With the internet being what it is today, you might think it’ll be easy to find what is PCOS and what is the perfect diet to be followed.
But, there is a lot of conflicting information due to a million companies wanting to sell you their next “healthy” miracle product, and it can be quite overwhelming to sort through the cacophony and find out what is factually correct and scientifically backed information with regards to PCOS.
Should you be eating a 100% plant based diet ? Avoid all sugar ? Are carbs really the devil ? Is Keto the way to go ? But aren’t you supposed to avoid fat ?
With our in-house nutrition coaches and health experts at ACTIVeat, we’ve created this article, to cut down your google search and make the process as simple as possible for you.
If you’re looking for science based answers to what you should be eating, this article will tell you exactly how to do a PCOS diet correctly, in 10 practical steps :
2 main mechanisms that should be the main focal point of a PCOS diet are : High Testosterone levels (Male hormones) and Inflammation.
Making big dietary changes is a lot like going for a root canal. Not fun. But understanding the WHYs behind the changes you’re making can motivate you to keep going and stick to your diet long term.
As even with the genetic and environmental factors causing this disease, it’s what you eat that drives all your symptoms. So better food choices are the long term solution to managing PCOS well.
Let’s Talk Testosterone
Androgens or male hormones are responsible for a lot of PCOS symptoms (1). The androgens impact fertility, cause unfair weight gain, acne, alopecia on the head and extra hair growth in all the wrong places.
And here is the kicker, they’re in cahoots with your insulin levels. That means, when your insulin levels go up, so do the androgen levels (2)
Insulin helps our body store fat, which is why women with PCOS have difficulty in losing weight, and sometimes despite being naturally petite, may gain excess fat around the stomach (3)
Since, you can control insulin by what you eat, the right diet for PCOS that can keep your insulin levels low can help improve PCOS symptoms drastically.
The Inflammation Story
A chronic low-grade inflammation is a permanent part of PCOS, which means your immune system is constantly on (low) alert.
While inflammation is a good indicator of what is wrong in the body, like when there is an injury so you can tend to it, constant inflammation can lead to everyday health issues that women with PCOS experience, like bloating, low energy levels, insomnia, joint pain, anxiety and depression (5, 6)
Chronic low grade inflammation + High Testosterone levels + Insulin resistance + Poor Diet = The Ultimate Deadly PCOS Combination
So the main aim of your PCOS diet has to be to choose foods that help you manage your insulin levels and avoid foods that can cause inflammation.
1. Quality over quantity : Avoid Ultra restrictive diets
PCOS is a unique beast. There are a plethora of diets out there, from paleo to mediterranean to atkins, but none of these have all the components with regards to what works best for PCOS.
Women with PCOS are often given the advice to restrict calories to lose weight. While tracking your calories and monitoring your weight is essential, a sustainable, long term PCOS-friendly diet cannot be about eating half a cookie or starving yourself for years.
As body fat accumulation occurs due to poor insulin resistance and NOT the excess energy in your diet. Restricting yourself is like trying to wear denim on denim, it doesn’t work unless you’re Britney Spears.
An extensive study showed how ineffective restrictive diets can be. About one to two-thirds of dieters regain more weight than they had lost while on it. (7) So, the best PCOS diet does not focus on excessive caloric restriction. As traditional dieting techniques don’t work over the long term.
So remember, people don’t fail diets – the diets fail them, and it’s a scientific fact that restricting calories is a terrible idea when you suffer from this disorder.
2. The Process of giving up the Processed.
Even though everyone should swap their processed food for a more nutrient dense diet. The combination of PCOS and processed food exacerbates the problem threefold.
Because, if you’re gorging on that McDonalad’s Burger, you’re probably not going to have the appetite for all the good foods that can help heal your pcos related symptoms.
Processed foods contain a ton of sugar and pro-inflammatory substances, that can make the symptoms worse. So it’s time you swapped your fries for some healthy chicken thighs.
There are a lot of chemicals in processed foods that are a cause of concern. These include suspected carcinogens like chemical food coloring, potassium bromate, butylated hydroxytoluene (E321), and butylated hydroxyanisole (E320).
When these gigantic fast food chains market and sell these foods to you, it’s about cost and convenience, not your health that they’re concerned about.
Packaged foods with simpler ingredients and whole foods that are not processed is the way to go.
3. Sugar is not really your friend
From BFFs to frenemies to ghosting, giving up sugar can be one of the most significant steps you can take to manage your PCOS.
Yes, we all love sugary treats, that red velvet cake to that honey glazed donut to those chocolate eclairs, okay let’s stop here. But you’re not helping your case if you pick having cinnabons instead of buns of steel.
Remember that even natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, and coconut sugar are best avoided because they still contain 50% fructose despite being marketed as “healthier”.
