January 10, 2014

Killing the Myths: Kale Isn’t Bad For You & It Won’t Kill You!

Jennifer Berman’s op-ed highlights why being an educated consumer of health care is vital. Ditch any doctor who tells you not to eat veggies (unless you’re allergic) & that candy and soda is better.

As someone who has had her life consumed by thyroid issues the past few years, I take health advocacy—especially thyroid health—very seriously, which is why I was pretty stunned by Jennifer Berman’s Opinionator piece in the New York Times. (Kale? Juicing? Trouble Ahead).

Shortly after, anti kale pieces (Why Kale May Kill Us) and pro kale propaganda (My Steamy, Open Relationship With Kale) started surfacing right here on elephant journal. I wrote this after reading Jennifer’s piece, and decided it needed to be on elephant after reading Why Kale May Kill Us by Michelle Marchildon, whose research suggested kale was bad for her and whose doctor told her not to eat kale.

There’s a lot of misinformation on the Internet when it comes to hypothyroidism and “foods to avoid.” Now that it’s a hot topic, I’d like to kill not the kale, but the misinformation surrounding it.

If you don’t want to eat kale because you don’t like it, that’s your choice and I won’t judge you. Promise. But don’t blame hypothyroidism, a doctor, or the threat of impending death. Just say you don’t like it—be honest; be authentic—but don’t try to kill the kale for everyone else with sensational headlines and misinformation. Everything isn’t for everyone, and that’s all there is to it.

Kale is not a killer.

I too, am hypothyroid—I had half my thyroid removed in 2011, after undergoing diagnostics for cancer. I was only 26 years old. Shortly after, my 24 year old cousin had his entire thyroid removed and underwent radiation for his thyroid cancer.

His mother and my other aunt have also both had to have their thyroids removed.

We experienced hypothyroidism before the removal, and we’ve definitely dealt with it after. Hypothyroidism has literally affected my entire family—maybe it’s genetics, maybe it’s environmental factors where we lived, maybe it’s a combination of both—but I’m pretty sure it’s not because we ate too much kale, brussel sprouts, broccoli, flax seed, peanuts, strawberries, peaches or otherwise “goitrogenic” foods.

Back in the 1950’s, scientists decided to replicate studies from the 1920’s and 1930’s to look for correlations between compromised thyroid health and certain “chemicals” present in foods—foods that had antithyroid properties.  Cruciferous vegetables, strawberries, peanuts, and other things were given a bad rap and it somehow became gospel that if you’re living with hypothyroidism, you should avoid these foods.

I’m going to disagree—and can I just say, at great personal cost. Because never in my life did I think I’d be writing to defend brussel sprouts—never. I hate them. They’re disgusting.

In fact, when I was five years old, my mom was a teacher, and we ran into one of her coworkers at the grocery store.  Upon seeing the brussel sprouts in the cart, her coworker asked me if I was eager to eat them. My prompt reply was that I couldn’t wait to be President, because I would rocket them to outer space and send them into orbit. I hated them that much.

Ten years later, when I reached high school, I ended up having classes with her, and she still remembered the determined declarations of an angry five year old who was forced to eat brussel sprouts. So mom & Mrs. Craig, if you’re reading this—don’t judge me. I still hate them, but I sure enough will defend your right to eat them in peace, without worrying.  They aren’t the dastardly thyroid wrecking jerks that I wish I could say they were to validate my personal vendetta. It’s a sad day in America for me right now, to be saying that you don’t have to avoid brussel sprouts or their yummier buddies.

Please don’t believe the hype. While I’m sure their intentions are good, the bloggers, doctors, health gurus, and other people that say “Avoid cruciferous vegetables! Don’t eat strawberries! They’re bad for your thyroid health!” are grossly misinformed. They’re citing outdated information that’s over 50 years old.

Attempts to replicate the 1950’s studies that set off the villainous veggie myth started failing as early as the 1960’s.

Since then, we’ve obviously advanced in our ability to study foods and their effects. Present day studies show that these foods are not to be avoided, because they aren’t actually harmful—and in fact, the anticancer and health benefits far outweigh the “threat” of the “antithyroid properties” they have.

They don’t actually contain “goitrogenic” chemicals, either.

What happens is that certain trace minerals called phytonutrients can start interfering with iodine absorption, and your thyroid needs a certain amount of iodine to function correctly.

If you’re all ready iodine deficient and/or selenium deficient, and consuming these veggies in extremely large quantities daily, then I can see it being advisable to scale back on the cauliflower you’re chowing down on. But avoiding it completely? Definitely not! Most Americans don’t get enough fruits and veggies, let alone consume them to the point where they would cease being beneficial and instead become hazardous to our health.

Furthermore, you can eat unlimited amounts of broccoli, kale, cauliflower—pick your “poison”—if it’s cooked.  Cooking the foods inactivates the pesky phytonutrients that may potentially be a problem but are now termed inconclusive, statistically irrelevant, and/or weak.

Some recent studies (Dal Maso et al., 2006) have even concluded with the suggestion to “increase vegetable consumption.” That’s right:  Science says eat your vegetables, brussel sprouts included.

