In an earlier article, I have shared my experience on how I reversed my Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) naturally. Diet played a key role in helping me overcome the condition.
When I was first diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), my gynecologist recommended a ‘healthy ‘diet’ to treat the symptoms. The idea was to make my menstrual cycle more regular and help me lose weight. As Indians, we already eat a seemingly healthy diet. My diet comprised of whole-wheat rotis, rice, an assortment of vegetables, healthy legumes and lentils, paneer and dairy and more. What was I doing wrong?
I started researching on what is a healthy diet plan for PCOS. I found out that our standard Indian diet has various pitfalls which can be easily prevented. And that is what I would like to talk about today.
Why Diet Matters For PCOS?
Before I discuss the recommended diet for PCOS, I want to first talk about why these diet changes are so important. If you have PCOS, chances are that you also suffer from insulin resistance. This happens when the body produces insulin (which is necessary to turn sugars into energy) but it is not efficiently used. This leads to high levels of sugar in your blood. The body pumps out more and more insulin to normalize these high blood glucose levels. And as a result, the ovaries produce more androgens like testosterone. These excess androgens then cause hormonal imbalance, which is what leads to PCOS.
Once you understand this mechanism, it’s easy to imagine how a diet that stabilizes insulin levels helps for PCOS. A diet that is low in refined carbohydrates, sugars and processed foods will help keep insulin levels as well as your weight under control. However, there is more to PCOS than just insulin resistance. Some women can be diagnosed with PCOS even when their fasting glucose levels come out to be normal. This is because a lot of other factors can cause over-production of testosterone. Nevertheless, a healthy diet that stabilizes blood sugar and insulin levels helps ALL women diagnosed with PCOS. Studies have found that a low glycemic index (GI) diet can help in management of PCOS.
My Top 8 Diet Tips For PCOS
As I did more research into the right diet plan for PCOS, I found out where I was making mistakes. One of the most interesting things I read was that low grade inflammation and PCOS go hand in hand. And that is why I was suffering from cystic acne, PMS, headaches and bloating. My aim was to adopt a more anti-inflammatory diet that healed my body from within. At the same time, such a diet would help in normalizing my blood sugar and hormone levels. Here are my top 8 diet tips for PCOS.
Give Up Sugar
Insulin resistance is one of your biggest battles with PCOS. For this reason, giving up sugar makes complete sense for those affected by PCOS. With insulin resistance, your blood glucose levels spike up dramatically as soon as you ingest sugar or any sugary foods. The first thing I did was to give up sugar completely. Cakes, doughnuts, cookies, ice-cream, all Indian desserts (gulab jamun, rasagulla, barfi, etc.) and even packaged fruit juices — everything. I even learnt how to enjoy my morning cup of tea sans sugar, and it wasn’t that bad. You can use sugar alternatives like Stevia, honey or jaggery (gud) powder to make the transition easier.
However, the tough part was that there are hidden sugars in so many unexpected things. Bottled salad dressings, peanut butter, pasta sauces, sandwich spreads and more. It took me some time to get used to reading ingredients very carefully on every packet/bottle/box of food. I would say it’s well worth the effort too. Also, I didn’t switch to artificial sugars that most diabetics turn too when they give up sugar. These are even WORSE than sugar, and best avoided completely on a healthy diet plan.
Choose Carbohydrates Wisely
For us Indians, all meals revolve around carbohydrates! Whatever we cook – be it a curry or a dry vegetable, we eat it with chapatis, parathas or rice. And that’s one of the biggest pitfalls of PCOS diet. All carbohydrates turn into sugars upon digestion, which meant that a high-carb diet is a bad idea for those with insulin resistance. I am not going to ask you to give up carbohydrates completely. Because I don’t believe in extreme diet measures that are not sustainable for a lifetime. Instead, I recommend choosing your carbohydrates wisely. Refined carbohydrates are the culprits here. However, vegetables, fruits, healthy grains, and seeds are all good sources of healthy carbohydrates. Also, forget that you MUST have chapati or rice for every meal. One of my favorite meals is a big bowl of stew made with lean chicken, red lentils (lal masoor), and vegetables. It’s a meal by itself and doesn’t need accompaniments.
If chapatis are a must in your household, I recommend that you make your own homemade multigrain atta. Store-bought atta is often too refined and lacks wheat-bran and wheat-germ. This kind of processing makes the flour deficient in nutrients as well as fiber. Choosing multiple grains that contain the whole cereal grain ensures that your sugar levels will not spike dramatically after your meals. Mix equal portions (or as you please) of whole-wheat, bajra, ragi, barley, and oats to create your own healthier atta for chapatis and parathas. I also switched from white rice to brown rice, which is the whole grain and contains more overall nutrition. Brown rice also has a lower glycemic index (GI), which means it’s slower to affect your blood sugar.
