We are what we eat. And if you are a woman with PCOS, what you eat makes all the difference. While doctors will have you believe that medication is the only way to control and manage your PCOS symptoms, we are here to tell you otherwise. The right PCOS diet is the single most crucial element when it comes to reversing the underlying causes of PCOS. Along with the right exercise regime and carefully chosen dietary supplements, it can help balance your hormones. And that too…. without any allopathic medication!
PCOS And Diet: Understand The Connection
Why is a PCOS diet so important? The answer is insulin resistance, and the way it affects hormones. It’s estimated that 64% of the women diagnosed with PCOS also have insulin resistance.
Insulin is necessary to turn sugars we eat through diet into energy. When the body is unable to use this insulin efficiently, blood sugar (or glucose) levels shoot up. To cope with this, the pancreas releases more insulin in an effort to normalize high blood glucose levels, leading to hyperinsulinemia. This signals the ovaries to produce more androgens, like testosterone. These excess androgens (or male hormones) then cause hormonal imbalance, which is what leads to PCOS. Excess male hormones are the primary reason behind several PCOS symptoms like missed/absent periods, unexplained weight gain, acne, bloating, excess body hair and more.
This is where diet steps in. A diet that is low in refined carbohydrates, sugars and processed foods, it helps stabilize insulin levels. It also helps lose weight, since weight gain and PCOS often go hand-in-hand.
However, there is more to PCOS than just insulin resistance. Some women with PCOS may have normal fasting glucose levels, because there can be other factors causing over-production of testosterone. Nevertheless, a healthy diet that stabilizes blood sugar and insulin levels helps ALL women diagnosed with PCOS.
The aim of the right PCOS diet is to:
- Fight against insulin resistance
- Stabilize blood sugar levels
- Normalize hormone levels
- Reduce inflammation
- Help in weight loss
PCOS And Diet: The Do’s and Don’ts
Now that we have covered why the right PCOS diet is important, it’s time to discuss what you should and shouldn’t eat on a PCOS diet. Truth is that the right diet to control and manage your PCOS is a complex and individual process. Because the symptoms and underlying causes of PCOS vary from woman to woman. However, these general guidelines are helpful for any PCOS diet you may eventually choose to follow.
Avoid Refined Carbohydrates
Simple, refined carbohydrates get converted into sugars and will quickly spike your blood glucose levels. Most of these foods are highly processed to remove healthy fiber, so they digest rather quickly. Plus they are very high in calories, devoid of healthy nutrients, and can aid inflammation.
- Don’t eat refined flour, packaged cereals, baked foods, white rice and sugary treats
- Eat complex carbohydrates from fruits and vegetables, like brown rice, quinoa, barley, steel-cut oats, whole-wheat breads, buckwheat, amaranth and millets
Eliminate Processed Foods
If it comes in a packet, don’t eat it. It’s really that simple. Processed foods are devoid of REAL nutrition. They contain hidden sugars, excess sodium, unhealthy fats and a bunch of additives and preservatives.
- Don’t eat processed luncheon meats, juices, TV dinners, chips, biscuits and packaged cereals. Instead, focus on foods found in nature.
- Eat leafy greens, colorful vegetables, seasonal fruits, lean cuts of organic meats bought locally, nuts and seeds, and healthy fats.
A lot of medical experts are of the opinion that going dairy-free can reduce your PCOS symptoms. Dairy has been linked to obesity as well as acne, two of the most common and aggravating symptoms of PCOS. Research has also found that women who regularly consume low-fat dairy products are at an increased risk of problems with ovulation. Scientists in Iran have found a direct relationship between milk consumption and risk of PCOS. The fact that cow’s milk contains Insulin Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1) can explain the connection. IGF-1 mimics the role of insulin in the body. Women with PCOS are reported to have higher levels of IGF-1, which causes the ovaries to release too much testosterone. And that’s something we really want to avoid!
- Don’t eat any dairy if you can, but make sure to particularly steer clear of low-fat dairy if you have PCOS.
- Eat grass-fed butter and ghee as they have low dairy content and more fat content. Today you can find a variety of non-dairy milks like coconut, almond and cashew milk, which are all healthier alternatives.
