diet

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Mindset Can Boost Metabolism? Not So Fast…

(Gravity_Grave via Compfight)

(Gravity_Grave via Compfight)

Would that it were so. That just thinking that what you eat is an indulgent treat could diminish your hunger later and ramp up your calorie-burning.

The possibility arose from a 2011 study that was just recently described in an NPR report headlined “Mind Over Milkshake: How Your Thoughts Fool Your Stomach.” It describes what happened when clinical psychologist Alia Crum mixed up a giant batch of vanilla milkshake, then labeled cups of it differently for two groups of subjects: Some were told it was a virtuous low-calorie drink while others were told it was a decadent indulgence.

Crum reported that when people thought they’d just indulged, their bodies — specifically their levels of ghrelin, a hunger-related hormone — responded as if they’d taken in more calories than people who believed they’d had a low-cal shake. Possible moral of story: Your beliefs about the food you eat — based on, say, reading labels — could affect how your body responds.

It’s a provocative thought and a fun yarn — and a super-fun video, at the bottom of this post — but perhaps a bit too fun. The reality checkers at Nutrition Action – which is put out by the nonprofit Center For Science in the Public Interest — have just responded to the story with a big “Really?” And a headline: “Can Your Mindset Boost Metabolism? It’s not as straight-forward as one recent study suggests.”

An excerpt:

First of all, the study never measured ghrelin’s effect on metabolism (or even how much food the participants ate at their next meal). Nor have others.

“If you give animals ghrelin injections either subcutaneously or directly into the brain, they increase their food intake, increase their body weight, and burn less fat,” says Jenny Tong, an associate professor of endocrinology and a ghrelin expert at the University of Cincinnati who was not involved in the milkshake study. But giving ghrelin to cancer patients who are losing weight doesn’t help much, she says. Continue reading

Tele-Coach: How An Eating Therapist Learned To Love Skype

By Jean Fain
Guest contributor

“How’d you do with your eating since last we met?” I recently asked members of my group on food issues.

“I’m really struggling,” said Heidi, a 27-year-old entrepreneur from Boston. “When I get overly full, that self-critical voice takes over. All I can think is ‘Screw it! I’ll start fresh tomorrow.’ I don’t know how not to let my eating spiral into overeating.”

Author Jean Fain while Skyping (courtesy).

Author Jean Fain while Skyping (courtesy).

Lydia, a 45 year-old minister from Akron, jumped in: “Instead of believing that self-critical voice, I’ve been telling myself: ‘That’s not what I believe.’”

“Did you hear that?” I asked Heidi. “Next time you start thinking ‘Screw it,’ you might try ‘That’s not what I believe’ or another of Lydia’s inspired responses.”

Heidi and Lydia (not their real names) are talking face to face, but not in person. Thanks to recent telecommunications advances, the 650 miles between the two are no barrier to participating in my eight-week group on using self-compassion for eating issues. Nor is a six-hour time difference. Last week, one participant Skyped in from her Lisbon hotel room.

Yes, I’ve jumped on the telemedicine bandwagon. I’m just discovering what hospitals, home health agencies and other major health organizations have been touting as the most cost-effective alternative to traditional face-to-face medicine since castor oil.

Clients with food and body image issues generally feel a lot less self-conscious attending a group remotely than up close and personal.

I knew about the telemedicine or “telehealth” trend, using technology to remotely deliver health-care services and information. But I’d never seriously considered joining the high-tech trendsetters. For decades, I’ve been happily providing individual and group therapy the old-fashioned way, and there are major legal questions about virtual psychotherapy, particularly across state lines.

According to Marlene M. Maheu, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Telemental Health Institute, “It’s the wild west. Clinicians are making up their own rules and disregarding those they agreed to follow when they got their licenses, and the consumers are at risk. They really don’t know who’s the right person to go to.”

Then, three things converged:

• Sixty-five members of The Center for Mindful Eating from around the world enthusiastically participated in my teleconference on The Self-Compassion Diet.
• My clients started complaining about sitting in traffic during the interminable reconstruction of Route 2 in Concord, Mass.
• One client couldn’t say enough about her Skype sessions with Los Angeles nutritionist and mindful eating author, Evelyn Tribole.

