Understanding PCOS

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is typically earmarked by irregular periods or by no menstruation at all. Women with PCOS typically have multiple cysts in their ovaries, caused by an overproduction of hormones called androgens.

Around of women with the disorder are overweight or obese. Common symptoms include acne, hirsutism (hairiness), and male pattern baldness.

Women with PCOS, particularly when its symptoms are not controlled, may also be at greater risk for:

Many women with PCOS find they are able to manage their symptoms and reduce their risk of other medical concerns by controlling their diet and lifestyle choices.

How does my diet affect PCOS?

Women with PCOS are often found to have higher than normal insulin levels. Insulin is a hormone that’s produced in your pancreas. It helps the cells in your body turn sugar (glucose) into energy.

If you don’t produce enough insulin, your blood sugar levels can rise. This can also happen if you’re insulin resistant, meaning you aren’t able to use the insulin you do produce effectively.

If you’re insulin resistant, your body may try to pump out high levels of insulin in an effort to keep your blood sugar levels normal. Too-high levels of insulin can cause your ovaries to produce more androgens, such as testosterone.

Insulin resistance may also be caused by having a body mass index above the normal range. Insulin resistance can make it harder to lose weight, which is why women with PCOS often struggle with this issue.

A diet high in refined carbohydrates, such as starchy and sugary foods, can make insulin resistance, and therefore weight loss, more difficult to control.

What foods should I add to my diet?

Foods to add

  1. High-fiber vegetables, such as broccoli.
  2. Lean protein, such as fish.
  3. Anti-inflammatory foods and spices, such as turmeric and tomatoes.

High-fiber foods can help combat insulin resistance by slowing down digestion and reducing the impact of sugar on the blood. This may be beneficial to women with PCOS. Great options for high-fiber foods include:

Lean protein sources like tofu, chicken, and fish don’t provide fiber but are very filling and a healthy dietary option for women with PCOS.

Foods that help reduce inflammation may also be beneficial. They include:

Which foods should I limit or avoid?

Foods to avoid

  1. Foods high in refined carbohydrates, such as white bread and muffins.
  2. Sugary snacks and drinks.
  3. Inflammatory foods, such as processed and red meats.

Refined carbohydrates cause inflammation, exacerbate insulin resistance, and should be avoided. These include highly processed foods, such as:

  • white bread
  • muffins
  • breakfast pastries
  • sugary desserts
  • white potatoes
  • anything made with white flour

Pasta noodles that list semolina, durum flour, or durum wheat flour as their first ingredient are high in carbohydrates and low in fiber. These should be removed from the diet. Pastas made from bean or lentil flour instead of wheat flour are an excellent alternative.

Sugar is a carbohydrate and should be avoided wherever possible. When reading food labels, be sure to look for sugar’s various names. These include sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, and dextrose. Sugar can also lurk in the things you drink, such as soda and juice.

It’s a good idea to reduce or remove inflammation-causing foods, such as french fries, margarine, and red or processed meats from your diet as well.

Other lifestyle changes to consider

PCOS, like many disorders, responds positively to proactive lifestyle choices. This includes exercise and daily physical movement. Both can help to reduce insulin resistance, especially when coupled with a limited intake of unhealthy carbohydrates. Many experts agree that at least 150 minutes per week of exercise is ideal.

Daily activity, low sugar intake, and a low-inflammation diet may also lead to weight loss. Women may experience improved ovulation with weight loss, so women who are obese or overweight and want to get pregnant may find physician-approved exercise especially important.

The symptoms associated with PCOS can cause stress. Stress reduction techniques, which help calm the mind and let you connect with your body, can help. These include yoga and meditation. Speaking with a therapist or other medical professional may also be beneficial.

The bottom line

If you are coping with PCOS or any of its symptoms, you may feel frustrated at times. Taking proactive steps regarding your health can improve your mood as well as reduce your symptoms. One of the best ways to do this is to create a good food/bad food list and stick to it.

Just about every food that may aggravate your condition has a healthier, beneficial counterpart. For example, if you’re used to margarine and white toast for breakfast, try substituting high-fiber whole grain bread and olive oil or avocado.

If your symptoms persist, speak with your doctor. They can work with you to identify the cause and recommend next steps.

Keep reading: Polycystic ovarian syndrome »