Can plant-based diet be the answer to hypothyroidism?
Two culinary nutrition experts tell us why a plant-based diet could just be the answer to hypothyroidism and other lifestyle disorders
She was all of 20 when Mumbai-based housewife Vandana Tiwari was diagnosed with hypothyroid, a condition that is believed to have affected nearly 42 million people in India. Like many of them, Vandana was advised to be on medication. "The way it had started was that my weight had suddenly increased from 60 kg to 90 kg, and I was surprised. The doctor asked me to undergo some tests and indicated that if my thyroid levels continued to be too high, he would consider surgery." This at a time when her TSH levels were 49 when it was supposed to be less than 4. "The doctor then prescribed a medication that I was expected to take forever."
The prospect of taking medicines her entire life did not sit too well with Vandana, who began to read about diets that could supplement the medication. She inched close towards finding one when she received a message about oil-free cooking classes. "I decided to attend one class and found it to be useful." It was at this class that she also discovered a diet that would eventually help her contain the thyroid levels.
Over the next few months, Vandana, who is a vegetarian, stopped having sugar, milk, tea and coffee, and switched to a plant-based, gluten-free diet. The results were visible: in two months, Vandana lost 9 kg, the dosage of her medicines reduced considerably and other symptoms - chief among them, a feeling of sluggishness - became a thing of the past. "I feel more energetic and six hours of sleep feels enough. My thyroid levels are now 4, and the diet has become my lifestyle."
In the modern, urban, aspirational lifestyle that we lead, food is the perpetrator as well as the healer. While its efficacy may vary from one individual to another, the role of certain diets in reversing and containing lifestyle disorders cannot be undermined. We meet Vandana at the Palm Jumeirah residence of artist Surekha Sadana, who conducts classes on plant-based diets in the UAE and has prepared a delicious spread for us. As we settle down, Vandana tells us that it took her one-and-a-half years to completely embrace this lifestyle (there are no cheat days, she informs us, because "the food is so good that you simply wouldn't want to cheat"). "I lost 10 kgs after first two months, and 10 kgs more over a period of time," she says, adding that the weightloss plays an important role in improving thyroid levels. Being passionate about cooking meant that Vandana began to take classes imparting awareness about the diet. Today, her family has embraced it too, including her son who is an aspiring boxer.
Why plant-based diet? The fibrous nature of the diet is the real star, says Vandana, because it helps cleanse the system. "One of the basic principles also revolves around not peeling vegetables too much." Can it cater to those with a sweet tooth? "Dates, figs and natural sweeteners can be used as substitutes," she says. Surekha adds that going gluten-free helps. "Sometimes gluten in the foods remains undigested and that leads to weight gain, thyroid and diabetes. As long as you're eating refined breads, you cannot hope to lose weight. In cases of thyroid, it's also important to replace wheat with millet or millet flour because it's gluten-free and promotes weightloss."
The fact is that there are a combination of factors that contribute to hypothyroidism. Dr Nandita Shah, founder of Sharan, a wellness organisation that is at the forefront of prevention of lifestyle disorders, says hypothyroidism is a hormonal problem, and in order to reverse the condition, the causes need to be tackled first. "First, all hormones in our body are orchestrated by the pituitary gland. When one hormone is out of balance, others, too, can go out of balance. This can be due to hormones from outside - for instance, dairy is full of hormones, then there are hormonal medications like steroids. Second, chemicals in our lives - including medications, personal care products (hair dye, deodorants, toothpaste, hand sanitisers, soaps, perfumes, makeup, etc), home care products (air fresheners, detergents, pest control, phenyl, etc), non-organic fruits and vegetables and other foods, readymade products, artificial sweeteners - are hormone disruptors. Third, like thyroxine, Vitamin D is also a hormone. Because of our indoor lives these days, and the air pollution, Vitamin D deficiency is very common. It is essential to check and supplement this vitamin for ideal body functioning. Last, lack of fibre - refined and processed foods. Today, we eat a lot of readymade and processed foods, which are lacking in fibre."
No matter the diet, Dr Shah says, if someone has hypothyroid, they should take thyroxin as prescribed. "Healthy lifestyles along with regular checkups can help us get well and we can reduce thyroxine dosage step-by-step as the TSH levels fall. With a completely healthy lifestyle, it is possible for hypothyroid patients to become normal again."