So Wait, Kale Is Bad for You Now?

Jan 14 at 1pm

For the last several years, the pro-kale movement has been growing strong. Relentless, even. Kale was no longer just a vegetable that your smug healthy friends ate. Over the last few years, the fan base grew. Every restaurant had to have a kale salad on their menu. You were getting emails from your mom about it. Food Network recipes were using it. And entertainment magazines were having a tizzy anytime any celeb ate kale. It was declared the world’s healthiest food, and everyone believed it.

Then recently, the New York Times ran a personal essay in its Opinionator section titled “Kale? Juicing? Trouble Ahead.” The author, Jennifer Berman, started her piece with the tongue-in-cheek lede, “I was into health food before it was cool.” She explained that although she was the healthiest eater she knew, at her last physical, she was diagnosed with hypothyroidism (enlarged thyroid). The culprit? Yep, you know it, kale! The kale that she used in her juices every morning topped the list of foods that caused the condition, along with every other healthy whole food you’ve been told to eat more of, like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, flax seeds, spinach, and almonds. The next 800 or so words were a humorous, rather than cautionary, tale of a health nut who realizes that everything – even nutritious foods – can harm you in excess.  

Not surprisingly, the day Berman’s story ran, my Facebook feed was abuzz with links to it, and other kale articles, with commentary by friends wondering if they should stop eating the leafy brassica. Wait, did these people not finish reading the rest of the essay, or did they stop after the first few paragraphs? Are they really going to stop eating kale because of this one story that ran in the NYT?

So before you get your panties in a knot and throw out all that beautiful Russian kale you bought at the farmers’ market for an arm and a leg, repeat after me, kale is not the enemy.  

It’s true, you shouldn’t eat kale in excess. A couple of years ago, when I was incorporating more green, leafy vegetables into my diet, I found myself sautéing whole bunches of kale, spinach, or Brussels sprouts and topping it off with a beautiful sunny side-up egg for breakfast every morning. A week after I started this routine, I was as backed up as the westbound lane of the Bay Bridge on a sunny weekend afternoon. Kale, it turns out, shouldn’t be eaten in mass quantities, unless you enjoy being as bloated as Violet Beauregarde. It was a painful lesson, but I didn’t give up on kale; I just ate less of it at one time. And, I learned that it’s not just a stupid, trendy foodie thing to massage your kale – it actually helps to break down the fibers and makes it easier to digest, not to mention less bitter, if you’re going to eat it raw.

But what about hypothyroidism? Are you going to get a goiter from eating too much kale? I guess it’s possible, especially if you already have a thyroid condition and if you don’t have any iodine in your diet (iodine deficiency is another cause of hypothyroidism). But the amount of kale you’d have to eat would be pretty extreme. In the study by Oregon State about hypothyroidism that everyone's been citing, it notes that an 88-year-old woman developed the condition and went into a coma after eating 1-1.5 kg of raw boy choy every day for several months. Sounds crazy until you break it down: One kilogram of kale would be about 15 cups!

So should you stop eating kale? No. Should you stop thinking you are really healthy/special/immortal/just like stars just because you eat kale? Yeah, probably.

Photo by Toru Uchida via Thinkstock

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