While the many bloggers, doctors, and health gurus out there may be sharing information with the best of intentions, the situation that Ms. Berman experienced highlights an alarming trend.  It is the information age, and there’s no excuse to not be in the know. Yet so many people aren’t—doctors, bloggers, patients included. More often than not, two doctors will tell you two totally different things. The information is conflicting and that’s confusing, not to mention frustrating, for patients who are trying to navigate a treatment plan and/or lifestyle change.

Moreover, in the digital age, anyone can be an expert and everyone has the ability to access large public platforms with which to spread misinformation. Whether or not this is done responsibly is debatable—should a doctor really have told Ms. Berman she was actually better off eating candy and soda than noshing on her preferred—and healthier foods? In my opinion: Absolutely not. I get the point—that artificial sweeteners are easier on the enamel than natural sugars—but they’re a hell of a lot worse for the rest of you.

Should you absolutely avoid that vilified list of cruciferous veggies and other whole foods if you have a thyroid problem? Again:  Absolutely not.

What you should absolutely avoid doing is believing everything you read and entrusting your precious health and well being to doctors, gurus, bloggers, and the Internet.

Hell, don’t even believe what I’m writing—don’t take my word for it; use the information presented as a resource and do your own research.

Become an educated consumer of healthcare; this passive patient, pharmaceutical driven model is not working for us, America. It’s time to find something else that does—and that starts with you taking your health into your own hands.

Jump on the “everyone with Internet access is an expert” bandwagon and become a self-proclaimed expert on whatever it is you need to know. Spend as much time researching your health in the same way you’d look into buying a house or a car. Look for both sides; pros and cons. Ask questions; get second and third opinions if you need too.  Annoy your doctors with lots of questions.  (And if they legitimately became annoyed because you’re taking an active interest in your own health and treatment…sayanora sucker! They work for you and should be working with you, remember?!)

What Ms. Berman found online, and what her doctor said shouldn’t scare you away from noshing on fruits and vegetables; nor should what I said coax you into consuming them. What it should do is tell two sides of a story, and encourage you to examine it in its entirety before deciding what’s best for you.

That’s exactly what I had to do—I’m not a medical doctor, I don’t have a medical background, or anything like that.  I didn’t know nary a thing about my thyroid until I heard the words “You might have cancer; it’s too early to tell, come back in six months.”

In the years that followed, I learned the hard way—as did my other family members—that the healthcare system is more or less an illness management system. We’ve learned that hypothyroidism is notoriously difficult to treat sometimes, and goes largely undiagnosed because it has so many symptoms that mimic other things; it’s also linked to so many other medical issues, such as endometriosis, which I’ve also struggled with. I don’t claim to have all the answers, and I don’t want to have all the answers either.

I just want you, America, to live your best, healthiest, most fulfilling life—if that’s what you want to do.

Given my own research and the overwhelming evidence, if you were to hypothetically ask me for my opinion, I’d tell you to run like hell from any medical professional who was telling you not to eat your fruits and veggies, or that you’re better off with a diet of candy and soda.

I’d also reach out to Jennifer and invite her for a green smoothie and some kale chips, because I’ve been in her shoes. I’ve eaten all Twinkies, cupcakes, cookies, and other things I could get my hands on—but at the end of the day, I know that they’re not good for me or my thyroid, so I dutifully eat my fruits and vegetables instead.

Kale, broccoli, cauliflower, strawberries, peaches, all of it—all of it except brussel sprouts, that is.

Sorry, Mom. According to Jennifer’s research, this could have been all your fault. I told you that brussel sprouts were bad news—I’ve been telling you that for 23 years now.

However, my research indicates otherwise. My research says you did the right thing when you made me eat those little yuck balls. I don’t always believe the old adage “Mama knows best,” but in the curious case of kale—mom and the brussel sprouts win again.



Clements, F.W., Insitute of Child Health, University of Sydney Australia, Naturally Occurring Goitrogens, 1959.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/13810646

Cléro É, Doyon F, Chungue V, et al., Radiation Epidemiology Group, CESP Centre for research in Epidemiology and Population Health, U1018 INSERM, Villejuif, France., Dietary patterns, goitrogenic food, and thyroid cancer: a case-control study in French Polynesia, 2012.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23061901

Dal Maso L, Bosetti C, La Vecchia C et al. Risk factors for thyroid cancer: an epidemiological review focused on nutritional factors.  Cancer Causes Control.  2009 Feb;20(1):75-86.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18766448

Raun, Arthur P.  Cheng, Edmund W.  Burroughs, Wise.  Journal of Animal Science.  Effects of Orally Administered Goitrogens upon Thyroid Activity and Metabolic Rate in Ruminants, 1960.  http://www.journalofanimalscience.org/content/19/3/678.full.pdf

Stroewsand, G.S., Cornell University, Bioactive organosulfur phytochemicals in Brassica oleracea vegetables–a review, 1995. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7797181

Vanderpas J. Nutritional epidemiology and thyroid hormone metabolism. Annu Rev Nutr. 2006;26:293-322.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16704348

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