PCOS: What is it and how does nutrition play a role?
Note: This article is not to be used as a diagnosis tool. If you are having any of the symptoms indicative of PCOS, schedule a visit with your doctor. Our goal is to further educate on the topic so individuals may know what signs to look for.
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is a very common (yet often misunderstood) hormonal condition, and one of the leading causes of infertility in the western world (about 5 million women of reproductive age have been diagnosed here in the US!)
The name suggests that a woman who has PCOS has multiple cysts on her ovaries… and strangely this is not so in the majority of cases, which furthers the confusion of the diagnosis.
Additionally, PCOS affects more than fertility; it puts you at a greater risk for developing heart disease, diabetes, and high cholesterol. Aside from the difficult-to-detect cysts on your ovaries (which would require an ultrasound, and even then, they are hard to see), the more common symptoms are easier to identify: weight gain, acne, unwanted/male-pattern hair growth, fatigue, and irregular periods. Some women with PCOS have several of these symptoms, while some have only a few.
The good news is that PCOS is treatable – and reversible.
Since one of the most common concerns for those with PCOS weight loss, we will dive into that here. One of the tell-tale characteristics of PCOS is blood sugar dysregulation. Insulin is the hormone that regulates your blood sugar, and insulin resistance is when your cells don’t heed the messages that insulin is sending throughout your body. Those with PCOS often exhibit various degrees of insulin resistance.
While there are no hard-and-fast rules for people with PCOS, as different women with PCOS have different carb tolerances, here are some general nutrition guidelines to help manage PCOS symptoms:
- Eat foods with low glycemic index (GI): the body digests foods with low GI more slowly, so they don’t cause insulin levels to rise as much or as quickly as other foods. Examples might include whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fresh fruits, starchy vegetables, and other low-carbohydrate foods. More on this below.
- Eat anti-inflammatory foods: Eating foods like fatty fish, leafy greens, extra virgin olive oil, and fresh berries may reduce inflammation-related symptoms, like fatigue. Consider eliminating common inflammatory foods like gluten, soy, and dairy for a period of time and then strategically reintroducing them to see if they are trigger foods for you.
Working with a nutrition coach can be useful to help you determine your carb tolerance (which can vary greatly by the person) by looking at how you feel after eating certain carbs – for example, if you’re lethargic after you eat, that food might be triggering your insulin to spike too much. A coach is also a great resource to guide you through temporary food elimination and reintroduction to see if you have particular foods that aggravate and inflame your body.
For a more comprehensive and general list of food recommendations, women with PCOS should generally eat:
- natural, unprocessed foods
- high-fiber foods
- fatty fish, including salmon, tuna, sardines, and mackerel
- kale, spinach, and other dark, leafy greens
- dark red fruits, such as red grapes, blueberries, blackberries, and cherries
- broccoli, cauliflower, and other cruciferous vegetables
- beans, lentils, and other legumes
- healthy fats, such as olive oil, as well as avocados and coconuts
- nuts, including pine nuts, walnuts, almonds, and pistachios
- anti-inflammatory spices, such as turmeric
In general, women with PCOS should generally avoid the following foods:
- Refined carbohydrates and anything high in sugar, such as pastries and white bread
- Fried foods, such as fast food
- Sugary beverages, like sodas and energy drinks
- Processed meats, like hot dogs, sausages, and lunch meats
- Solid fats, like margarine, shortening, and lard
- Excess red meat, like steaks, hamburgers, and pork
Lifestyle considerations are a major factor to women with PCOS as well and should not be overlooked or underestimated:
- Exercise: Incorporating an exercise routine is great for women with PCOS, but make sure to keep it in moderate amounts so that it doesn’t elicit a stress response in the body.
- Improve gut health: Work with a coach to center your diet and supplementation around improving gut health and detoxifying the liver.
- Nourish your adrenals: We all know that stress is bad for us, but it’s especially important for the already-stressed body with PCOS. Prioritize time to de-stress and perform self-care, whatever that looks like for you (meditation, bubble bath, mani-pedi, hanging out with a friend, or whatever it might look like for you.)
- SLEEP!: Sleep has a profound effect on insulin sensitivity, for those with PCOS and even those without it. If you’re not getting a minimum of 8 hours of sleep per night, prioritize this.
So if you are one of the many women with PCOS, don’t fret! There are many things you can do in your diet and lifestyle to ameliorate your symptoms and even reverse your condition.