Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is one of the most common hormonal and fertility conditions affecting women globally. It is mainly associated with a high risk of fertility issues, diabetes, and heart disease in the long run. There has been a growing debate that diet and lifestyle changes could help with the condition. So how true is this? This read debunks all myths about a PCOS diet and details expert-approved notes on the link between PCOS and diet. Take a look!
What Is PCOS?
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, popularly known as PCOS, refers to an endocrine system disorder that affects women in their reproductive years. It is characterized by small fluid-filled sacs that develop on the ovaries. Although the small fluid-filled sacs, also known as cysts, are not harmful, they can lead to hormonal imbalances (7).
Women with PCOS experience several symptoms, including (7):
- Menstrual cycle abnormalities or absent periods
- Excess hair growth
- Increased androgen (sex hormone) levels
- Signs of hyperandrogenism (too much testosterone), such as female-pattern baldness and excess facial hair
Unfortunately, PCOS is the most common cause of infertility in most women. This is because it prevents ovulation (7). However, some women with PCOS can conceive. However, they have a higher risk of miscarriage, pregnancy-induced high blood pressure, premature delivery, gestational diabetes, and preeclampsia (7).
Understanding The Need For A PCOS Diet
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is a condition that results in hormonal imbalances and metabolism problems, as we have previously mentioned. It can also lead to severe health problems, such as cardiovascular issues, depression, diabetes, and increased endometrial cancer risk (8).
Women with PCOS have difficulty regulating insulin levels, a hormone responsible for sugar and starch conversion into energy (4). As a result, weight loss among PCOS women becomes a nightmare.
Similarly, high insulin levels in the body increase the production of male hormones known as androgens. Increased androgens result in PCOS symptoms, such as body hair growth, acne, and irregular periods (4).
Luckily, several studies have shown that a PCOS diet can help reduce some of the symptoms and effects. Research shows that diet mainly impacts weight management, insulin production, and resistance (8).
Effect Of A PCOS Diet On Insulin Resistance And Weight
Managing insulin levels through your diet is considered one of the best ways of dealing with PCOS. This is because most people with this condition have developed diabetes or pre-diabetes before turning 40 (8).
Additionally, due to the changes in metabolism, women with PCOS may report unintended weight gain linked to other problems like obesity. It happens that women with PCOS have higher levels of androgen hormones and are less sensitive to insulin, two risk factors for weight gain (4).
A PCOS diet will not treat the condition but instead help you manage its symptoms. Similarly, a sustainable PCOS diet plan can help you maintain a healthy weight that keeps conditions like obesity at bay.
We suggest you talk to your doctor and dietitian first before coming to this conclusion. Similarly, we suggest such consultation if you have trouble implementing these dietary changes.
What Is The Best Diet For PCOS?
Currently, there is no standard diet for PCOS. However, research indicates that several types of foods can help manage PCOS symptoms.
- Low Glycemic Index (GI) Foods. Low GI foods refer to foods that are digested slowly in the body. As a result, they do not spike blood sugar and insulin levels as quickly as other foods (8). Hence, they maintain slow energy release and maintain blood sugar control (3). Some carbohydrate foods with a low GI are nuts, legumes, whole grains, seeds, and brown rice.
- Fruits And Vegetables. These foods are considered great food options for women with PCOS due to their high fiber content. Vegetables also have a low GI. Medical News Today suggests consuming more dark red fruits, such as red grapes, cherries, blueberries, and blackberries for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties (8).
- Anti-inflammatory Foods. Anti-inflammatory foods are excellent for a PCOS diet because they may help reduce inflammation-related symptoms like fatigue (8). These foods include extra virgin olive oil, fatty fish, berries, and leafy greens (8).
- Lean Protein. Lean protein sources, such as chicken, fish, tofu, soybeans, and lentils, are essential for a PCOS diet because protein is essential for hormone production, and also helps with blood sugar regulation (3).
- Healthy Fats. Healthy fats are vital in a PCOS diet because they are also essential for hormone production (3). You can acquire these healthy fats from avocado, olives, coconuts, and fatty fish like tuna, salmon, sardines, and mackerel (8).
- Spices. When preparing your meals, Medical News Today recommends using spices, such as cinnamon and turmeric, which may have anti-inflammatory properties (8).
In addition to these foods to include, experts suggest that women with PCOS limit certain other foods.
Some of them include:
- Caffeine. According to BBC Good Food, large amounts of caffeine consumption is not encouraged because excess caffeine disrupts sleeping patterns (3).