So I asked myself: “Why not Skype with clients?” Well, because telemedicine has real downsides. Besides the fuzzy legal regulations, I had at least three other concerns: Continue reading

Tracking The Rising Backlash Against Sugar

Years ago, on my daughter’s first birthday, my mother-law, an avid cook, baked her a cake. I don’t remember if it was chocolate or layered. What I do remember is forbidding my baby from eating it — not even a nibble. Why, I thought, would I introduce processed sugar into a one-year-old’s diet when she’d been perfectly content with avocados and bananas? “Don’t you want to see pure joy on her face?” asked one friend. Yeah, sure, but not from frosting.

Needless to say, the birthday cake prohibition triggered a bit of a backlash among some family members, and earned me labels like “rigid” and “crazy.”

But these days, with the huge national backlash against sugar — from the new film “Fed Up” and Eve Schaub’s popular family memoir, “Year Of No Sugar,” to Mark Bittman’s regular columns hammering on the message of sugar’s toxicity — I feel somewhat vindicated.

Here’s a snippet from Bittman’s latest, “An Inconvenient Truth About Our Food” on why “Fed Up” is such an important film:

The experts carry the ball. The journalist Gary Taubes calls the “energy balance” theory — the notion that all calories are the same, and that as long as you exercise enough, you’ll avoid gaining or even lose weight no matter what you eat — “nonsense.” One Coke, we learn, will take more than an hour to burn off. The pediatrician Rob Lustig, a leading anti-sugar campaigner, notes that “we have obese 6-month-olds. You wanna tell me that they’re supposed to diet and exercise?” David Ludwig, another M.D., notes that there is no difference between many processed foods and sugar itself, saying you can eat a bowl of cornflakes with no added sugar or a bowl of sugar with no added cornflakes and “below the neck they’re the same thing.” Lustig reminds us that anyone can develop metabolic syndrome: “You can be sick without being fat; this is not just a problem of the obese.”

And so on. Senator Tom Harkin says, “I don’t know how they (the food industry) live with themselves,” comparing them to the tobacco industry. Bill Clinton says, effectively, “We blew it,” when it came to this struggle.

The movie has some splendid moments: A mother cries at the difficulty of the choice she must make between giving her child what she wants and giving her what’s best. Her struggle is common, and she’s fighting against an almost overwhelming tide of marketing and, yes, even addiction. A school lunch worker, speaking of the fact that few kids choose the healthy option at lunch, says, “You can’t choose for them.” But they are children; we must choose for them. Not only are their parents not present, but their parents often don’t know what’s best.

Just to be clear, this isn’t simply rationalizing my own personal food obsessions (though there’s some of that) or about our cultural sickness around achieving “thigh gap” thinness. It’s about overall health — for instance, heart disease. Continue reading

The Woman Who Couldn’t Stop Buying Self-Help Books

(Great Beyond/Flickr via Compfight)

(Great Beyond/Flickr via Compfight)

Jean Fain is a Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychotherapist and the author of “The Self-Compassion Diet.” So why is the author of a self-help book criticizing self-help books? Read on… 

By Jean Fain
Guest contributor

At first, I couldn’t understand why this new psychotherapy client had settled on my couch. Sure, Kaye (not her real name) was unhappy with her weight, and yet, she enjoyed an enviably healthy diet. With the aid of self-help books, she had not only taught herself to cook delicious, nutritious dishes, she’d also learned to meditate and eat mindfully. This unusually self-motivated working mother of two not only read each book from cover to cover, she practiced what the most helpful authors preached.

As time went on, I came to understand that as much as self-help books helped Kaye eat more healthfully, they were effectively hindering her happiness. You see, she used self-help books the same way she used food – to stuff her feelings. For good reason. Binge eating and reading brought her enormous comfort, which she desperately needed to deal with a high-stress job and a low-achieving child. Only problem: as Kaye’s self-help library expanded, so did her waistline.

Therapist and author Jean Fain (Courtesy)

Therapist and author Jean Fain (Courtesy)

As we delved into the problem of turning to the dinner plate and the printed page for comfort, the solution became abundantly clear. If she was serious about finding true happiness, she’d have to stop buying self-help books and start asking for a little help from her friends and family.

