Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), or polycystic ovarian syndrome, is an endocrine disorder that wreaks havoc on hormone levels for many women of child-bearing age. Common symptoms include infertility, cysts, ovulation changes like irregular periods, and weight gain.
For women already struggling with their weight, PCOS can make it very hard to lose those extra pounds. Unfortunately, that excess weight can make PCOS symptoms worse and cause added stressors on the body.
That can mean high blood pressure, sleep disorders, and a higher risk of heart conditions.
A PCOS diet that keeps hormonal imbalances in mind can go a long way toward preventing those outcomes, supporting a healthy weight, and boosting overall wellness.
How Your Diet Affects PCOS
We’re not about food shaming, but it’s hard to deny the power of a good diet for overall health. When it comes to PCOS, the things you eat matter. An unhealthy diet can exacerbate symptoms that are already making your day-to-day life hard enough.
Let’s dig in a little here.
Women with PCOS often have trouble regulating their insulin levels. Insulin is a hormone that helps your body process glucose, or sugar, for energy. When your body isn’t able to do this efficiently, that can mean insulin resistance and high blood sugar levels.
Insulin sensitivity can cause a rise in androgens, the male hormones responsible for many of the classic symptoms of PCOS like abnormal hair growth. It can also mess with your metabolism. Both can lead to weight gain and make it harder to lose weight.
If you’re already overweight or struggling with obesity, PCOS can lead to additional health complications like type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and poor cardiovascular outcomes.
Healthy eating can help mitigate many of those concerns, but unhealthy eating can definitely make symptoms worse. Too many fatty foods, for example, can worsen the effects of insulin resistance.
Which diets are best for women with PCOS?
If you’re in the market for lifestyle changes that will help you feel better overall, PCOS diets are great a great option.
What is the best diet for PCOS sufferers? The best diet for PCOS sufferers is a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and whole grains. Healthy lean proteins and fiber are great. Sugars, carbs, and processed foods aren’t.
Let’s look at a few specific diet plans proven to alleviate symptoms of PCOS, often with the added bonus of weight management:
- Mediterranean diet: This diet rich in plant-based foods, fatty fish, and healthy fats like olive oil is the gold standard of dietary plans for all sorts of health conditions. It may lower cholesterol, reduce your heart disease risk, and improve insulin levels impacyed by PCOS.
- Keto diet: Some studies show the low-carb ketogenic diet may support healthy insulin levels, but the high-fat component may not work for all women. This one may be a challenge to follow long-term, as well, as the restrictions can feel limiting.
- Low glycemic index diet: This diet attempts to manage blood sugar levels with a focus on your carb consumption. It’s popular with diabetes sufferers or those at risk for type 2 diabetes. In women with PCOS, it may improve insulin resistance.
Foods To Eat
A conversation with your primary healthcare provider or dietitian is always the best place to start if you’re making big changes to your diet, especially if you’re dealing with other health conditions.
In general, most recommended PCOS diets have a list of foods in common. When in doubt, reach for fresh, natural ingredients. Here are some healthy options to get you started:
- Leafy greens like spinach and kale
- Cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower and broccoli
- Root vegetables like sweet potatoes and radishes
- High-fiber fruits like red grapes, plums, and melons
- Berries (We love blueberries, which are rich in antioxidants and cancer-protective properties.)
- Whole grains like brown rice, oats, and barley
- Legumes like beans, chickpeas, and lentils
- Nuts (especially almonds!) and nut butters
- Seeds like flax seeds and chia seeds
- Olive oil
- Avocados and avocado oil
- Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon and mackerel
- Fermented foods like kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi
- Herbs and spices like ginger and turmeric
- Greek yogurt
- Green tea
If you make the necessary changes to your diet and you find that you’re still lacking in certain areas, high-quality supplements can help.*
Our GetSoSynced formula supports healthy hormone levels and insulin resistance affected by PCOS.
Foods To Avoid
We’ve already talked about the ways a diet high in processed foods and sugar can mess with your body. If you’re not already used to reading labels, it can be hard to decide what to put back on the shelf. Fresh is always best, but here’s a breakdown of some specific foods to avoid:
- Refined carbohydrates like white bread
- Processed snacks like potato chips and microwave popcorn
- White rice
- Highly-processed sweets like breakfast pastries and packaged desserts
- Sugary breakfast cereals
- Lunch meat or meat cured with sugar
- Fried foods
- Sugary sodas and sweetened teas
- Artificial sweeteners
- Energy drinks
- Excessive alcohol
- Foods with high fructose corn syrup
It’s important to consider food sensitivities, too. If your body doesn’t tolerate gluten, you shouldn’t eat gluten just because you heard whole grains are healthy. If you feel worse after eating certain foods, try limiting them to see how you feel.