- Alcohol. Excess alcohol consumption is prohibited because the drinks are loaded with sugar and can disrupt sleep (3).
- Foods With A High GI. Women with PCOS are advised to consume foods with a high GI in moderation and, if possible, try to avoid them. This is because they can quickly raise insulin levels and affect blood sugar levels. So, moderate your consumption or keep away from these foods, including white bread and pasta, cakes, and fruit juices (3).
Foods To Avoid
Women on a PCOS diet must avoid several foods, mainly because they are generally considered unhealthy.
Some examples of these foods are (8):
- Sugary drinks (such as sodas and energy drinks)
- Refined carbs (such as white bread and mass-produced pastries)
- Processed meats (such as sausages, hot dogs, and luncheon meats)
- Fried foods (such as fast food)
- Solid fats (inclusive of shortening, margarine, and lard)
- Excess red meat consumption (including steaks, pork, and hamburgers)
Besides these foods, experts also suggest avoiding prolonged starvation periods. They argue that such periods may lead to binge eating, mainly on unhealthy foods, such as junk or fast food. So, if possible, they suggest creating a diet plan.
PCOS Diet Recipes To Try
We have established that no diet is standard for PCOS. So, anything claiming to be a PCOS treatment diet is misleading. However, there are various foods, as discussed above, that you can combine to make PCOS-friendly meals. Take a look at some of the recipes below!
Sample 1: Basil & Lemon Chickpeas With Mackerel (1)
The following recipe is effective for PCOS because it is prepared with low GI foods.
Here is an overview of the recipe (1):
- Two 400 g can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
- 1 bunch spring onion, sliced
- 150 ml vegetable stock
- 4 mackerel filet, with skin
- 3 tbsp olive oil, and extra for drizzling
- 85 g SunBlush tomato, halved
- 1 large garlic clove, crushed
- 1 large bunch of basil
- Zest 1 lemon and squeeze of juice
- Take a large but shallow pan and heat 2 tbsp of oil. Add the spring onions, lemon zest, and garlic, then cook for two minutes or until the onions are tender but still very green. Add the chickpeas, then stir to coat them in the onion mixture. Crush the mixture lightly using a potato masher, then add the stock and tomatoes. Simmer for 3 to 4 minutes or until the liquid is absorbed, then set aside to slightly cool.
- Heat the remaining oil in a large, non-stick frying pan over medium heat. Meanwhile, season the mackerel filet on both sides and fry for three minutes each side, starting on the skin side. You may have to cook these in two batches.
- Add the basil and a squeeze of lemon juice to the chickpeas, then season to taste. Serve the warm chickpeas onto the serving plates and drizzle with a bit of extra olive oil, and top with the mackerel filet.
The recipe produces four servings. However, the nutritional information of one serving is as shown (1):
- Calories- 486
- Fat- 31 g
- Carbs- 24 g
- Fiber- 7 g
- Protein- 29 g
This recipe is courtesy of BBC Good Food.
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Sample 2: Tuna Steaks With Cucumber Relish (5)
Determining delicious food combos can be overwhelming, especially when you want to sustain your calorie deficit for weight loss. One of the best recipes to add to your PCOS diet plan to lose weight is this Tuna Steaks with Cucumber Relish.
Here is what it entails (5):
- 4 tuna steaks, about 140 g or 5 oz each
- 3 tbsp olive oil
For the relish:
- 2 spring onions, finely chopped
- ½ cucumber
- 1 medium tomato, finely chopped
- ½ large red chili, seeded and finely chopped
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp lime or lemon juice
- 2 tbsp chopped parsley
- Put the oil into a food bag and add the tuna steaks. Rub well together and leave for half an hour while you make the relish. Peel the cucumber, halve it lengthways and remove the seeds. Chop the flesh into small dice, then mix with the rest of the ingredients. Season to taste and set aside.
- Heat the pan until hot, then cook the steaks. Turn after two minutes and cook for another two minutes on each side depending on the steaks’ thickness. Remove the steaks from the heat to stand for 3 to 5 minutes, then spoon over the relish and serve.
- Calories- 271
- Fat- 14 g
- Carbs- 2 g
- Fiber- 1 g
- Protein- 34 g
This recipe is courtesy of BBC Good Food.