Sugar really is the Thanos of your Marvel universe when it comes to PCOS. It causes your body to store rather than burn fat, promotes unwanted facial hair, acne, and male-pattern baldness, and it makes you feel like crap emotionally. And, if you’re trying to get pregnant, sugar consumption is really working against you as it’s known to adversely affect egg quality, increase miscarriage rates, and reduce libido (8,9)
4. The fruits of your labor
Fruit choices can be tricky to navigate when it comes to PCOS. Fruits contain fructose sugar but also minerals, vitamins and fiber.
Fructose consumption can make your PCOS symptoms worse (10), the inflammation caused by fructose consumption can result in a long list of health problems that includes weight gain, infertility, hirsutism, gut issues, anxiety, and depression.
BUT, the presence of fiber and other nutrients in fruit appears to offset the damage caused by this sugar. So, whole fruits are still healthier for women with PCOS.
How should you include it in your diet? Be smart about it.
Have whole fruits, avoid ALL fruit juices, canned fruits, fruit concentrates. Limit your fruit intake to 1-2 servings per day or one medium sized fruit a day. And as a rule of thumb, remember, the sweeter the fruit, the higher the sugar content. So eat more berries, melons and oranges and less grapes, apples and bananas.
5. When they go high, you go low : Low Carb Diet
Low Carb is universally accepted as the best approach for all women suffering from different types of PCOS.
Keeping your carbohydrate intake low, decreases the amount of insulin your body will need to produce. And, since high insulin levels drive the majority of PCOS symptoms, this diet is the sure thing.
While going off carbs completely, like a keto diet, can be great to lose weight, it requires self-control and discipline that might not be sustainable long term. And having a little amount of carbohydrates in your system can help stave off sugar cravings which is a great step to making this a long term lifestyle change.
Carbs with a low Glycemic Index cause your blood glucose levels to rise in a controlled manner, which means demand for insulin, whose job it is to move the glucose out of your bloodstream and into your cells, is nice and manageable.
And carbs with low GI include starchy vegetables like sweet potato, yam, taro, and squash. Beans and lentils are another great whole food carbohydrate, while suitable grains include quinoa, buckwheat, or red, black or wild rice.
If you’re still getting snacky, it might be due to lack of proteins (and good fats) in your diet.
As, hunger and fullness hormones get cued by proteins and not sugar or carbs. So good fats and proteins will help you satiated for a long time. So, you’re less likely to look for an in-between meal snack.
Which means, eat plenty of fish, meat, and eggs.
Although we’ve been bombarded with misinformation about how fat makes us fat, it’s time we separate facts from fiction.
Healthy fats are good for you. And can be used skillfully to achieve your nutrition and fitness goals.
Studies show that reducing carbs along with an increase in healthy fat consumption promotes weight loss, reduces testosterone and improves insulin sensitivity in women with PCOS (11)
This is useful beyond just weight loss and the management of insulin resistance though, as these are the kinds of metabolic changes that can help restore ovulation, and reduce the effects of acne and hirsutism.
Fullness hormones are also triggered by fats. So foods like coconuts, olives, avocado are not only filling, they curb the cravings too.
Healthy fats should be sourced from whole foods and be minimally processed. Nuts, seeds, avocado, ghee, oily fish are good for you.
You can also Opt for the ACTIVeat Low Carb Diet Meal Plan.
6. Swap your Vegetable Oil
Vegetable oils are a proud member of the pro-inflammation club, so this one is a no-brainer, really. The name is deceptive. These aren’t sourced from vegetables, but are processed oils which also contain trans fats and are made from seeds, like sunflower oil, corn oil, canola and safflower, etc. They have high ratios of omega-6 fatty acids, leading to inflammation.
Industrial trans fats are really bad for us. Avoiding any food products that include “hydrogenated”, or “partially hydrogenated” vegetable oils in the ingredients list as these are trans fats, just by another name.
Instead, use coconut oil, lard, or ghee for high temperature cooking (deep frying/baking); and using butter, olive oil, avocado oil, or macadamia nut oil for low temperature cooking (stir frying), or to have cold in a dressing.
7. That Gut Feeling
While we established that sugar is bad for you, one of the reasons is that fructose can worsen the gut microbiome (14).
Making positive changes to your gut flora is one of the biggest reasons why a PCOS diet works so well. So quitting sugar, and including probiotics and prebiotics can help support the good dudes in your gut.
Probiotic foods contain live strains of healthy gut bacteria, while prebiotic foods contain a specific kind of soluble fiber that enables these microorganisms to thrive.
Start with coconut yogurt, pickles, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, or tempeh. These are all fantastic snacks that slide easily into a PCOS friendly diet.
