If you have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), you may have been told that your diet can help your symptoms—or make them worse. Being diagnosed with PCOS can be overwhelming, but we’re here to help you out along the way.
Here, you’ll learn about PCOS and the foods you should eat, as well as the ones to avoid. We will also give you other tips to help manage your PCOS symptoms.
What is PCOS?
PCOS is a hormonal disorder affecting 5 million U.S. women of reproductive age. Individuals with PCOS produce excess androgens (sometimes referred to as “male hormones”), which can cause numerous symptoms, including infertility. Unfortunately, even though the PCOS is relatively common, many women see multiple specialists before receiving a proper diagnosis due to lack of awareness and also due to PCOS symptoms being similar to other health conditions.
Symptoms of PCOS
PCOS affects individuals in different ways and in varying severity. Some common symptoms of PCOS include:
- Irregular or absent periods
- Pelvic pain
- Ovarian cysts
- Difficulty getting pregnant
- Thinning of the hair on your head
- Excess facial and/or body hair (hirsutism)
PCOS and insulin resistance
Many women with PCOS have insulin resistance, which means the body’s cells don’t respond properly to insulin resulting in elevated glucose levels. Individuals with insulin resistance have an increased risk of other long-term health problems including:
- Type 2 diabetes
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Heart disease
- Breast and endometrial cancers
How does diet affect PCOS?
While there is currently is no cure for PCOS, many of the symptoms caused by PCOS can be managed through diet and lifestyle changes. In fact, losing just 5% of body weight can improve symptoms and boost fertility. The right diet can help you reach a healthy weight before getting pregnant and make sure your blood sugars are well-managed to prevent complications.
Best foods to eat if you have PCOS
Non-starchy fruits and vegetables
Non-starchy fruits and vegetables have a low glycemic index. The glycemic index (GI) is a scale from 1–100. The lower the score, the longer that food takes to raise a person’s blood sugar levels. In foods with a low glycemic index, glucose is slowly released into the bloodstream after being digested. This can help prevent sudden rises in blood sugar. Some examples of fruits and vegetables with a low glycemic index are:
- Leafy green vegetables
- Green beans
There is some research that shows eating a higher protein diet when you have PCOS can help improve insulin resistance along with a reduction in carbohydrates. Consider eating:
- Fish, such as salmon, shrimp or cod
- Poultry, such as chicken or turkey
- Greek yogurt
Fat in your diet provides your body with energy, but some fats are better than others. Healthy fats, such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, can help improve insulin resistance, according to research. Some examples include:
- Chia seeds
- Nut butters
- Olive oil
Whole grains are processed in the body slower than simple, refined carbs. They do not cause spikes in blood sugar and insulin, and they have a lower glycemic index. Some examples of whole grains include:
- Brown rice
- Whole grain pastas and breads
Best foods to avoid if you have PCOS
Trans and saturated fats
Diets high in trans and saturated fats can increase insulin resistance and inflammation in the body. Try to avoid having more than 30% of your calories from fat, and avoid or limit trans or saturated fats, such as:
- Red meats (especially processed meats, such as fast-food hamburgers)
- Baked goods, such as donuts, pies, and cookies
- Frozen pizza
- Microwave popcorn
- Fried foods, including french fries and fried chicken
The biggest culprit of insulin resistance is eating a lot of processed foods and simple carbs. These carbs are made of sugars, such as fructose and glucose, and can cause a sudden rise in blood sugar and insulin production, which can lead to health issues. Try to avoid or limit:
- White bread and pasta
- White rice
- Pizza dough
- Cakes and cookies
- Sweetened cereals
Beverages with added sugars
Too much sugar can cause inflammation in the body, which can negatively affect those with PCOS. Drinking soda might seem obvious when it comes to sugary-beverage examples, but you may not realize your morning smoothie, especially if it comes from a bottle at the store, can still contain enough sugar to spike your blood sugar. Instead, stick to eating whole fruits instead of juices. Examples of beverages to limit include:
- Cold-pressed juice
- Bottled smoothies
- Fruit juices
- Cocktails made with sugary mixers
Certain dairy products
One study indicated that drinking milk has a direct effect on people with PCOS. Decreasing your dairy intake might help reduce your PCOS symptoms. But not everyone is affected by dairy in the same way, so if you aren’t noticing increased symptoms when you consume dairy, it’s probably fine to continue.
Some examples of dairy products you may want to avoid include:
- Regular yogurt with added sugar
- Heavily processed cheeses
- Ice cream with added sugars
- Whole milk
Other lifestyle changes to consider with PCOS
Your diet is only one part of managing life with PCOS. There are other ways that you can help control your symptoms and be as healthy as possible.
Exercise: Exercise can help lower levels of blood sugar, so regular exercise can go a long way in treating or preventing symptoms of PCOS. It can help your body produce less insulin, which in turn tells your body’s cells to reduce your blood sugar. Aim for 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity workouts, such as brisk walking, biking, or swimming.
Get enough sleep: Unfortunately, if you have PCOS, you may notice you have difficulty sleeping. Some people with PCOS experience insomnia and sleep apnea. Try to get at least 6 to 8 hours of sleep a night, and make sure you’re practicing good sleep hygiene by going to bed and waking at the same time every day, shutting off screens at least an hour before bed, and keeping your bedroom cool.
Managing your stress: The symptoms of PCOS can be stressful. Taking steps to reduce your stress can help manage your symptoms and positively impact your health overall. Try practicing yoga, meditation, or deep-breathing exercises. Journaling or taking a daily walk in nature can also help. If you find yourself overwhelmed, consider talking with a therapist.
If you have PCOS, or suspect you do, and are having trouble getting pregnant, don’t hesitate to schedule an appointment with a CCRM Fertility specialist. We can help you manage your symptoms and work toward optimal fertility health.
Written by: Dr. Rashmi Kudesia, board-certified reproductive endocrinology and fertility specialist at CCRM Fertility Houston