Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is a common hormonal condition affecting around 13% of women of reproductive age, with an estimated 70% of sufferers going undiagnosed. PCOS causes major disruptions to women’s wellbeing, characterised by irregular period, unwanted hair growth, acne, fertility issues, weight struggles, anxiety and depression. While there’s currently no cure (or clear determination of its cause) there are ways to manage PCOS and improve symptoms, with good nutrition going a long way. Here’s the best diet for PCOS.
What are the symptoms of PCOS?
The common symptoms of PCOS include:
- Irregular periods or no periods at all
- Excessive hair growth (hirsutism) usually on the face, chest or back
- Difficulty falling pregnant (due to irregular ovulation)
- Weight gain
- Hair loss from the head
- Anxiety and/or depression
To be diagnosed with PCOS, you’ll experience irregular menstrual cycles (getting your periods less than 21 days apart or more than 35), signs of excess androgens such as excess facial hair or you’ll need a blood test to determine your hormone levels. Some women present with all of the common symptoms while some seemingly experience one or none.
PCOS is important to manage as many of the symptoms can cause significant distress as well as long-term health concerns, with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, endometrial hyperplasia and depression. These are all issues that can be managed with lifestyle changes, medication and treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy.
What’s the deal with PCOS and insulin resistance?
A significant number proportion of women with PCOS have insulin resistance – a condition in which the cells do not effectively use glucose from the blood, resulting in the pancreas producing more insulin. Increases insulin drives the ovaries to produce testosterone and lowers the production of a protein called sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG), which means more testosterone moves freely into cells. These both worsen PCOS symptoms. Insulin resistance also leads to blood glucose levels rising over time, significantly impacting weight management, especially around the stomach. It’s recommended that losing 5 – 10% of your body weight can help improve symptoms, but this is clearly only suggested if weight loss is healthy for you.
What to eat when you have PCOS
Despite what some marketing and media might have you believe, there is no “best diet for PCOS”. However, healthy eating habits and regular exercise have been found to improve symptoms of PCOS.
1. Limit saturated fats
Keep an eye on your consumption saturated fats. Your diet should contain a small amount of the saturated fats found in fatty cuts of meat, processed meat, plant-based oils like coconut oil, cream and cheese, as well as processed and fried foods.
2. But don’t be scared of the good fats
Healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds should be a staple in your diet. Omega-3s also help cells become more sensitive to insulin (thus lowering resistance, a good thing!) so pack in walnuts, pumpkin seeds, salmon, tuna, and soy and linseed bread.
3. Don’t cut carbs completely
It’s a common belief that keto and low-carb diets are best for women with PCOS but that’s not always the case. A diet that’s too high in carbohydrates and sugary foods isn’t helpful for those with insulin resistance but it’s essential you eat the recommended proportion of carbohydrates to give your body its essential energy source.
4. Plate up plenty of plants
High fibre foods can help combat insulin resistance by slowing down digestions and reducing the impact of sugar on the blood. Increase your consumption of vegetables (eat the rainbow with a variety of green leafy vegetables, cruciferous vegetables), fruit (particularly vitamin-C rich antioxidant fruit such as berries and kiwifruit), and legumes (like beans, lentils and chickpeas).
5. Eat regularly
It’s recommended that women with PCOS eat regular meals and snacks to help stabilise their insulin levels. Go for three meals, every three to four hours, with snacks in between. No, that doesn’t mean a pastry or a packet of chips – your snacks should be just as balanced as what you’re plating up for breakfast. All meals should have a mix of protein, unrefined, low GI carbohydrates and plenty of fruits and vegetables.
6. Opt for anti-inflammatory food
Plate up anti-inflammatory foods such a colourful fruit and vegetables, fatty fish, whole grains, nuts and seeds, plus spices such as turmeric and cinnamon. Avoid foods that will cause inflammation and worsen insulin resistance such as refined carbohydrates like white bread, muffins, pastries and sugary desserts, and overdoing it on the red meat. But life is to be enjoyed so tuck in sometimes!
If you have PCOS and want to lose weight…
Maintaining a healthy weight is important for managing PCOS but many sufferers find this is a struggle. Reducing your overall intake of calories or energy is the most successful approach for women with PCOS wanting to lose weight. Speak to an Accredited Practising Dietitian who can help you with this process.