When managing PCOS, it can be difficult to know which foods to eat more of and which foods to avoid. A PCOS diet can help manage symptoms, and can be a crucial part of a PCOS weight loss plan.
The right diets for PCOS can also help reduce the risk for related conditions, like diabetes, high blood pressure, and even anxiety. Read on for a PCOS diet plan to lose weight, including a PCOS food list to help you get started.
PCOS Diet: What Is It?
To understand what diet and foods are best for PCOS, it’s best to first understand what PCOS is. Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is a complex hormone disorder that affects the ovaries in women of reproductive age.
Due to hormone imbalances, PCOS can cause irregular menstrual cycles, infertility issues, and hirsutism (increased, unwanted hair growth).
Symptoms & Risk Factors
Although symptoms can vary in severity, people with PCOS commonly experience weight gain and insulin resistance. Other possible symptoms of PCOS include skin problems (i.e. acne, dandruff, oily skin) and pelvic pain.
While some factors like family history can’t be controlled, lifestyle factors like diet and exercise can be modified to help you better manage your health. Plus, diet is a crucial component in helping to reduce risks associated with PCOS, such as:
• Heart disease
• High blood pressure
• Metabolic syndrome
How Can a PCOS Diet Help?
Although there is no known cure for PCOS, a diet designed to reduce risk factors and address symptoms can help. In fact, lifestyle changes (such as diet) are often the first action recommended by healthcare providers to women with PCOS.
While there’s no universally defined “PCOS diet,” most diets designed for PCOS aim to support healthy hormonal levels and alleviate concerns like insulin resistance or obesity.
Although the risks associated with PCOS are lifelong, one doesn’t have to suffer through symptoms. A PCOS diet can make symptoms more manageable, meaning day to day life may be easier when you make healthful food choices.
Keep in mind that a PCOS diet does not necessarily support fertility. If you have PCOS and are pregnant, or thinking about becoming pregnant, talk with your doctor and dietitian to design an eating plan that meets the unique needs during this stage of life.
PCOS Food List
Wondering what foods to eat? A well-balanced meal plan can help women with PCOS manage symptoms and reduce disease risk long term. In particular, diet modifications are considered an effective intervention for insulin resistance.
While you don’t need a formal diet in order to include the following foods in your diet, Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH diet) and Mediterranean diets are often recommended. In general, it can be helpful to look for plant-based eating patterns or low-glycemic index options.
The following foods can help women with PCOS accomplish common goals, such as weight loss, increasing sensitivity to insulin, and healthier levels of hormone production.
Fruits & Vegetables
When reducing PCOS-related risks such as high blood pressure, fruits and vegetables are a pivotal part of the diet. Potassium, a mineral and electrolyte, may be able to help you manage blood pressure more effectively by lessening the effects of sodium (which can increase blood pressure). Fortunately, fruits and vegetables are often naturally high sources of potassium.
Many foods that are naturally high in potassium are also great sources of other vitamins, and can fit easily into an eating pattern like the DASH diet. Some types of potassium- and nutrient-rich produce include:
• Citrus fruits and their juices like oranges, orange juice, and grapefruit
• Fruit that grows on vines such as blackberries and grapes
• Leafy greens, including spinach and kale
• Melons like cantaloupe and honeydew
• Root vegetables such as carrots and potatoes
• Some dried fruits like raisins and dates
• Tomatoes or tomato-based products, including tomato juice and tomato sauce
High Fiber Foods
Fiber is a specific type of carbohydrate that the body doesn’t fully digest and it can help you feel full while also supporting weight loss. This can be important if you have PCOS, since cravings, increased appetite, and weight gain can be a concern.
In general, fiber is found in higher concentrations in whole grains, beans, and some fruits and vegetables (especially those eaten with the peel or outer layer). Fiber-rich foods to add to your meals or snacks include:
• Apples or pears with the skin
• Chia seeds
• Cruciferous vegetables
• Legumes and lentils
• Peas and split peas
• Whole-wheat pasta
While increasing your fiber intake, you’ll want to increase fluid intake as well to support the digestive process as fiber passes through your body. Introducing high-fiber foods gradually can also help.
Lean Protein & Dairy
Including protein at each meal and snack promotes a feeling of fullness, and may even help to curb cravings.
For meals, focus on lean meats, which have reduced amounts of saturated fats compared to red meat. For snacks, pair foods like low-fat cheese or nut butters with a piece of fruit (for example).
Other options for lean protein include:
• Legumes and pulses (i.e. beans, lentils)
• Nuts (unsalted)
Some women with PCOS may be aggravated by dairy. Working with a dietitian can help you find suitable dairy substitutes, such as fortified soy beverages.
If you do drink or consume dairy, choosing low-fat or fat-free sources of dairy can help support weight loss.
High levels of insulin in the blood are known to increase appetite and may lead to weight gain. Luckily, foods like healthy fats can help you feel full and may mediate the effects of insulin resistance.
Women with PCOS who are also trying to lose weight are in danger of viewing fat as “bad.” However, “healthy fat” is crucial to help balance hormones in the body.
Fat is naturally more filling, thanks to the fat that fat provides 9 calories per gram (as opposed to the 4 calories per gram provided by protein or carbohydrates).