Yes, I’m a self-help author myself, but since writing “The Self-Compassion Diet,” I’ve learned the limitations of the genre. Self-help outsells every other category because it gives people what they desperately need: hope. Which, on a good day, is enough to jumpstart change. But it’s rarely enough to sustain it. (Mostly, it sustains the publishing industry to the tune of $549 million per year, according to the market research firm Marketdata Enterprises.) So if you’ve been blaming yourself for failing to stick to the latest plan, you can stop. It’s not you, it’s the genre.

 I can’t tell you how many clients gained belly fat and weight trying to stick to the “Wheat Belly” diet.

Which isn’t to say self-help books have no benefit. In fact, self-help has become the world’s best-selling genre because most readers start reaping the benefits even before they crack the books. Of the many benefits, consider the top three:

Quick: The simple act of buying self-help books makes people feel better. Whatever you’re struggling with – losing weight, gaining employment, finding true love, getting a divorce, aging gracefully, dying with dignity – just knowing that simple answers to life’s complex problems are within reach gives book buyers an immediate sense of relief.

Cheap: Time- and money-wise, self-help costs a fraction of the cost of individual counseling. Virtually nothing, if you have access to free downloads or a public library. Continue reading

Project Louise: Learning To Run A Marathon Instead Of A Sprint

No, Louise isn't running an actual marathon -- not yet, anyway. But she is learning to plan for the long haul. (Chris Brown via Wikimedia Commons)

No, Louise isn’t running an actual marathon — not yet, anyway. But she is learning to plan for the long haul. (Chris Brown via Wikimedia Commons)

By Louise Kennedy
Guest contributor

I’ve been meeting with Coach Allison every two weeks to review my progress, set new goals and generally figure out how Project Louise is going. When we talked on Friday, she pointed out that my posts here have tended to look back on a given week and discuss what went right … or wrong. All well and good, she said, but what about exploring the process of looking ahead, breaking my big goal (health!) down into smaller intermediate goals and finding ways to keep moving in the right direction?

This was yet another moment when I realized how lucky I am to have support in this project – from Allison, from Trainer Rick, from Dr. “DASH” Moore and of course from the Naughty Moms.

Specifically, Allison’s expertise in strategic planning and project management brings a perspective that I don’t often have. I have spent my adult life working on daily, or at most weekly, deadlines: You have a task, you get it done, you move on to the next deadline. I’m good at it, I know how to do it, and I keep doing it over and over again.hamsterwheel

But a project that will take a whole year to complete? (And, really, if I do it right, it’s a project I’ll be working on for the rest of my life.) Who can plan that far ahead?

Well, it turns out, Allison can. And, thanks to her, I’m beginning to see how I can do it too.
The concept of setting intermediate goals is one of the most helpful for me so far. Those of you who are less challenged in this area may be amused to know that, until Allison pointed it out, I hadn’t realized that my overall weight-loss goal – lose 44 pounds by Dec. 31 – breaks down rather neatly into quarterly goals. Yes, that’s right, lose 11 pounds every three months and I’ll get there. (As a reward for figuring this out, I may buy myself a new T-shirt for the gym. It says: “I’m an English major. You do the math.”)SENGLISH_375_1

Sooo … we decided that I should do a six-month assessment at the end of June, assessing my progress not just in losing weight, but in eating more healthfully, exercising more regularly, taking care of myself spiritually and emotionally and generally living a better life. And before that, at the end of March, we’ll take a look at how I’ve done for the first quarter of the year.

This felt so obvious once she laid it out. But it hadn’t been obvious, at least not to me. And Trainer Rick says that I’m not alone in this.

“People set really unrealistic goals,” he told me in a recent session. Continue reading

The Distrust Diet: Can Suspicion, Anger And Disdain Help Us Lose Weight?

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

America is in, to quote the title of a new book, “A Big Fat Crisis.”

The crisis in question is what the surgeon general nominee, Dr. Vivek Murthy, this week called the defining public health challenge of our time. So we need more than ever to understand,”The Hidden Forces Behind The Obesity Epidemic — And How We Can End It,” to quote the subtitle of that new book.

