Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal condition which affects 5-10% women of adolescent and reproductive age; however, many women suffer in silence because it is often misdiagnosed or misunderstood.
Almost 90% of women with PCOS are overweight or obese and even moderate weight loss (e.g. 5%) may result in clinically meaningful improvements in hyperandrogenism and menstrual regularity.
There are lifestyle changes, as well as, therapies which can help with weight management, as well as other PCOS symptoms. However, there is rarely a single solution that fits all. Hence, a holistic approach to managing PCOS which includes: hormone replacement therapy, dietary supplements, exercise, and/or nutrition, has better outcomes.
How nutrition helps with PCOS
Women suffering from PCOS often have higher levels of insulin (a hormone) in their blood making it critical for you to monitor your food choices. Making changes to your diet by including food that will not spike your insulin levels will have positive effects on managing your PCOS symptoms.
Another aspect to consider when choosing which foods to eat, is the nutritional value. As the nutrients that we consume can have a direct impact on our hormone production, it is not just about choosing foods for weight management, but also for managing hormonal balance. Hence, it is important to consider every aspect of your diet from breakfast through to dinner, to ensure you are eating a balanced diet and getting enough nutritional value.
What must we eat?
Go for an intelligent mix of protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats.
Protein: it is advisable to consume 1-1.2g protein/Kg body wt/day. More protein will help you meet your energy requirement without spiking up sugar levels. Make sure you drink enough water throughout the day, as good hydration is important when consuming protein. A good way to check your hydration levels, are by monitoring your urine.
Carbohydrate: carbohydrates are not unhealthy, it is just a matter of choosing the right carbs. Opt for complex carbohydrates like legumes, pulses, peas, beans, grams, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
These high–fiber complex carbohydrate foods are abundant in nutrients and help you feel full longer than sugary low-fiber carbohydrates. Thus, it is best to choose complex carbohydrates as often as possible.
Fats: fat is not your enemy, but bad fat is. Fats and oils from olives, extra virgin olive oil, sesame oil, avocados, peanut butter, and other nuts (almonds, peanuts, cashew, and walnuts) and seeds (sesame, pumpkin, sunflower), are good for you.
So, what is bad? Bad fat comes from butter, margarine, mayonnaise, full–fat cheese, creamy sauces or dressings, red meat or any other sources of saturated fats, like processed foods.
Go Slow On Dairy
Insulin growth factor-1 (IGF-1) is a naturally occurring hormone found in cow’s milk and has the exact same structure as that of human IGF-1 and that of insulin. It also mimics the role of insulin and has insulin-like activity.
So, how does dairy worsen your PCOS? Well, women with PCOS have been shown to have higher than normal levels of IGF-1 already and our ovaries appear to be over sensitive to IGF-1. This means that they respond to small amounts of IGF-1. Dairy can spike your insulin and we do not want that.
It is very important and healthy to eat foods that can be eaten in the form nature made them. Yes, we mean raw whole fruits and vegetables. Naturally vegetables are high in fibre, packed with essential vitamins and minerals such as vitamins B and C, folate, calcium, magnesium polyphenols and antioxidants.
A plant-based diet is easy on the digestive system, thus helping healthy gut flora to flourish. Additionally, eliminating meat that is high in saturated fats and dairy, can drastically help reduce inflammation, balance hormones, and control insulin resistance.
What not to eat
- Avoid High GI Foods (GI-Glycemic Index is a term used to describe how a food affects blood sugar. The higher a food raises blood sugar, the higher is the glycemic index of that food as someone with PCOS it is important to minimize sugar spikes. Women with PCOS experience high insulin levels, which sugar and high-GI foods elevate them further. Now, cutting down sugar completely from your diet can be a little bit difficult so work it out to balance it so you can afford to treat yourself with 2 sugar spikes in the day i.e. at breakfast and after a workout and make sure the source of it is natural sugars from fruit. To check GI value of foods, click here.
- Caution: excessive consumption of low GI food at once can increase glycemic load which is just as problematic. Think balance when it comes to planning your food.
- Avoid anything that says Sugar Free (they are made with refined grains such as white flour) and Fat Free (they usually have a lot of added sugar) they do more harm than good.
- Avoid Nutrient Less Calories like alcohol, juices, soda, and soft drinks.
- Limit Soy Products as they may mimic estrogen properties in the body.
- Avoid FAD Diets: Diets alone are useless in PCOS unless you focus on reducing body fat; therefore, restriction diets are not recommended for PCOS. Instead, focus on eating a well-balanced diet which is primarily plant-based and listen to your body.
- Reconsider Caffeine and Alcohol: caffeine is known to affect your stress hormone, which in turn increases insulin and reduces its sensitivity. Caffeine can also disrupt sleep and promote anxiety. Hence, limit your caffeine intake to 1-2 cups of coffee or chai. Alcohol on the other hand, has shown to be a particularly problematic substance for women with PCOS. So, it is best to avoid it.
Be in charge of your plate
Mind Full Eating: Everybody is guilty of multitasking, but with PCOS multiple things are already happening inside your body so the least you can do for it, is to concentrate on your plate while you eat.
Portion Control: Be mindful of the quantity of food that you eat. Smaller portions with an emphasis on vegetables, some protein, and healthy fats is desired. This will you help digest food easier, reach or maintain a healthy weight, stay energized throughout the day, and help control blood sugar levels.
Below is an example of an ideal plate.
- Moderate Carbohydrates (low-GI, Complex Carbs)
- Moderate Protein
- High Fibre
- Adequate Healthy Fats
Counting calories can be daunting, but will help you stay on track initially when you are in the process of making changes to your lifestyle to a friendlier PCOS lifestyle. If you require help do not shy away from consulting a dietician.
For an additional resources on how to manage PCOS Symptoms, download our PCOS Booklet.
 Chris Kite, et. al., “Exercise, or exercise and diet for the management of polycystic ovary syndrome: a systematic review and meta-analysis”,
 Phaedra Thomas RN, BSN, et. al., “PCOS Resources for a Healthier You” ©Center for Young Women’s Health | Boston Children’s Hospital