Plus, healthy fat foods are often nutrient-rich, too. Filling, healthful choices include:
• Fatty fish like salmon and mackerel
• Nuts and nut butters such as almonds, peanut butter, and walnuts
• Olive oil
You may notice that the foods listed above also appear in other categories. Most foods are made up of a mix of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, so eating nutrient-rich foods ensures you’ll be getting a good mix of these nutrients.
Overall, if you focus on plenty of fruits and vegetables, good sources of lean protein, and eat fiber-rich foods, you’ll likely be getting enough healthy fats, too.
PCOS Foods to Avoid
Limiting certain foods can help you to lessen the severity of symptoms and reduce disease risk. The following foods should be limited to help support overall health and PCOS risks in particular.
Sugars are a quick, short-term source of energy for the body. In foods like fruit, sugars are found naturally. Added sugars, on the other hand are not “natural” but rather an ingredient added in during processing of certain foods.
Long-term consumption of added sugars is linked with many health concerns, and can be especially problematic when it comes to weight gain. Even small amounts of added sugar can add up quickly in the diet, and there’s no “recommended” limit for added sugar. In other words, it’s wise to limit added sugars whenever possible.
While baked goods and sugar-sweetened beverages like soda are known for being sweetened, other sources of added sugar may be more subtle. Added sugars can be sneaky, hiding as an almost undetectable ingredient in items like marinades, condiments, and dressings.
Refined sugars may also be present in so-called “healthy foods” like energy bars, masquerading under names like:
• Corn sweetener
• Fruit nectar or other nectars
• Malt syrup
• Sugar cane juice
Feeling overwhelmed? Work with a dietitian to become a better added sugar detective, or to find alternatives to added sugar for baking when making homemade goods
As mentioned above, high sodium can increase blood pressure. Looking on a food label before purchasing an item can help you keep an eye on your sodium intake.
Many canned foods contain high levels of sodium, so seeking out items with “low sodium” can be a healthful choice. In general, it’s recommended to reduce sodium to under 2,300 mg, although additional health benefits may be possible for those who further reduce sodium in their diet to 1,500 mg maximum.
Increased intake of saturated (“unhealthy”) fats can increase the risk for heart disease and high blood pressure. Since PCOS is already associated with the risk for these two conditions, it’s important to limit saturated fats whenever possible.
The good news? Many of the plant foods listed above under fruits and vegetables are naturally low in saturated fat and high in protein, antioxidants, and other nutrients you need.
Instead of obsessing over saturated fats, focusing on getting more fruits and vegetables can be an easy way to limit unhealthy fats in your diet.
Other Substances to Avoid
It may go without saying, but stopping smoking is also important. Smoking can increase the risk of diseases already associated with PCOS, and is considered an unhealthy lifestyle factor in general.
Alcohol can also alter the body’s abilities, so it’s important to limit alcohol (especially if you have high blood pressure). It’s recommended that women consume no more than one drink per day, and “one drink” equals:
• 12 ounces beer
• 5 ounces wine
• 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor
PCOS Weight Loss Plan
Since obesity raises the risk of PCOS significantly, a proper weight loss plan can help reduce your risk or decrease the severity of your symptoms. Weight loss can also help support ovulation, which is an important indicator of overall health and can increase the chances of pregnancy in cases where becoming pregnant is the goal.
Losing weight can also help reduce the risk of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, and can lower cholesterol levels. Surprisingly, some symptoms such as acne or hair growth, can also be improved once excess body weight is lost.
Don’t Skip Meals
While it may sound counterintuitive when you’re trying to lose weight, it’s important not to skip meals. Missing meals can cause the body to go into “survival mode,” which can change the way fat is metabolized.
Instead of three bigger meals, it may be better to eat four to five smaller meals daily and support yourself with snacks every couple of hours.
Hydration is another important aspect of any weight loss plan. While water is considered the “gold standard” of hydration, options like 100% fruit juice or low-fat milk also contribute to daily fluid requirements. Look for drinks with no added sugar whenever possible.
Engaging in exercise also plays an important part in health, especially when one has a goal of losing weight. Even just 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every other day can make a difference.
Instead of obsessing over time at the gym or forcing yourself into a type of exercise you don’t actually like, choose a type of physical activity you genuinely look forward to participating in. For example:
• Dance lessons
• Swimming laps
• Walking with a friend
• Yoga class
Exercise doesn’t just benefit the body, but also the mind. Research has shown that physical fitness can reduce the risk of depression associated with PCOS diagnosis.
Work With Your Healthcare Team
Early medical intervention can improve PCOS outcomes. For example, determining early on whether obesity or insulin resistance are in play can help your healthcare team to decide on diet changes and other interventions.
Medications, like Metformin, may be suggested by your healthcare team to help you support healthy insulin levels. Some studies even suggest certain herbal medicines may be effective. If you’re interested in using herbs for medicinal properties, it’s best to work with a certified holistic health practitioner.
In Conclusion on a PCOS Diet
Instead of getting caught up in the “do’s” and “don'ts” of a PCOS diet, focus on eating more nutrient-rich foods. In particular, eating high-fiber foods, lean proteins, and healthy fats may be helpful for promoting a feeling of fullness.
In terms of foods to avoid, it’s best to limit added sugar and salts, and follow general health recommendations regarding smoking and alcohol.
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