Author Deborah Cohen, an MD and senior scientist at the RAND Corporation, makes two powerful points (among others):

• Given human nature — particularly all the ways we’re hard-wired to perceive and eat food — the current food environment (or “food swamp,” as she puts it) pushes most of us willy nilly into extra weight, and we cannot realistically expect most people to have the superhuman self-control needed to resist it.

Dr. Deborah Cohen (courtesy)

Dr. Deborah Cohen (courtesy)

• Given that obesity has become a major public health problem, it is time for the government to step in, as it has in past public health crises — including, most classically, bringing in better sewage systems in the 19th century to stem water-borne diseases like cholera. Government measures could range from restricting displays of junk food to rating restaurants on how healthy their menus are.

I leave it to others to debate those central messages; I asked Dr. Cohen instead to expand on a more minor point that particularly rang true for me. On page 184, she includes this little coping tip: “Look at the current food environment and purveyors of processed foods with suspicion.” She writes:

“If we start viewing the worst offenders in the food and beverage industries with disdain, their efforts will fail to persuade us to buy their products. We will have inoculated ourselves against companies that sell us junk foods and that advertise and market those foods relentlessly. The best thing about this approach is that we won’t have to use up any of our willpower or limited cognitive capacity to reject these unhealthy foods — we will say no automatically, as we do when faced with anything suspicious.”

Recent books and media coverage can certainly help fan our suspicion, particularly the rising criticism of “Big Food,” and marketers whose products have been clearly shown to be obesogenic — soda, candy, junk food in general. Personally, I’ve found my own food attitudes shifting as my distrust of food-makers has risen, as I’ve read more about how marketers develop “hyper-palatable” foods to hook us, and stores design their shelves to maximize impulse buying. (In fact, Dr. Cohen cites findings that supermarkets often gain more income from vendors who pay for the prominent placement of their foods than from selling the food itself.)

It’s reached the point that, if I find a truly indefensible bit of junk food in my pantry, I may declare it “non-food” — “They only want us to think that it’s food, but it has no redeeming nutritional value whatsoever!” — and throw it out. My tainted attitude vastly diminishes any appeal it may have. Eating it would make me a sucker.

We’re being tricked into spending our limited resources on food that will lead to chronic disease.

So Dr. Cohen’s prescription for suspicion made sense to me, and I asked her to expand on it further: Can we really use our own disdain and distrust to lose weight and improve our health?

Our conversation, edited:

Deborah Cohen: First, I want to say that I actually think that trying to have each person solve this problem on their own is doomed to failure, because the environment is so powerful and it affects us in ways that we can’t always recognize. Unless we can control the environment, we’re not going to be able to control ourselves very well. That’s for most people. Yet there will be some people who can take this advice and put it to good use to lose weight, but that’s not going to be everybody.

Point taken, and I must say, I found your emphasis on the power of these automatic responses to food, that most of us cannot control, very comforting, because it has long baffled me that so many of us — including me — can accomplish so many other things but not lose unwanted weight. So how can distrust help us?

The easiest things to give up are junk food items like candy, sugar-sweetened beverages, chips. Let’s start there, because those are generally very recognizable, and they’re placed in our faces everywhere we go. If we can look at those items and think, ‘Those are being made to trick me, to dupe me and to take my money’ it will be easier to resist them. If you think about a bag of potato chips, that might be less than half a potato in there, the ingredients might cost a few pennies, but they’re going to charge you a dollar or more. The ingredients are cheaper than the labor, packing and advertising that are used to sell them.

So if we think that junk food is ripping us off, maybe we’re going to be less likely to buy it. We’re being ripped off financially, we’re being tricked because this food will increase our risk for chronic disease, and they’re exploiting our human nature to want something quick, convenient and tasty. So be suspicious.

Also, think about sugar-sweetened beverages. Continue reading

Project Louise: When Wanting To Work Out Just Doesn’t Work Out

Maybe just a handful ... (bowenmurphy via Creative Commons/Flickr)

Maybe just a handful … (bowenmurphy via Creative Commons/Flickr)

By Louise Kennedy
Guest contributor

Welcome to February, the month when trainers and gym regulars alike note a falling-off in the crowds that appeared right after New Year’s. Resolutions are a wonderful thing, but without a sustainable plan, apparently, they don’t last much beyond Groundhog Day.