Is coffee good for PCOS? Coffee is good for PCOS in some women. Limited studies show it may reduce inflammation associated with PCOS. It can also worsen symptoms in others, especially in women with gastrointestinal concerns.
Green tea can be a healthier option if you need a pick-me-up. One clinical trial showed that green tea consumption in women with PCOS supported healthier insulin levels and decreases in testosterone.
Mindful Eating vs. Restrictive Dieting
A solid PCOS diet plan is about long-term changes. Restrictive dieting may seem like a good idea if rapid weight loss is the goal, but you’re more likely to set yourself up for yo-yo dieting, instead.
Eating too few calories can impact your metabolism and the hormones that suppress appetite. Restrictive dieting will also likely leave you feeling run down and ruin your mood.
Embrace mindful eating, instead. That practice is less about shaming you for what you shouldn’t eat and rewarding you for healthy eating habits. It’s about being present at meals and listening to your body’s hunger cues.
That last bit can be hard with PCOS, especially if insulin resistance has made it hard for you to feel full. That’s where healthy food options and PCOS-friendly diets come into play. If you fill your plate with healthier options, the rest could fall into place.
Intermittent Fasting & PCOS
Intermittent fasting has been linked to improved PCOS symptoms and metabolic outcomes in some women. One study showed that limiting eating to an 8-hour span each day can improve insulin sensitivity and help you manage your weight.
Timing is everything with this one. You should never fast for over 14 hours at a time to prevent changes to menstruation. It’s also important to note that time-restricted eating isn’t for everyone.
Talk to your doctor before testing it out, especially if you’re at risk for significant drops in blood sugar. Women already struggling with disordered eating should also avoid intermittent fasting.
Benefits Of a PCOS Diet
As if improving your PCOS symptoms wasn’t enough, a healthy diet comes with a number of extra benefits:
- There’s good stuff in healthy food. Fruits and veggies are rich in antioxidants. Fiber improves gastrointestinal complaints and regulates blood sugar levels. Lean proteins support a healthy immune system. That’s just touching the surface of the benefits of healthy foods.
- You could reduce chronic inflammation. Many of the foods we listed are anti-inflammatory foods, and fighting back against inflammation reduces overall stress on the body. That means improved health outcomes and a reduced risk of heart disease, cancers, and arthritis.
- Your hormones will thank you. Diets high in processed foods and sugars increase your risk of hormonal imbalances and breast cancer. Healthy diets can decrease testosterone levels and support healthier ovulation. It’s a win/win for your hormones.
- You’ll probably lose weight…and keep it off. Weight management is easier when you build habits that are less about counting calories and more about nutrition. Healthy foods are diverse and delicious, too.
If you’re confused about your ideal healthy weight and not sure where to start, our BMI calculator is the simplest way to see whether you’re on the right side of the scale. Yes, it’s just a single number. Your age, gender, even muscle mass aren’t included in BMI. That said, it remains a solid baseline to get your wellness journey going.
Other Lifestyle & Weight Loss Strategies For PCOS
Your diet is a key component in managing your PCOS, but it isn’t the only factor in how you feel at the end of the day. Bad sleep hygiene, chronic stress, and a lack of effective exercise can all hamper the progress you make with your diet and keep you from a healthy weight.
Yes, there’s a better way to exercise with PCOS. High-intensity interval training (HIIT), resistance training, and yoga are all linked to better outcomes over excessive cardio.
If you feel like you’re putting in the work and still struggling with PCOS symptoms, talk to your doctor. You may benefit from a thyroid check to rule out thyroid dysfunction or therapy to help you cope with the condition.
If you’re an emotional eater, an Eating Behavior Assessment can shed light on your relationship with food and help you develop healthier habits.
Find support when you need it to not only stay on track with healthy habits, but to feel better from the inside out.
Is it time to make a change?
PCOS management is hard, and figuring out the right approach to healthy eating can feel even harder when your hormones aren’t cooperating.
SoWell can help.
At SoWell, we support our members with individualized wellness plans that fit their unique needs. If you’re someone who benefits from added accountability with lifestyle changes, our group weight loss program offers 1:1 medical management and group coaching for long-term success.
Not ready to join? Sign up for our monthly newsletter. It’s a low-stress, low-stakes way to get to know what we do and benefit from advice on your metabolic health and news about our practice.
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
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