PCOS diet: Foods to eat and avoid

By: Bel Marra Health | Women's Health | Thursday, April 20, 2017 - 07:00 AM

PCOS dietPolycystic ovary syndrome symptoms can be annoying for some women and a serious problem for others, but many sufferers have discovered that a PCOS diet can help alleviate some of the discomforts.

Polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, is a hormonal problem that has an impact on the ovaries and other parts of a woman’s body. It is most common during childbearing years and requires treatment, otherwise, it could lead to serious health implications such as infertility and heart disease.

How diet affects PCOS

When ovulation doesn’t occur, cysts can form on the ovaries. These cysts produce the hormone called androgen, which cause the symptoms linked to PCOS. Women with PCOS have been found to have higher than normal insulin levels. Insulin is a hormone and it has an important job—helping cells in the body turn sugar into energy. When a person doesn’t produce sufficient insulin, their blood sugar can rise. This also occurs when people are insulin resistant. High levels of insulin can produce more androgens. Insulin resistance can happen as a result of having a body mass index above the normal range. A diet high in refined carbohydrates can make insulin resistance and weight loss more difficult.

How high insulin levels can affect PCOS symptoms

When insulin is high, it can lead to a lot of PCOS symptoms, including increased weight gain, increased hair growth, irregular menstrual cycles, and high cholesterol. Managing blood insulin levels is important if a person wants to manage their PCOS. Avoiding refined carbohydrates and foods that are high in fat is vital to someone who is suffering from PCOS.

A lot of doctors will recommend a low GI diet to their PCOS patients. This includes whole grains and unprocessed foods. Since insulin isn’t the only hormone affected by PCOS, a low GI diet is necessary to address all aspects of the ailment.

Research conducted at Tel Aviv University suggests that timing is everything for women with polycystic ovary syndrome—timing of meals that is. The University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine and Diabetes Unit discovered that increased calorie intake at breakfast could lead to lower levels of the androgen testosterone and lead to a dramatic increase in the frequency of ovulation. The key was having high protein and carbohydrates early in the day and reducing calories through the rest of the day to achieve a reduction in insulin resistance. The experts involved in the study call this a “natural” way for women of normal weight who suffer from PCOS to manage insulin levels to improve fertility. This natural PCOS treatment could provide hope to women who haven’t been able to find solutions for their fertility problems.

Managing glycemic load in PCOS diet

Clomid and Metformin are two of the most common medications prescribed for women who suffer from polycystic ovary syndrome. Clomid, also known as Serophene, is a medication used to try to induce ovulation. Metformin was originally formulated to treat diabetes, however, it can also be used with PCOS to help women ovulate and get pregnant.

Recent research shows that effectiveness of diet stands up remarkably well compared to medications. In one study, a team of researchers compared Clomid, Metformin, Clomid combined with Metformin, and lifestyle changes. They monitored pregnancy rates and here is what they found: Clomid had 12.5 percent pregnancy, Metformin 14.4 percent, a combination of Clomid and Metformin 14.8 percent pregnancy, while diet and lifestyle had a 20 percent pregnancy rate.

Dieticians tell women with PCOS that when it comes to diet, there is a lot to think about. For instance, a diet that you hear about on television or read about online could sound good, but it might not be the right fit for someone in your situation. A popular diet program endorsed by millions suggests crumpets with banana and honey for breakfast. Sounds good, right? Well, actually it has a glycemic load of 45, which can cause insulin to spike. Also, there is little protein, so blood sugars will crash and you will have cravings long before your next meal. Alternatively, an avocado and raspberry breakfast smoothie has a glycemic index of just 6 as well as all the necessary building blocks of all your hormones.

To keep your hormone levels balanced, you need to manage insulin, avoid refined foods, get a good balance or proteins, carbs, and fat, avoid dairy, stay away from added sugar, and enjoy vegetables.

PCOS diet: Foods to eat and avoid for PCOS management

At this point, you are likely wondering what foods should and should not be on the PCOS food list. Here we run down what PCOS foods to eat and what PCOS food to avoid.

Science tells us that high-fiber foods help fight insulin resistance by slowing down digestion and by reducing the impact that sugar has on the blood. This can help women who suffer from PCOS, so a diet filled with high-fiber foods is a good idea. Below are some high-fiber options.

  • Broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts
  • Red leaf lettuce and arugula
  • Green and red peppers
  • Beans and lentils
  • Almonds
  • Berries
  • Sweet potatoes and winter squash
  • Pumpkin

Lean proteins such as chicken, fish, and tofu are also healthy options for someone who has PCOS, as are foods that help reduce inflammation. Tomatoes, kale, spinach, walnuts, olive oil, blueberries, and salmon are examples of foods that help lower inflammation.

Here are some other PCOS foods to eat:

  • Apples and pears
  • Oranges
  • Bananas
  • Kale and collards
  • Yogurt (with 15 grams of sugar per serving)
  • Eggs
  • Hummus
  • Nut butters
  • Veggie burgers (with no more than 10 grams of protein)
  • Whole grain bread, pasta, and English muffin
  • Brown rice
  • Avocados
  • Canola oil or corn oil
  • Fresh fruit or canned fruit without added sugar
  • High fiber cereals
  • White vegetables

Refined carbohydrates lead to inflammation, which can make PCOS symptoms worse since inflammation aggravates insulin resistance. Here are some of the foods you should avoid if you suffer from PCOS.

  • White bread
  • Muffins
  • Breakfast pastries
  • White potatoes
  • Corn syrup, artificial sweeteners
  • Artificial coloring
  • Trans-fats and saturated fats
  • MSG
  • Excess sodium
  • Fatty foods
  • Anything made with white flour

All of the above are based on suggestions from experts in the field of health, nutrition, and medical science. While this is a guideline, you should always consult with a doctor before starting any new diet.

Lifestyle changes to cope with PCOS

People of all shapes and sizes get PCOS, but research indicates that about 50 percent are obese. More and more evidence also shows that weight control improves PCOS symptoms. Today, most women with the condition are advised to include exercise and diet in their treatment plan.

When discussing lifestyle adjustments, doctors will often remind patients to avoid falling for outlandish diets they read about online or hear about in social circles. It is safer to choose low-glycemic index foods and follow instructions set out by their health care provider.

A PCOS exercise routine is another important part of coping. Studies show that regular physical activity is one of the best things you can do to help manage the problem. When you get moving, it can help reduce insulin resistance and inflammation. Somewhere between 50 and 70 percent of PCOS sufferers have insulin resistance. Cardiovascular and muscle-strengthening exercises are a good idea, but for those who may not be fond of this type of workout, moderate activity like a brisk 30-minute walk or bike ride is also helpful. PCOS yoga is another option and is considered a form of strength training.

Women who suffer from PCOS are at an increased risk of blood clotting, so quitting smoking is advisable. There are numerous strategies for quitting that can be discussed with a doctor. It is also important to point out that there are emotional aspects associated with polycystic ovary syndrome that women should discuss with medical experts. For example, excess body hair or weight gain can be distressing and impact a person’s self-image, but there are ways to address these concerns. Finding the right support through a doctor or through community resources can make a significant difference in the life of a woman who has PCOS.

Some women’s health advocates say that managing PCOS requires looking at “the big picture,” not just diet and exercise. They believe that sleep, stress, and self-confidence all impact a woman’s ability to cope with symptoms. Often working on such issues allows a person to make the bigger lifestyle changes, like diet, that are needed to ultimately impact their PCOS.

Related: Hypothyroidism vs. PCOS, differences in symptoms, causes, and treatment

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