I wish I could report that I’m an exception to this rule. But somehow I went through all of last week without getting to the gym once.

It stings to write that, perhaps especially because in my very first Project Louise post I declared that my pride would keep me from reporting that “I didn’t get to the gym at all, I ate Cheez-Its and Chardonnay for dinner every night, and I feel pretty miserable about all that but I’m not about to change.”

Really, though, it’s not quite that bad. I only ate Cheez-Its once, and we were out of Chardonnay. (Besides, Cheez-Its really call for a red, don’t you think?)

More seriously, here’s what gives me a sliver of hope amid the frustration and disappointment in myself: I do feel pretty miserable about it, but I am absolutely committed to making a change. And so I am trying to use this past week the way Coach Allison has encouraged me to: as an opportunity to observe what’s working and what isn’t, rather than as yet another chance to beat myself up.

So what happened? For one thing, I chose to focus on eating more healthfully – following the DASH diet I wrote about last week – and, in my case, that meant taking back control of the family cooking. (My husband had been doing the lion’s share, which was logistically very helpful, but his repertoire focuses on spaghetti and meat loaf, and I’ve been wanting to amp up the vegetables and salads for quite a while.) Because I often work until 5:30 or later, I needed to do a lot of meal prep in the mornings – and that meant I wasn’t getting out the door in time to go to the gym.

Beyond that, though, there were a couple of days when I just couldn’t drag myself out of bed. I thought I was getting a cold; I was also babying my knee a bit – one of the earlier glitches I hadn’t mentioned here, because it’s flat-out embarrassing, is that when I was running late for my first training session, I tripped on the stairs and banged up my knee. Three weeks later, it’s still swollen and sore.

Sleep! That’s the biggest problem.

The maybe-a-cold and the still-hurting knee were enough to make me go to the doctor; the nurse practitioner I saw ruled out a sinus infection and said the knee was just a bad bruise. So I’ve been icing it, and it’s getting better, but slowly. And it still hurt enough that I was anxious about aggravating it with squats and lunges – or at least that’s what I told myself when I hit the snooze button.

Sleep! That’s the biggest problem. I am a night owl, a tendency deeply reinforced by years of working evenings and nights; left to my own devices, I would go to sleep around 1 a.m. and get up at 8:30 or 9. Children make that pretty much impossible, obviously, but even so I have spent years sleeping till the last possible second – 7:43, if you must know – that will let me get my daughter to kindergarten on time. (The high school sophomore, mercifully, gets himself to the bus, except on those days when I drive him to a 5:45 workout – but I didn’t do that last week, either.) So, even though early morning seems like the only part of my day that I can reclaim, I am finding it really, really hard to make myself consistently get out of bed at 5:30 or 6. Continue reading

Project Louise: The Dirty Word That Starts With ‘D’

Louise Kennedy uses the D word with Dr. Thomas Moore, co-creator of the #1-ranked DASH diet.  (Carey Goldberg/WBUR)

Louise Kennedy uses the D word with Dr. Thomas Moore, co-creator of the #1-ranked DASH diet. (Carey Goldberg/WBUR)

By Louise Kennedy
Guest contributor

So far in Project Louise, we’ve been talking mostly about setting goals and developing new exercise habits. But of course there is that one word that always comes up in any discussion of health and fitness, a word that strikes fear into the heart, a word that evokes countless memories of hope and failure and shame, a word that so far I have avoided saying because I hate it at least as much as you do.

That word is “diet.”

But Dr. Thomas J. Moore says we shouldn’t be so scared of this word – and we should learn what it really means.

“What do people mean when they say ‘diet’?” Dr. Moore wrote to me, after I’d asked to interview him about an eating plan that he co-created and that consistently ranks No. 1 in a U.S. News survey of diet plans. (We’ll get to all that in a minute.)

