How to Eat for PCOS

PCOS is one of the leading causes of infertility in women worldwide. It’s a hormonal imbalance that often causes cysts to form on the ovaries along with thinning hair, acne, weight gain, irregular and painful periods, as well as excess body hair on the chest, stomach and back. This is clearly a difficult condition for any woman to deal with, and the truly devastating part is that it isn’t yet curable with any form of modern medicine.

This means PCOS is instead treated through symptom management. This usually entails lifestyle adjustments that patients need to adhere to continually to keep their condition from impacting their life. Most PCOS women will be recommended to exercise, reduce stress and perhaps take some medicines or supplements—particularly if they’re trying to conceive. On top of this, diet plays a hugely important role in determining the quality of life for women with PCOS.

Why Does Diet Matter?

Eating a healthy diet is important for everyone, but it’s especially important for anyone with PCOS because the consequences of eating a poor diet have a more noticeable and detrimental effect on them. The main hormone imbalance of PCOS is excess production of male sex hormones known as androgens, and this can be influenced through diet. Certain foods are thought to directly trigger increased androgen production, but what’s a bigger overall factor is the link between insulin resistance and androgen levels.

Approximately 60-75% of women with PCOS have insulin resistance, and excess insulin in the bloodstream can cause the ovaries to produce more androgens. Insulin resistance is also an issue in and of itself since it’s a huge risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes and it can cause damage to the cardiovascular system. 

A final reason why diet is a cornerstone of PCOS symptom management is because women with this condition are prone to weight gain, particularly around the abdomen. Being overweight can heighten insulin resistance and excess androgen production, making all the corresponding symptoms worse, so maintaining a healthy weight through dietary intervention is a valuable tool for these women.

The Basic PCOS Diet Principles 

While there is no single specific diet for PCOS, there are a few general principles that can be extremely beneficial for patients.

Firstly, since women at a healthy weight manage their PCOS far better than their overweight counterparts, it may be helpful for overweight women to eat at a small caloric deficit for a period of time. A diet that prioritizes lean protein and plenty of fresh produce alongside moderate amounts of complex carbohydrate sources and healthy fats is generally the best dietary structure for weight loss. 

It will still be important to get enough nutrients, even when eating below caloric maintenance. This means women will have to pay greater attention to the nutrient-density of their foods. The best way to do this is to opt for whole and minimally or unprocessed foods as often as possible.

A final factor for managing PCOS with foods is to eat a insulin sensitivity promoting diet. The easiest way to do this is to consume a diet of foods low on the Glycemic Index (GI). The GI is a scale for foods that roughly measures how much of a glucose spike each food will give when eaten alone. Glucose spikes are what drives insulin resistance, so keeping high GI foods to a minimum is helpful. Some of the highest GI foods to avoid are sugary sodas, juices, candy, and sweets as well as breads, pastas and baked goods made of refined grains (like white flour). 

The Takeaway

Living with PCOS is a lifetime journey. There’s no magic pill to get around the burden of adhering to a healthy lifestyle to manage symptoms. The good news is countless women have learned to thrive with PCOS, and the healthy habits you develop along the way will serve you well in all aspects of your health. 

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