjustments do not improve things. I believe that the AIP can and does work wonders for some, but agree it may not work for everyone. Thanks again for the information you share, as well as your support for those working on these health issues.

    All the best!

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