Avoid Bad Fats
Not all fats are created equal. We believe that hydrogenated, partially-hydrogenated and trans-fats have no business being a part of your PCOS diet. They further increase your risk of heart disease and diabetes type 2, being a woman with PCOS. Ditch them completely. And replace them with healthy, good quality fats.
- Don’t eat refined oils, vegetable oils, and trans-fats found in baked goods.
- Eat high-quality saturated fats for cooking – like grass-fed butter, coconut oil, ghee, and animal fats from organic, lean sources of meat. Cold-pressed peanut oil, sesame oil and olive oil are also good for you. Other good sources of fats are avocados, fatty fish, nuts, and seeds.
Have Lots Of Natural Probiotics
Scientists believe that gut health may impact PCOS. Changes in gut microbiome can affect weight loss, metabolism, body fat, as well as encourage inflammation. While probiotic supplements are an easy way to improve gut health, you can also add natural probiotics to your PCOS diet.
- Eat bone broth, Kefir, Kombucha, Kimchi, Miso, pickles and other fermented foods that contain healthy probiotic bacteria strains. But be careful of dairy-based probiotics like buttermilk and yogurt, if you are lactose-intolerant.
Are There Diets That Are Known To Work For PCOS?
Any diet that focuses on cutting back sugars and processed grains is an excellent starting point for PCOS. But yes, there are some diets are better suited for women living with PCOS, and can simplify eating for you. Based on your individual symptoms, you can choose one of these 5 diets:
The LCHF or Low Carb-High Fat diet focuses on limiting carbohydrate intake. In this diet, only 28% of your daily calories are derived from carbs. The rest of your daily caloric intake should come from healthy fats and a moderate consumption of proteins. Limiting your carbohydrate intake to below 100-120gm per day is a good way to stabilize blood sugar levels, insulin levels and help lose weight. It also helps improve heart health markers in women with PCOS. Preferred sources of carbohydrates in LCHF diet are fruits, vegetables, whole grains and brown rice.
Researchers have found that the use of a low (100 gram/d) carbohydrate, high saturated fat diet in 15 overweight women with PCOS resulted in 14.3% reduction in body weight. Also, their fasting serum insulin levels reduced from 24.2 μIU/ml to 12.2 μIU/ml in 24 weeks. Eating good fats like ghee, grass-fed butter, coconut oil, oily fish and avocados ensure you stay satiated even when you’re eating far fewer carbs.
Keto or ketogenic diet is a stricter form of the LCHF diet. Some women find that a Ketogenic diet, which restricts carbohydrate intake to 20-30gm/day, is especially effective to lose stubborn weight and balance hormones. In a true ketogenic diet, only 5% of your daily caloric intake comes from carbohydrates. The rest of your calories should come from fats (75% of your daily calories) and protein (20% of your daily calories). For most women doing the keto diet, these carbohydrates come from vegetables.
A study was done in North Carolina to investigate the effects of a low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet (LCKD) on overweight and obese women with PCOS over a period of six months. It found that a LCKD, which restricted carbohydrate intake to 20 grams or less per day, led to a significant improvement in weight in women with obesity and PCOS over a 24 week period. These women also reported an improvement in percent free testosterone, LH/FSH ratio, and fasting insulin.
A Paleo diet is a hunter-gatherer style diet, which is also sometimes known as the Primal diet or Caveman diet. Such a diet focuses on eating:
- Fresh grass-fed or organic meats, fish, eggs, and poultry
- Healthy fats such as avocado, nuts, coconut products, and olive oils, and
- A rainbow of low GI vegetables at every meal
Women with PCOS often have a slower metabolic rate or basal metabolic rate (BMR), as shown by studies. The Paleo diet is an all-natural diet that’s devoid of all refined, processed and harmful foods. If a food doesn’t occur in nature, it’s not on your menu anymore. It’s for this reason that Paleo diet works wonders for boosting metabolism and reducing inflammation. Since there are no cereals and grains allowed on Paleo diet, it helps greatly with insulin resistance as well. Thus, it is a great strategy for women looking to overcome PCOS through diet and lifestyle changes. Also, this diet eliminates dairy from your diet, which helps stabilize hormones.
