PCOS & Food
Morgane Leten - Nutrition & Fertility Coach
Around 4-20 per cent of menstruating women worldwide suffer from PCOS. Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) refers to a condition in which a hormonal imbalance causes small cysts or underdeveloped follicles in the ovaries. It can also cause irregular periods, excess body hair, oily skin, weight gain, depression and infertility issues. Many think that nothing can be done about it and that hormonal anti-conception is the only solution.
Research makes it clear that insulin resistance plays an important role in PCOS. So if you have PCOS, it is important to realise that making small changes in your diet can have added value.
In this post, we will tell you all about PCOS, the best nutrition tips for managing PCOS, foods to eat and foods to avoid.
What is PCOS?
First of all, what is PCOS? Most women discover they have PCOS because they struggle with irregular periods or no periods at all. Women with PCOS usually have cysts on their ovaries which are caused by too much of a hormone called androgens. Unfortunately, there is no specific test to diagnose PCOS, so doctors typically start with a discussion of medical history including your menstrual periods and any weight changes. Weight is important because research shows that between 33 and 83% of women with PCOS are also overweight or obese. That said, women with a healthy weight can also have PCOS so it is not the only indicator.
What are the symptoms of PCOS?
In addition to weight changes or weight challenges, women with PCOS may also struggle with excess hair growth (or in some cases, hair loss or thinning hair) insulin resistance, oily skin and acne. Women with PCOS may struggle to get pregnant, and they are also at a greater risk of developing heart disease, endometrial cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure. If you’ve recently received a diagnosis for PCOS, it can be a bit scary, but don’t worry. We’ve got your back and there are ways to manage your symptoms without medication or radical lifestyle changes.
Guud Woman founder Morgane struggled with PCOS. After she stopped taking the pill, her periods were irregular and she also had severe mood swings and hormonal acne.
“It didn't feel right, so I went to the doctor,” she said. “He told me I had PCOS. When I asked what I could do about it, he said there was nothing. And there I was. Not even thirty, and already 'something was wrong' with me: I had health problems and had reduced fertility.”
Morgane learned that you can improve PCOS symptoms with nutrition and lifestyle changes. If you want to know more about her experience, you can read about it here.
What causes PCOS?
Unfortunately, the exact cause is not known. Some research indicates that genetics play a role, but other factors include higher levels of androgens, a male hormone which prevent the ovary from releasing eggs. This is what disrupts your menstrual cycle and causes irregular periods (or for some women, no period at all!)
Lifestyle choices can also play a role in PCOS. What you eat, how active you are and your levels of stress all impact your menstrual cycle. While it’s difficult to pinpoint any one cause, it’s important to know that all aspects can impact your cycle and make PCOS symptoms worse.
How does your diet impact PCOS?
One common thing in women with PCOS is that they often have high levels of insulin, a hormone produced in your pancreas. Ordinary levels help turn sugar into energy, but if you have too high levels of insulin, it can result in something called insulin resistance. This means that you can’t use the insulin you produce effectively. This can cause your ovaries to produce more androgens, a male hormone like testosterone. Insulin resistance may also be caused by having a higher body mass index (BMI) and it can make it harder to lose weight which is why so many women with PCOS struggle with their weight.
So the short answer is that diet contributes significantly to insulin resistance so if your body is already struggling, you can give it a bit of a leg up by limiting certain foods. According to research, diet plays a really important role in managing symptoms of PCOS. When women altered their diets, it helped eliminate negative symptoms of the condition.
Can food relieve symptoms of PCOS?
Yes! It definitely can! So if you’re part of the PCOS club, we’re glad you’re here because if you start making some changes to your diet, we’re confident you’ll see some results.
As we mentioned, PCOS can cause insulin resistance so it’s important to add some foods that combat this condition. Foods high in fiber are the key - they help slow down digestion and reduce the effect of sugar on the blood.
Here’s some examples of some high-fiber foods to try:
- Veggies like cauliflower and broccoli
- Leafy greens like kale, spinach and other dark leafy goodness
- Beans and lentils
- Sweet potatoes
- Green and red peppers
- Nuts like almonds, pine nuts and walnuts
- Pumpkin and sweet potato
We all have different bodies, and different types of lives with a lot or little physical activity, so figure out what works for you. But remember, food always comes first when it comes to balancing your hormones. Choose a nutritious diet to support your health:
- Eat real foods (avoid processed foods) Choose lots of natural, unprocessed foods.
- Focus on healthy fats such as fatty fish, nuts and seeds, olive oil, avocado.
- Vary as much as possible and choose colourful fruits and vegetables.
- Add plenty of protein to your meals. You can also find these in chickpeas, nuts and seeds, tofu and not only in meat and poultry).
Why Breakfast is the Most Important Meal if you have PCOS
Breakfast is important for everyone, but if you have PCOS, avoiding spikes in your blood sugar levels is important. Breakfast is the first opportunity in the day to fill your body with nutrients that will keep you powered-up for the day and as a result, you’re more likely to be able to avoid unhealthy snacks or sugar which is especially bad if you have PCOS. Eating eggs + avocado in the morning is a Guud option to maintain steady energy levels over the course of the day. Try to avoid starting your day with too much sugar. If you have granola or a fruit smoothie always add some nuts and seeds or extra proteins
Check out Morgane’s perfect morning routine to get some inspiration!
Foods to avoid if you have PCOS
In general, the guidance here is to avoid foods that most people would consider unhealthy. Things like:
- Refined sugars
- Fried foods
- Soda and energy drinks full of sugar
- Processed meat like hot dogs, sausages and lunch meat
- Coffee. Sorry ladies. Research shows that women who drink more than two cups of coffee per day have higher levels of estrogen during the follicular phase of their cycle. This is especially challenging if you have PCOS because you’ll already have trouble balancing your hormones during this phase.
Of course, indulge in that croissant, chips or glass of wine from time-to-time (we’re humans after all!), but moderation is key, especially if your PCOS symptoms are severe.
Is dairy bad for PCOS?
You may have heard that dairy is bad for women with PCOS and there is some truth here. Dairy products contain a hormone called insulin-life growth factor (IGF-I) which increases androgen production in women when we eat things like milk or ice cream. Many dairy products are also super high in sugar which is also something women with PCOS should avoid because sugary foods cause insulin levels to spike and then drop. This causes a cycle of highs and lows that women with PCOS are more likely to experience because their bodies can’t easily regulate blood glucose levels and this can lead to inflammation.
Supplements for PCOS
Making small changes in your diet is a great way to support PCOS, but it is hard to get all the nutrients you need through food alone. That’s where supplements come in. Try a multivitamin that contains vitamin B6 which helps regulate your hormonal activity. Focus on healthy fats. Studies have shown in omega-3 fatty acids, can help support the quality of your eggs which is important for ovulation. Also, add some magnesium to your daily routine this powerful mineral helps with the regulation of cortisol.
Have a specific question about your PCOS symptoms? We have a chat function on our website, and we’re always here to answer your questions. No bots but real people, just like you, who totally get it and want to help.