Sample 3: Nutty Chicken Curry (2)
The following recipe is perfect if you are craving a nutty yet delicious chicken dish. It is considered among the best PCOS diet recipes to try because it comprises low GI foods. Take a look at it (2):
- 4 skinless chicken breasts, cut into chunks
- 200 g tub Greek yogurt
- 1 large red chili, deseeded
- 5 tbsp peanut butter
- ½ a finger-length piece of fresh root ginger, roughly chopped
- 150 ml chicken stock
- 1 fat garlic clove
- Small bunch coriander, stalks roughly chopped
- 1 tbsp sunflower oil
- Finely slice a quarter of the chili, then put the rest in a food processor with the garlic, ginger, coriander stalks, and ⅓ of the leaves. Whizz to a rough paste with a bit of water if necessary.
- Heat the oil in a frying pan, then quickly brown the chicken chunks for about a minute. Stir in the paste for another min, then add the stock, peanut butter, and yogurt. When the sauce is gently bubbling, cook for ten minutes until the chicken is just cooked through and thickens sauce. Stir in most of the remaining coriander, then scatter the rest on top with the chili, if needed. You can serve with brown rice or mashed sweet potato.
- Calories- 358
- Fat- 18.9 g
- Carbs- 4 g
- Fiber- 1 g
- Protein- 43 g
This recipe is courtesy of BBC Good Food.
Other Expert Notes On Managing PCOS And Its Symptoms
Besides following a PCOS diet, experts suggest making several lifestyle changes to manage the condition.
Some of the proposed lifestyle changes are:
Exercising is vital as it improves PCOS symptoms and keeps unwanted weight gain at bay. When coupled with a good diet, exercise and good nutrition reduce insulin resistance. Additionally, exercise increases sex-hormone-binding globulin (SBHG) levels, a hormone that can bind testosterone and make it less potent (3).
Like with the diet, you must note that there is no standard or the best exercise for PCOS. Instead, it comes down to a regime that suits you and your needs. So, you are urged to find a good exercise routine that matches your needs and fitness level.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity (6). However, if it is a vigorous-intense activity, the CDC proposes getting at least 75 minutes weekly (6).
Unfortunately, stress is inevitable, meaning you have to look for effective ways of dealing with it. Research shows that high-stress levels can trigger the adrenal glands to produce more testosterone (3). So, it would help if you looked for effective ways to manage stress.
Most experts suggest the following methods (3):
- Doing meditation
- Spending time with loved ones
- Taking breaks
- Creating realistic work schedules
- Making time for leisure and hobbies
- Practicing mindfulness and deep breathing
- Taking care of yourself and having “me-time.”
- Creating healthy boundaries and learning to say “no”
You can ask for help from professionals if you have tried such strategies to relieve stress, and they do not seem to be working.
Getting Adequate Sleep
Unfortunately, most people do not prioritize sleep, making them have questionable sleeping hygiene and patterns. Experts reveal that sleep plays an integral role in our overall health, which is why you need to get beauty rest.
Research shows that the lack of adequate rest among PCOS women disrupts hormone functioning, which plays a significant role in the PCOS symptoms (3). You can correct this by adopting better sleep habits and hygiene to get adequate sleep quantity and quality.
You can also implement several changes to help you maintain sleep quality and quantity. These include trying meditation before bed, making your room sleep-friendly, such as making it dark, and keeping electronic devices away during bedtime.
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Yes, smoking contributes to an increased risk of heart disease with PCOS, which is why you need to stop smoking (3). However, we understand that the change can be challenging, so we suggest taking baby steps. Start by limiting the cigarettes you smoke daily, then narrow it down to quitting smoking.
Research shows that following a PCOS diet and exercise and combining these lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, can result in (8):
- More regular periods
- Weight loss
- Improved insulin metabolism
- Lowered cholesterol levels
- Reduced male hormones levels and associated facial or body hair growth
The Bottom Line
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is an endocrine system disorder that affects women in their reproductive years. Research shows it contributes to fertility problems in women. However, experts have discovered that following a diet crafted mainly for PCOS can help manage the condition and its symptoms.
The diet includes low GI foods, fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, healthy oils, and lean protein. These foods help manage fatigue, irregular periods, and features like excessive facial hair growth. It would be best to talk to your doctor and dietitian to determine a sustainable diet and lifestyle changes to manage the condition.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Basil & lemon chickpeas with mackerel (2022, bbcgoodfood.com)
- Nutty chicken curry (2022, bbcgoodfood.com)
- PCOS: Is there a role for diet and lifestyle? (2020, bbcgoodfood.com)
- Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) and Weight Gain (2020, webmd.com)
- Tuna steaks with cucumber relish (2022, bbcgoodfood.com)
- Walking (2020, cdc.gov)
- What is polycystic ovary syndrome? (2018, medicalnewstoday.com)
- What to eat if you have PCOS (2020, medicalnewstoday.com)