“For some people, it always means weight loss,” he continued. “To others, including most nutrition folks, it means whatever people eat.” This matters, he said, because “if you only think diet means weight loss, you also think diet is temporary.  When you have lost your weight, you stop your diet and then … what?  You probably go back to what you were eating before and gain it all back.”

I am not ‘on a diet.’ I am ‘changing my diet.’

Don’t I know it. Just as one example, my current weight is a good 30 pounds above my starting weight when I did a Weight Watchers at Work program back in the early ’90s. I did lose the weight – got all the way down to 135 – but then slowly, inexorably gained it all back, and more, once I stopped going to meetings and writing down what I ate.

Of course we can say – and I did say, for years – that this is my fault for not sticking with the program. (And my fault for not having the “willpower” to stay on Atkins or South Beach or cabbage soup or juicing or any of the other fads that I – and possibly you – have picked up and put down.) But Dr. Moore gets me thinking: What if the problem wasn’t me and my willpower, but my not having found a program that I could stick to for life? Continue reading

Thyroid Doc: Kale Risks ‘Theoretical’ But In Reality, Very Low To Minuscule

bittermelon/flickr

bittermelon/flickr

This post — “The Dark Side of Kale (And How To Eat Around It)” — went wildly viral this week, generating huge traffic and high passions over this once minor but now hotter-than-hot vegetable. Among the accusations from readers were charges that the post was “dubious and dangerous” and that I was, in effect “discouraging Americans from eating vegetables” (my children would disagree).

Still, for a medical reality check, I turned to a doctor who specializes in treating the thyroid.

(Before we get to him, for background, my post was inspired by an earlier piece in The New York Times on potential thyroid problems linked to kale and other cruciferous vegetables, called “Kale? Juicing. Trouble Ahead.” This article was troubling to me since I, too, am a devoted kale fan.)

OK, back to the thyroid expert, who points out that this debate is particularly timely since January is Thyroid Awareness Month.

Dr. Jeffrey Garber is chief of endocrinology at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, and lead author of the latest clinical practice guideline on hypothyroidism in adults. He agreed to answer a few more questions on the kale-thyroid connection.

I’d sum up Dr. Garber’s take on the whole kale issue pretty simply: It’s probably unwise to embrace a long-term, pound-a-day raw kale habit, but even if you do, you will, in all likelihood, be fine. (Especially if you live in the U.S., where iodine deficiency isn’t a huge problem, and if you don’t have a family history or predisposition to thyroid disorders.)

“If one isn’t a food faddist or predisposed to a thyroid problem (family history, prior diagnosis) the risks are very low,” Garber said. And, he adds, if you have any concerns at all, check in with your doctor for a simple thyroid test.

Here, lightly edited, is our Q&A:

RZ: In plain terms, what’s the connection between kale, a cruciferous vegetable, and thyroid function?

JG: There are many substances that can interfere with the way the thyroid functions. Goitrogens, as in those that promote goiter, make up one of these categories.
(There’s an enormous amount of interest in environmental goitrogens, like BPA and other substances, but that’s another story: We’re talking about dietary goitrogens here.)

When you get into the way goitrogens can affect the thyroid directly there are three general ways (and all relate to iodine, which is what thyroid hormone is made from):

1. the way the thyroid picks up the iodine;

2. the way the thyroid produces the hormone once the iodine is in the thyroid;

3. the way thyroid hormone is secreted into the bloodstream.

When you look at dietary goitrogens, they interfere with one or more of these three steps.

OK, so kale is one of these so-called “goitrogenic” foods, right?

Yes. Continue reading

The Dark Side Of Kale (And How To Eat Around It)

(photofarmer/Flickr)

(photofarmer/Flickr)

The headline in The New York Times made my heart sink: “Kale? Juicing? Trouble Ahead.

Confession: I’m one of those Vitamix-loving, green-smoothie worshipping, kale bandwagoners. I brim with holier-than-thou pride when my kids eat raw kale (no dressing, even!) and thick kale-laden shakes while other children snack on sugary GoGURT squeezes and suck on juice boxes.

I am not alone. Presidents and stars are kale-lovers too.

