Foods that make PCOS better, and worse

Foods that make PCOS better, and worse

August 16th, 2021 | by

PCOS or Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome affects 1 in 10 women of childbearing age. A defining characteristic of PCOS is irregular periods or no periods at all. Marked by multiple cysts in the ovaries which are caused by an overproduction of hormones called androgens, PCOS can make one vulnerable to a myriad of health concerns. The most common of them being diabetes, cardiovascular problems and an increased risk of endometrial cancer. 

50 percent of women with “PCOS” are susceptible to weight gain and obesity too.

Despite the unconquerable hurdle that PCOS seems to be, its symptoms can be managed with the right diet and lifestyle changes. 

How are diet and PCOS related?

Diet has a two-fold bearing on PCOS, as it affects weight management and insulin resistance.

Women with PCOS often produce more insulin than their body needs. The pancreas releases insulin to help your body turn sugar (glucose) into energy. Your body’s inability to produce enough insulin can lead to high blood sugar levels while its inability to use the insulin it already produces (also known as insulin resistance), can result in the same. And when you’re insulin resistant, your body produces a higher amount of insulin to make up for it, which results in the difficulty to effectively manage your weight.

A diet that’s rich in refined carbohydrates like starchy and sugary foods can make managing insulin resistance and weight loss an uphill climb. 

However, the right diet can help promote good insulin levels, which in turn, can help ease the symptoms of PCOS.

Where to start?

There are three types of diets that can help someone with PCOS manage their symptoms:

A low glycemic index (GI) diet: The body digests food with low GI slower, which prevents insulin levels from drastically rising the way they do when your body processes foods rich in carbohydrates. Foods in a low-GI diet include whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits, starchy vegetables, and other unprocessed, low-carbohydrate foods.

An anti-inflammatory diet: Anti-inflammatory foods, such as berries, fatty fish, leafy greens, and extra virgin olive oil, can help alleviate inflammation-related symptoms like fatigue.

The DASH diet: The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet to reduce the risk or impact of heart disease is recommended by doctors to help manage PCOS symptoms too. A DASH diet is rich in fish, poultry, fruits, vegetables, whole grain, and low-fat dairy produce. The diet discourages foods that are high in saturated fat and sugar.

A study done in 2015 reveals that women who followed a specially curated 8-week DASH diet saw a stark reduction in insulin levels and belly fat compared to those who didn’t follow the same diet.

What to eat?

A nutrient that is a boon for women with PCOS is fibre. It helps combat insulin resistance by slowing down digestion and reducing the impact of sugar on the blood. 

  • Broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts
  • greens, including red leaf lettuce and arugula
  • green and red peppers
  • beans and lentils
  • almonds
  • berries
  • sweet potatoes

While adding fibre helps manage insulin levels and helps you feel fuller for longer, adding lean protein can help with weight loss. If you weight train and consume an adequate amount of lean protein, it can help you build lean muscle which can, in turn, help you burn calories even when you’re at rest. Some great sources of lean protein are tofu, chicken and fish.

Foods that help reduce inflammation can also help you feel less bloated and effectively manage your weight. These foods include tomatoes, spinach, almonds and walnuts, olive oil, blueberries, strawberries and fatty fish high in omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon and sardines.

What to not eat?

Insulin resistance and inflammation can be worsened by a diet rich in refined carbohydrates. Hence, it is a food group that is best avoided or limited to a significant degree. Some of these include highly processed foods like:

  • white bread
  • muffins
  • breakfast pastries
  • sugary desserts
  • anything made with white flour

When choosing pastas, avoid the ones that list semolina, durum flour, or durum wheat flour as their first ingredient, since these are high in carbohydrates and low in fibre. The ones made with bean or lentil flour are healthier alternatives.

Limiting sugar could be another helpful step in managing insulin levels. However, sugar isn’t limited to what you add to your tea or coffee but can be found in processed foods and sugary drinks too. Making a habit of reading food labels carefully can help in watching your sugar intake to a great extent. Sugar is hidden in processed foods under various names like sucrose, high fructose corn syrup and dextrose.

Doing away with inflammation-inducing foods such as fries, margarine, and red or processed meats from your diet can also help alleviate PCOS symptoms.

The bottom line

While there is no cure for PCOS, its symptoms can be substantially reduced with a good PCOS diet. Ensuring 30 minutes of exercise 4-5 days a week is very crucial if you have PCOS.

Being proactive when it comes to a good diet and lifestyle becomes non-negotiable with a condition like PCOS. Eating healthy fats, lean proteins and moderate amounts of low-GI foods can significantly ease your struggle with PCOS.

If switching to a clean eating lifestyle completely seems a bit too overwhelming, push yourself in that direction with tiny steps. Food swaps are a great way to start. For instance, if you like consuming white bread, try multigrain bread or whole wheat bread instead. It’s just a matter of time before you get used to the taste. Lastly, the feeling of having more energy as you switch from starchy foods to ones rich in fibre, is what’s going to make you stick to this lifestyle in the long run.

Supriya Jain