8. Eat Your Veggies, ladies
Don’t you hate it when your mom is right? Turns out vegetables are good for you, and you really do need to eat them daily.
Eating a wide variety of non-starchy vegetables is essential for good health. They have the phytonutrients and the fibers, perfect companions to a low carb diet.
So load up on carrots, tomato, bell peppers, spinach, kale, beetroot, cabbage and broccoli. And add in garlic, onion, leek, shallots, spring onion, asparagus, beetroot, fennel bulb, green peas, snow peas, sweet corn for good measure.
9. Gluten and Dairy Free, not high maintenance but a necessity.
Found in foods made with wheat, gluten is a protein that can wreak havoc on the digestive system and also cause inflammation in women with PCOS (15).
And since, gut health and inflammation play a major role in PCOS, it’s extremely common for women with PCOS to have a gluten intolerance without really being aware of it.
Do a quick experiment. Avoid gluten for a couple of weeks and see how you feel. If you begin to feel better and your PCOS symptoms improve, then you’ll probably need to clean your diet to heal your gut. It will motivate you more to eat cleaner when you see these results yourself.
The key to success is finding alternatives to bread, pasta, breakfast cereals, and other gluten containing food products, which is not as hard as it sounds with the right information and support.
ACTIVeat Bakery has a wide variety of gluten free products that will fit right into your PCOS diet.
Additionally, it’s also really common for women with PCOS to have intolerance to casein and whey protein in dairy, which can also cause inflammation.
You can also experiment for a couple of weeks by eliminating dairy to see how you feel. Knowing your food sensitivities and what can trigger your PCOS symptoms can help you create a more personalized diet that suits your body better.
10. Cafe Coffee Maybe Not Today?
This one might pinch a little. But make decaf your best friend. Caffeine can increase your stress hormones which may lead to an increase in stress levels.
Regular consumption of coffee can also decrease your insulin sensitivity making it more difficult to regulate your blood sugar levels across the day. Caffeine can disrupt sleep and promote anxiety while the acidity of coffee in particular can cause digestive discomfort, indigestion, heartburn and imbalances in our gut microbiome (16).
Alcohol is also pretty problematic for women with PCOS. Studies show PCOS increases chances of liver disease in women, so moving away from alcohol is a no brainer (17). Additionally, caffeine and alcohol elimination will also make it easier to avoid empty calories and carbs that are found in the foo-foo fancy drinks that contain them.
It does feel like the end of the world, when there is such a long list of foods that you should start avoiding, and can seem very overwhelming. But, it’s important to be realistic with your expectations and take your time.
It is a lifestyle change, and you are allowed to feel how unfair it is, or how long it’s taking or how hard it is. But, be good to yourself. Be honest about your weaknesses, leave your negative self-judgment at the door. Focus on your health goals, and set yourself up for success.
PCOS is a unique health condition that requires a unique approach, that begins with the food you put in your mouth. And remember, the road to lifelong health and wellness is filled with gluten-free, dairy-free and sugar-free foods.
But, there is light at the end of this long, never-ending tunnel. With the right diet that works for you, you can overcome PCOS weight gain and achieve your ideal body weight, but these same principles can help you treat all your other PCOS symptoms too. Because you’re addressing your high androgen levels and chronic inflammation with all these strategies, things like acne, hirsutism, and fertility are all going to be significantly improved as well.
So let’s start today and finally give yourself the health and body you deserve.
FOODS YOU SHOULD EAT ON A PCOS DIET :
High Fiber Foods :
Seeds (chia, flax, sunflower seeds)
Legumes (black beans, lentils, chickpeas)
Berries (raspberries, blackberries, blueberries)
Whole Grains (Bulgar, quinoa, brown rice, whole oats)
Lean Protein :
Fish (salmon, shrimp, tuna, cod)
Lean poultry (skinless chicken and turkey)
Plant protein sources (beans, peas, tofu, tempeh)
Antioxidant rich foods :
Fruits (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries )
Vegetables (spinach, artichokes, kale)
Whole Grains (whole oats, whole wheat, quinoa, brown rice)
Unsaturated fats (nuts like pecans, nut butters, olive oil, avocado)
FOODS YOU SHOULD AVOID ON A PCOS DIET :
Refined Carbs :
Sugary Beverages :
Sugary, processed foods :
Cakes, candy, cookies, and other sweets
Yogurts with added sugar
Ice cream with excess added sugar or sugar substitutes
Saturated Fats and Trans Fats :
Saturated fats (red and processed meats like fast food hamburgers)
Trans fats (doughnuts, French fries, frozen pizza)
Limit Dairy and Alcohol :
Artificial or heavily processed cheeses
Yogurts with added sugar
Ice creams with sugar alcohols or tons of added sugar
Cocktails made with sugary mixers like juice or bottled mixers