Eliminate All Processed Foods
I cut back on all processed foods because these contain hidden sugars, excess sodium, unhealthy fats and a bunch of additives and preservatives. All of these can lead to inflammation, which is something I didn’t want in my diet. That means cutting back on all biscuits, chips, cookies, processed meats, energy bars, packaged fruit juices, breakfast cereals. Basically, you cut down on anything and everything that comes out of a box or packet.
Now, let me be the first one to confess that this change is not easy. Especially for a working woman who has a family to feed while also spending around 8 hours at the office. Cooking EVERYTHING from scratch is difficult. But trust me, it is possible. Start with smaller changes. When you’re out grocery shopping, fill up your cart with fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, and meats. And plan your weekly menus around this healthy shopping cart. Eliminate processed foods slowly, and become more serious about meal prep. Spend a little time chopping up vegetables and storing them in containers and fresh-lock bags over the weekend. This way, you will be more likely to throw together a quick stir-fry and avoid foods out of a bag at the end of a hectic workday.
Adopt A Whole Foods Diet
As you give up processed foods, it’ll become easier to adopt a whole-foods diet. Also known as Clean Eating, such a diet is based around eating fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean cuts of meat and legumes. This diet is anti-inflammatory and nourishes your body to the fullest.
A whole-food diet is also high in fiber which helps you feel full for longer. Seek out whole grains, quinoa, fresh fruits like blueberries and bananas. Interestingly, both blueberries and bananas put together make a wonderful breakfast smoothie. Eat vegetables like okra, eggplant, broccoli, zucchini, pumpkin, gourd, lettuce, spinach, and cilantro. Rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, all vegetables are a good addition to your diet. Personally, I aim for a minimum of 9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. A single serving equals one cup of raw fruit or vegetable.
Know Your Fats
Not all fats are bad for you. But partially-hydrogenated and hydrogenated fats are best avoided completely. Also, consuming too much omega-6 fatty acids increases the risk of inflammation. This is why it’s best to swap all vegetable oils like soy, sunflower, and safflower oil with omega-3 rich olive oil or coconut oil.
Don’t be afraid of ghee. It’s a healthier alternative to vegetable oils and gives a rich, buttery taste without a heavy dose of omega-6 fat in Indian recipes. Know that healthy fats are a must in your diet for PCOS. Good fats are found in nuts, seeds, oily fish, coconut oil and olive oil.
Rethink The Way You Cook
Fat-laden curries, heavy kormas, and vegetables fried in oil — while Indian cuisine is delicious, you can do with a few changes. Adding more vegetables to your diet is a healthy choice. But you need to cook them right to reap their maximum nutritional benefits. And no, I am not asking you to eat boiled vegetables! Steamed vegetables are a healthy option. Steaming preserves vitamin C and many B vitamins that are easily damaged when vegetables come into contact with heat and water. Dry cooking methods such as grilling, roasting and stir-frying also retain a greater amount of nutrients than boiling.
If you like to add a lean meat to your diet every day, choose grilled, roasted or baked chicken over heavier gravies. I like to stir-fry chicken with zucchini, broccoli, and mushrooms in a little coconut oil for a quick, highly satiating dinner.
Drink Enough Water
Another common mistake, most of us don’t drink enough water. My PCOS came with horrible bloating that was so bad, I could barely button up my jeans many a mornings. The bloating just worsened around my period as I struggled with swollen breasts and belly. Bloating is caused by water retention, when your body holds onto water. Contrary to what you may think, drinking more water will help gently flush out excess water and sodium from your body. I like to start the day with a tall glass of water with a wedge of lime. This helps in flushing out all toxins and kick start my metabolism. I aim for 2-3 liters of water every day, and this has really helped with bloating.
However, don’t drink water with or after your meals. Instead, drink a tall glass of water half hour before your meal to boost digestion and stay hydrated.
Add Dietary Probiotics
Changes in gut microbiome can affect weight loss, metabolism, body fat as well as encourage inflammation. This is why healthy probiotics, which improve gut flora, must be a part of a good diet for PCOS.
Eat more yogurt, lassi, kanji, buttermilk (chaas), and pickles. Foods that require fermentation, for examples dhoklas, idlis and dosas also contain live gut-healthy bacteria. Kombucha, miso, sauerkraut and tempeh are other excellent natural probiotics.
I have read that giving up dairy can be extremely beneficial for some women who have PCOS, especially those suffering from painful cystic acne. While I didn’t do this, this is because dairy (particularly low-fat dairy) contains Insulin-like Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1) which can be a problem. If you are really struggling with acne, giving up dairy can be worth a try.