Chances are if you’re reading this, you’ve got an underactive thyroid. And you’ve tried to lose weight with unsatisfying results.
How do we know that? Because, when it comes to weight loss with an underactive thyroid, it’s about as straightforward as one-legged box jumps – with your eyes closed.
Ask Zoe Saldana or Molly Sims or any of the many women suffering from hypothyroidism. Or Zoe Saldana and Molly Sims. All have experienced the ongoing battle with this common symptom of thyroid dysfunction.
Weight gain is one of those unwelcome side effects associated with having an out-of-whack thyroid that, even if you get a diagnosis (which many women don’t; more on that later), and begin taking prescribed medication, doesn’t just disappear.
However, having an underactive thyroid doesn’t mean achieving your healthy weight will remain a far off goal. As with standard weight loss, consistent exercise and diet also have an important role to play.
The secret between underactive thyroid weight loss success and stalling, though? Knowing the best types of food to eat and workouts to sweat over for the condition.
Which is why we’ve collated the answers into one handy “How to lose weight with an underactive thyroid” guide for you.
What is an underactive thyroid?
First up, it helps to swot up on what the thyroid is, and what its role is in the body. Essentially, the thyroid is a gland that sits at the front of your neck and straddles the wind pipe. Its primary function is to keep your cells active, which is done by secreting carefully balanced levels of the hormones thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) into the blood. Together, T3 and T4 influence the speed at which your cells operate.
If the balance of these hormones goes awry, the thyroid is referred to as being either underactive (hypothyroidism) or overactive (hyperthyroidism). Note, hypothyroidism is different to Hashimoto’s, when the immune system mistakenly attacks the thyroid gland, although the two do often occur together.
What causes an underactive thyroid?
This is a tough one to answer. An underactive thyroid can occur when your immune system attacks the thyroid gland and damages it (such as in the case of Hashimoto’s), or when the gland is damaged in another way – for example, as a result of certain medical treatments.
And, because symptoms of hypothyroidism include fatigue, feeling cold, weight gain, depression and brain fog, it’s perhaps not surprising to hear that the condition can easily go (and often does) undiagnosed.
'Around 6-8% of women will experience subclinical hypothyroidism,' says Lyn Mynott, chief executive of Thyroid UK. 'This is where they demonstrate symptoms of the condition but their levels of TSH [thyroid stimulating hormone, the hormone released by the pituitary gland to control the balance of T3 and T4] have not gone out of range. Two percent, however, will have overt hypothyroidism. The truth is, though, because hypothyroidism is a slow burner, it is often misdiagnosed as depression. Although a woman’s risk increases with age, we are seeing the condition in all age groups.'
Why is weight loss hard when you have an underactive thyroid?
The million dollar question.
'The thyroid is responsible for regulating metabolism, so it directly affects whether you are gaining or losing weight,' says nutritionist and weight-loss specialist Milena Kaler. 'When the thyroid is underactive, your metabolism slows down, making it harder to lose weight.”
Add to that, the fact that a healthy thyroid gland also plays a role in determining how fat, protein and carbs are used in the body, and, well, you get the picture.
'Most people with hypothyroidism experience weight gain around the middle,' Kaler says.
The good news is that’s not the end of the story. Small tweaks to how to dine and train can make a notable difference in helping you reach your healthy weight with an underactive thyroid.
Your underactive thyroid treatment action plan
1. Get diagnosed
It sounds obvious but getting your doctor to carry out a simple blood test to measure your TSH levels can be a game changer when it comes to know what’s really causing your struggles around weight loss. After all, know the trigger makes it far far easier to find the solution.
2. Eat an underactive Thyroid diet
Change your eating habits, where possible, to eliminate the causes of thyroid dysfunction such as inflammation and nutrient deficiencies, and to promote healthy thyroid function, says Kaler.
Kaler’s favourite foods for supporting weight loss with an underactive thyroid:
Oily fish: Omega 3-rich foods such as wild-caught salmon, mackerel or sardines, as well as flax seeds, help reduce inflammation.
Kimchi: Foods high in probiotics such as sauerkraut or kimchi, promote a healthy gut, which, in turn, supports the thyroid.
Seaweed: This is a source of iodine, which is known to be a key player in thyroid function. (Avoid, however, if you’re experiencing Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis).
Brazil nuts: Selenium, present in Brazil nuts, is used by the body to regulate thyroid function.
Fruits and vegetables: Eating a wide variety of these will help reduce inflammation due to the high vitamin, mineral and antioxidant content.”
Chicken, beef and eggs, preferably free range or organic: It can be hard to build and maintain muscle with an underactive thyroid so ensure you base your meals around protein, to support your training.
The foods to be mindful if suffering with an underactive thyroid:
Gluten and dairy: Many people with hypothyroidism can be sensitive to gluten and/or dairy.
Sugar: This can increase inflammation in the body and worsen the autoimmune response.”
Raw cruciferous vegetables: Think broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, and soy. Steam them for 20-30 minutes before consuming, instead, and limit to having them no more than a few times per week. Why? These veggies contain goitrogens, which interfere with thyroid function; heat inactivates these compounds.
3. Prioritise strength training
One of the downsides of an underactive thyroid is that the body struggles to build and retain muscle. And we all know that more muscle = more calories burned = easier to maintain a healthy body composition.
In order to overcome this hurdle, women with hypothyroidism, can benefit from going heavy in the gym.
According to endocrinologists Dr Elizabeth Pearce and Dr Caroline Apovian, here’s what a weekly training programme for weight loss with an underactive thyroid could look like:
2-3 x one-hour strength-training sessions, targeting upper body, lower body and core. Aim for three sets of 8-12 reps.
5 x 30-minute cardio workouts
'Exercise not only helps with weight loss but also with sleep and stress management,' says Kaler. 'While you sleep, the body rejuvenates and repairs. Stress, as well as chronic sleep deprivation leads to night-time elevations in cortisol (stress hormone) leading to weight gain around the middle. Sleep deprivation is also associated with decreased insulin sensitivity, making it harder to lose weight.'
4. Practice mindfulness
It makes sense when stress is one of the culprits behind inflammation and thyroid dysfunction. Mynott recommends practicing mindfulness – think anything from meditating to practicing yoga or breathing exercises to simply sitting still and watching the world go by – to reduce stress.
And find your squad. 'Many women feel they are not being listened to, says Mynott. 'There are a few support groups around but Thyroid UK has the largest forum, which many people have told us is a lifesaver for them.'