PCOS, or Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, is an endocrine disorder that affects the hormone levels of females and how their ovaries work. I covered all the basics about what PCOS is and its symptoms in this post: What is PCOS & What are the Symptoms? so if you’re not clear on the basics, pause here to read that article first.
What you’ll learn quickly if you read that article is, besides the fact that PCOS is often misdiagnosed or masked with birth control, is it is a syndrome that is strongly connected with and affected by nutrition.
Whether you’ve been diagnosed with PCOS or suspect you may have it, it’s vital to understand how your dietary choices may be worsening your symptoms. While a clinical diagnosis will help you make your dietary choices with certainty, all of the tips we’re going to cover below are safe and healthy choices for all - just make sure you speak to your doctor before making any drastic dietary changes if you have diabetes or medication that may be affected.
How does nutrition affect PCOS?
PCOS is a syndrome that is deeply connected with the way our body interacts with carbohydrates and insulin levels in the body. In fact, an increase in carbohydrates and concurrent weight gain can trigger this condition in those genetically predisposed.
When PCOS is correctly diagnosed, we can adjust a patient’s diet to alleviate symptoms and take control. Women who control their insulin levels often start to lose weight, see many of their symptoms disappear (or become much easier to live with), and even have success conceiving naturally when they were unable to do so before.
4 Ways to Control PCOS with Your Diet
The key concept behind controlling PCOS is to maintain a healthy insulin level and a healthy weight. Here are 4 things you should consider doing if you have PCOS:
Eat plenty of high-fiber foods: This practice is important because fiber helps control insulin resistance, which is a hallmark of PCOS. Fiber slows digestion and helps to control your blood sugar levels. If you’re considering changing your diet, increase your intake of leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, and berries. (While berries are sweet, they are actually relatively low in sugar and high in fiber!)
Cut Carbs: Carbohydrates cause inflammation and make insulin resistance worse. Carbohydrates also are the biggest culprits of weight gain. While carbs are healthy in moderation for those without PCOS, avoiding bread, pasta, oats, and grains is key to alleviating symptoms of this issue. While cutting major carb sources isn’t easy, once you do so you’ll see a dramatic improvement in your symptoms, lose weight, and you’ll find it more instinctual to opt for non-carb heavy options.
Cut Sugar: We’ve already covered carbohydrates, but it’s worth narrowing our view here to focus on sugar. Sugar is notorious for causing inflammation and insulin resistance and while having a cup of brown rice every so often may not cause your symptoms to flare, sugar will, especially if it becomes habitual.
Sugar is hidden in many products so be sure to look at the back of the label and see what is inside when you eat processed foods. Aside from obvious sugar sources, such as chocolate and cake, keep in mind the sugar content of alcohol, juices, spreads, yogurts, and even salad dressings can be extremely high. Foods that are marketed as “diet” or “low-fat” may still be high in sugars, natural or otherwise, so keep your eyes open. Again, once you’ve found your new low-sugar foods, picking the right options will become instinctual.
4. Try following a paleo or Mediterranean diet: These diets are full of foods that won’t cause an insulin spike, but they’re also known for their great heart health benefits. Focusing on rich lean protein sources, healthy fats and oils, along with fresh fruits and veggies will allow you to reduce inflammation levels and combat insulin resistance.
Exercise is also often prescribed for those looking to alleviate the symptoms of PCOS by maintaining a healthy weight. If possible, aim to exercise for at least half an hour three times a week, both to help with weight maintenance and to promote good cardiovascular health. The positive psychological effects of exercise also often result in a higher sense of self-esteem in patients, making them more likely to want to improve further. Remember - exercise doesn’t have to be going to the gym to run or do a HIIT (high-intensity interval training) session, try a brisk walk, cycling, or dancing - whatever makes you feel good and is easy to find the motivation to do!
While we still don’t know exactly what causes PCOS, it’s likely influenced by genes, insulin resistance, and higher inflammation levels within the body. If you are worried that you may have PCOS, speak to your doctor and if it’s safe for you to do so, try decreasing your carbohydrate and sugar intake. Most females with PCOS experience a dramatic improvement when they implement the tips we’ve discussed here.
Dr. Nancy Rahnama, MD, ABOM, ABIM, is a medical doctor board certified by both the American Board of Obesity Medicine and the American Board of Internal Medicine. Her specialty is Clinical Nutrition, that is, the use of nutrition by a medical doctor to diagnose and treat disease. Dr. Rahnama has helped thousands of people achieve their goals of weight loss, gut health, improved mood and sleep, and managing chronic disease.