Kale, in case you haven’t noticed, is health-conscious America’s “it” vegetable. Raw, blended, sauteed or in chip or “crunch” form, it appears to be the manna of celebrities: Gwyneth and Jennifer devour it while Kevin Bacon recently declared [it's] “the age of kale.” In an astutely reported feature called “Stars Who Love Kale,” US Weekly quotes Bette Midler saying: “Kale is burning up the veggisphere.”

Even the Obamas dined on kale salad at their Thanksgiving feast, notes The Washington Post.

But apparently there’s trouble in cruciferous paradise.

Writing for The Times, Jennifer Berman reports on the dark side of kale, and how the health-infused, veggie Eden she’d carefully built over years began to crumble:

Imagine my shock, then, at my last physical, when my doctor told me I had hypothyroidism, common in women over 40. When I got home I looked up the condition on the Internet and found a list of foods to avoid. Kale, which I juiced every morning, tops the list, followed by broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and collard greens — the cruciferous vegetables I consumed in large quantities because they are thought to prevent cancer, which runs in my family. And flax — as in the seeds — high in omega 3’s, that I sprinkled on cereal and blended in strawberry almond milk smoothies. Also forbidden: almonds and strawberries, not to mention soy, peaches, peanuts, corn, radishes, rutabaga and spinach.

My first reaction: Berman must be misguided, mistaken. Can kale possibly be bad?

Well, yes, possibly. Here’s the science-y lowdown on the kale-thyroid connection from the Oregon State University Micronutrient Information site:

Very high intakes of cruciferous vegetables…have been found to cause hypothyroidism (insufficient thyroid hormone) in animals (68). There has been one case report of an 88-year-old woman developing severe hypothyroidism and coma following consumption of an estimated 1.0 to 1.5 kg/day of raw bok choy for several months. Two mechanisms have been identified to explain this effect. The hydrolysis of some glucosinolates found in cruciferous vegetables (e.g., progoitrin) may yield a compound known as goitrin, which has been found to interfere with thyroid hormone synthesis. The hydrolysis of another class of glucosinolates, known as indole glucosinolates, results in the release of thiocyanate ions, which can compete with iodine for uptake by the thyroid gland. Increased exposure to thiocyanate ions from cruciferous vegetable consumption or, more commonly, from cigarette smoking, does not appear to increase the risk of hypothyroidism unless accompanied by iodine deficiency. One study in humans found that the consumption of 150 g/day (5 oz/day) of cooked Brussels sprouts for four weeks had no adverse effects on thyroid function.

(For an updated reality check on kale consumption and the thyroid, see our Q and A with endocrinologist and thyroid expert Dr. Jeffrey Garber here. Bottom line: in the U.S, where we don’t have a big problem with iodine deficiency, it’s probably OK.)

Teresa Fung, Sc.D., M.S.. an adjunct professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and a professor at Simmons College in Boston, confirms the kale-thyroid link. But, she says, “normal, reasonable amounts of eating should not be a problem. A regular person [with no thyroid issues] who eats several servings of cruciferous vegetables a week should not have problems.”

Fung adds: “It’s the dose that makes a poison. If people have hypothyroidism or they’re taking thyroid medication, then they should check with their doctor. But even in this case, reasonable amounts shouldn’t be a problem. Now, if people have a tall glass of kale juice every single day, then it gets into the unknown territory.”

So, what are still-anxious kale-lovers to do? I asked Somerville, Mass. health coach and psychology of eating coach Nina Manolson to offer some guidance. (She’s not a doctor, but she knows a lot about food, so keep that in mind and always check with a professional if you make major changes in your diet.)

Nina reiterated that kale is a goitrogenic food, meaning that it can contribute to an enlarged thyroid — a goiter. A goiter indicates that the thyroid gland is not functioning optimally. But, she says, there are ways to have our kale and eat it too. Here, lightly edited, are her suggestions:

1. Cook Your Kale

The goitrogenic properties of kale become dramatically lessened when kale — or any other cruciferous vegetable — is cooked. (Other veggies in this category include: broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kohlrabi, mustard, rutabaga, turnips, bok choy and Chinese cabbage. Arugula, horseradish, radish, wasabi and watercress are also cruciferous vegetables.) Continue reading