Researchers in Texas, USA put 24 overweight and obese women with PCOS on an 8-week low-starch/low-dairy diet. They found it resulted in successful weight loss, improved insulin sensitivity and reduced testosterone in these women. This study proves that a Paleo diet could definitely be helpful in controlling and managing PCOS.
Low-Glycemic Index Diet
A low glycemic index (GI) diet can also be helpful in the management of PCOS. Since insulin resistance and elevated blood sugar level lie at the heart of PCOS, a diet focusing on low glycaemic index (GI) foods can be a good place to start. Low GI foods release sugar relatively slowly into the bloodstream, preventing spikes in blood sugar, unlike foods that are high on the GI list will. For your reference, a GI value of 70 or higher is considered high, 56—69 is considered medium, and 55 or lower is considered low.
A study done in Sydney, Australia found that a low glycemic index (GI) diet can be helpful in management of PCOS. The study followed 96 women with PCOS who were assigned to either a low-GI diet or a ‘healthy’ diet, wherein half of their calories came from carbohydrate. After a year, most women on the GI diet saw significant improvement in their glucose tolerance test, blood sugar control and insulin action. Also, 95% also saw improvement in the regularity of their menstrual cycle.
This is not surprising. Since a low GI Diet is designed to prevent spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels, a low-GI diet has merit for women with PCOS. However, it isn’t without flaws. That’s because it is possible to eat a low GI diet and still eat way too many carbs/day, which hampers insulin sensitivity. This diet doesn’t pay any mind to the nutritional content of the foods. Many foods that are low in GI may not be the healthiest choice, like say potato chips or fettucine pasta. On the other hand, some fruits which are high in GI like watermelon can easily be incorporated into a healthy PCOS diet plan. Many experts believe that a low GI diet coupled with a low-carb diet may be a better choice for women with PCOS.
For many women with PCOS who are looking to get pregnant, an anti-inflammatory diet can also be a good choice. This is a lesser restrictive diet, as it focuses on nourishing your body with healthy vegetables, leafy greens, berries, gluten-free grains, plant-based and lean organic protein. And it removes processed food, sugar, gluten, dairy, soy, peanuts, and caffeine. You could say that an Anti-Inflammatory diet is the very definition of a ‘Healthy Diet’, as it eliminates processed food, sugar, gluten, dairy, soy, peanuts, and caffeine from your diet, but doesn’t come with strict guidelines.
In a study conducted in Egypt, women with PCOS were put on a Mediterranean style anti-inflammatory diet for 12 weeks. The diet composition was 50% carbohydrates 25% proteins, and 25% fat with a lot of anti-inflammatory foods like vegetables, fatty fish, nuts, olive oil, spices and herbs, legumes and green tea. Upon completion, the subjects reported 7% loss of their body weight, 6.6% loss in waist circumference, and 9.2% loss of body fat and a 21.7% reduction in visceral fat. Cholesterol and inflammatory markers were also improved. By the end of the study, 63% of women regained regular periods and 12% conceived following this type of anti-inflammatory diet.
For women with PCOS who cannot follow a very strict diet plan due to a hectic lifestyle, especially those looking to get pregnant, an anti-inflammatory diet is a good choice.
How To Choose The Right PCOS Diet For You?
For someone newly diagnosed with PCOS, we understand that the connection between PCOS and diet can be overwhelming. You may need to make a lot of dietary changes and have no clue where to even begin. Let us help you. Start by seeing an expert to discuss your individual PCOS symptoms. This will give the expert all needed information so he/she can help you choose the best PCOS diet plan for YOU.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. And no one expects you to throw out everything in your pantry, buy a whole new range of food and become an expert in cooking it the right way overnight. Start with taking small steps. Swap refined vegetable oils for organic, cold pressed coconut oil and extra-virgin olive oil. Replace all refined, processed grains in your kitchen with fibre-loaded whole grains. Try your hand at a few simple meal and snack recipes instead of eating packaged and processed foods. Ditch your morning coffee and drink a cup of green tea. And switch our sugar-loaded packaged juices with homemade fresh juices and smoothies for breakfast.
And in time…you will notice the improvements in your symptoms through a cleaner, healthier PCOS diet. Good Luck!