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Iodine on a Plant-Based Diet: Why Is it Important & How to Get Enough

Iodine on a Plant-Based Diet: Why it's Important and How to Get Enough

Iodine is often cited as a nutrient of concern for those following plant-based and low-sodium vegan diets. Although as much as 30 percent of the global population may suffer from iodine deficiency, it’s more common among vegans and can cause serious problems if ignored.

Why Do We Need Iodine?

Iodine is necessary for the formation of the thyroid hormones triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4), which play a critical role in regulating cellular oxygen consumption and controlling basal metabolic rate.[1][2] To form these hormones, your thyroid gland “traps” iodine and combines it with the amino acid tyrosine.[3]

When you don’t have enough iodine, hormone levels drop, which causes your pituitary gland to release more of a hormone called thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) in an attempt to bring the body back into balance. If this goes on for too long, you may begin to experience the symptoms of hypothyroidism, including:[4][5]

  • Bloating, gas, and/or constipation
  • Dry skin and hair
  • Fatigue
  • Goiter
  • Hair loss
  • Headaches
  • Increased cholesterol levels
  • Increased sensitivity to cold
  • Mood changes
  • Reduced immune function
  • Weight gain

Low iodine levels during pregnancy can cause severe developmental impairment, known as cretinism, as well as slow growth rates. It’s also possible that low maternal iodine levels and the resutling decrease in thyroid hormones may increase the risk of miscarriage.[6]

Food Sources of Iodine

Iodized salt is usually the first thing that comes to mind when considering iodine intake, but it isn’t actually a major player, even in the standard American diet. Many people are cutting back on table salt, and salt used in processed foods doesn’t contain added iodine.

The most common sources of iodine in many diets comes from a few animal foods:

  • Fish and shellfish
  • Eggs
  • Cow’s milk

Iodine doesn’t occur naturally in milk, but cows are often fed supplements containing the mineral, and both the teats and udders of dairy cows may be washed with iodine-based disinfectant solutions to kill germs.[7]

Plant sources of iodine include:

  • Fruits and vegetables grown in iodine-rich soil
  • Navy beans
  • Peanuts
  • Potatoes with peels[8]
  • Seaweed

Iodine Requirements

The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for iodine differs according to age and life stage:[9]

  • Children ages 1 to 8 years: 90 mcg
  • Children and adolescents ages 9 to 18 years: 120 mcg
  • Adult men and women: 150 mcg
  • Pregnant people: 220 mcg
  • Breastfeeding people: 290 mcg

Meeting the daily requirement is necessary for avoiding deficiency, but it’s also possible and even dangerous to take in too much. Although acute iodine toxicity isn’t common, routinely ingesting or supplementing with more than the tolerable upper intake level (UL) of 1,100 mcg per day[10] can cause:[11]

  • Hyperthyroidism if you started with a deficiency
  • Hypothyroidism if your intakes were already adequate
  • Reduced secretion of thyroid hormone if you have hypothyroidism

Meeting Iodine Needs on a Plant-Based Diet

Brenda Davis, RD, a bestselling author and internationally acclaimed speaker, recommends consuming iodine “in small but frequent amounts several times a week, rather than…a large dose less frequently.” Levels of iodine in fruits and vegetables vary depending on levels in soil, and the concentration in seaweed is affected both by location and preparation method.

This makes it difficult to determine exactly how much iodine you’re getting on a plant-based diet, but there are several ways to meet the RDA:

  • Add a strip of kombu seaweed (also known as kelp) to the water when cooking dried beans
  • Purchase canned beans prepared with kombu, such as Eden brand[12]
  • Add other types of seaweed to dishes like salads and soups
  • Take a vegan-friendly iodine supplement or a multivitamin containing iodine

Note that while beans prepared with kombu as recommended above deliver safe levels of iodine, it is very easy to consume too much kombu, which may contain up to 8,000 mcg per gram—almost 8 times the safe upper limit. Thus, to be safe, you should limit kombu consumption to 1/8th of a gram per day (that’s not very much!). Hijiki[13] should also be avoided because of potential arsenic contamination. Safer varieties of seaweed include dulse, arame, nori, and wakame. People with iodine deficiency should also avoid excessive intake of soy and raw brassica vegetables, since compounds in these foods can interfere with thyroid function in the absence of adequate iodine.

Because both a deficiency and an excess of iodine can be dangerous, the best course of action is to have your levels tested and supplement as needed. If you’re experiencing symptoms of thyroid dysfunction, discuss you

References

  1. “Iodine.” Linus Pauling Institute. January 02, 2019.
  2. Liska, DeAnn, and Jeffrey Bland. Clinical Nutrition: A Functional Approach. Institute for Functional Medicine, 2004.
  3. How Your Thyroid Works.” EndocrineWeb.
  4. Pizzorno, Joseph E. Total Wellness: Improve Your Health by Understanding and Cooperating with Your Body’s Natural Healing Systems. Prima Pub., 1998.
  5. Davis, Brenda, and Vesanto Melina. Becoming Vegan: The Complete Reference to Plant-based Nutrition. Book Publishing Company, 2014.
  6. “Iodine.” MotherToBaby. December 2017.
  7. “The Best Sources of Iodine on a Vegan Diet.” Vegan Food & Living. September 10, 2018.
  8. “Iodine.” Linus Pauling Institute. January 02, 2019.
  9. “Iodine.” Linus Pauling Institute. January 02, 2019.
  10. Davis and Melina, Becoming Vegan
  11. “Iodine.” Linus Pauling Institute. January 02, 2019.
  12. Greger, Michael. “Do Eden Beans Have Too Much Iodine?” NutritionFacts.org.
  13. Greger, Michael. “Too Much Iodine Can Be as Bad as Too Little.” NutritionFacts.org.

Copyright 2019 Center for Nutrition Studies. All rights reserved.

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