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April 4, 2023 • read
Managing PCOS symptoms with a healthy diet
Diet can be a powerful tool for helping to manage your PCOS symptoms. And, if you’ve been diagnosed with PCOS, your healthcare provider might recommend that you modify your lifestyle. The caveat is that you have to know exactly what you should eat.
A PCOS diet doesn’t have to be restrictive, but it can prompt drastic changes to your eating routine. If you’re struggling with addressing your PCOS symptoms nutritionally, we can help. Maple is Canada’s leading virtual care platform that connects you with Canadian-licensed doctors and healthcare providers, including dietitians.
Partnering with an online dietitian can ease any dietary uncertainty to optimize your diet for your health. It also takes the work out of planning your meals and snacks, as dietitians create customized meal plans to fit your lifestyle. Appointments work the same as a regular in-person dietitian consultation, except they take place over your phone, tablet, or computer for privacy and convenience from the comfort of your home.
In the meantime, here’s everything you need to know about diet and PCOS.
Although it affects an estimated 1.4 million Canadian women and trans men, PCOS, or polycystic ovary syndrome, is often misunderstood. Arguably, even its name is a misnomer since you don’t need ovarian cysts to be diagnosed. Instead, diagnosis is based on having two out of the three following criteria:
- Irregular menstruation
- Increased androgen levels (a group of hormones that fuel “male” characteristics like facial hair, among other symptoms)
- Cysts on your ovaries
PCOS is a hormonal disorder that presents with a wide-ranging constellation of symptoms. These are just some you may experience with it:
- Irregular periods
- Hirsutism (increased body and facial hair growth)
- Thinning hair on your head
- Insulin resistance (poor blood sugar regulation)
- Weight gain
- Difficulty conceiving
- Ovarian cysts
- Dark patches of skin around your underarms or neck
How does diet affect PCOS?
PCOS hinges on hormone levels. Since diet and exercise play a big role in balancing your hormones, they can also affect your PCOS symptoms.
That’s not all. PCOS often travels with chronic, low-grade inflammation. That means that inflammation-promoting foods like sugar, refined carbs, fried foods, processed meats, and alcohol can exacerbate symptoms.
Moreover, many individuals with PCOS also deal with insulin resistance or impaired insulin sensitivity. This causes excess glucose in the bloodstream, leaving them with chronically high blood sugar. It’s why more than half of individuals with PCOS develop type 2 diabetes by age 40.
The bad news doesn’t end there. High blood sugar levels stimulate your body to produce more androgens, which worsens symptoms. Together, these factors mean that diet can profoundly influence how you experience PCOS.
Foods to eat when you have PCOS
There’s no miracle diet for PCOS, as is often reported. But, since diet and exercise are the cornerstones of good health, nutrition can play a role in combating chronic illness, including PCOS and insulin resistance. Here are some dietary choices to help manage your condition.
Fibre’s a powerhouse nutrient for anyone with insulin resistance. For starters, it slows the passage of food through your digestive tract, slowing your body’s absorption of glucose. Not only does that mean fewer blood sugar spikes, but it’ll also keep you feeling full after a meal and help reduce your cholesterol. Some high-fibre foods include:
- Citrus fruits
- Brown rice
- All vegetables (more on this below)
It’s hard to eat too many vegetables on a PCOS diet plan. They’re low in calorie density and high in fibre and essential nutrients. What’s more, increasing your vegetable intake is proven to have insulin-stabilizing effects. Try to eat a wide variety in as many colours as possible, including:
- Swiss chard
Protein supports a variety of essential bodily processes and helps you feel full and satisfied after you eat. It’s worth trying to include it with every meal — as long as you target your daily consumption to 0.8 grams per kg of body weight. However, the source of your protein is important. Plant-based proteins are a better option as they’re higher in fibre and contain less saturated fats than other protein sources. Some sources of lean protein are:
- Poultry, such as turkey or chicken
- Fish and shellfish, like canned tuna, halibut, scallops, and shrimp
- Low-fat dairy products, such as milk, yogurt, and cottage cheese
- Legumes, including beans, peas, and lentils
- Soy products such as tofu or tempeh
Dietary fats are essential for good health. In fact, your body can only absorb certain nutrients, like vitamins A, K, E, and D, with the help of fats. Consuming healthy fats also helps you keep a balanced hormonal profile. Moreover, choosing unsaturated fats over saturated and trans fats will help manage your cholesterol and blood pressure.
Here are some examples of healthy fat sources:
- Chia seeds
- Flax seeds
- Fatty fish, such as salmon and sardines
- Nuts, including walnuts and pecans
- Olives and olive oil
- Canola oil
PCOS is correlated with low-grade inflammation, making it important to incorporate foods that fight inflammation into your diet. Some great anti-inflammatory diet options for PCOS include:
- Olive oil
- Leafy greens like kale, bok choy, swiss chard, and spinach
- Fatty fish
- Berries such as blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries
Which foods should I limit or avoid with PCOS?
There’s no “best” diet plan for PCOS. If you’re eating lots of healthy foods, you’ve already made a great start at stabilizing your blood sugar. Beyond that, you’ll want to try and avoid certain foods as they’ll counteract your progress. These include:
- Red meat
- Processed meat
- Solid fats, known as saturated or trans fats — these fats are solid at room temperature and include beef fat, butter, margarine, lard, and shortening
- Refined carbs made from white flour, such as pastries and white bread
- Battered or fried foods
- Fast food
- Sweetened beverages such as pop or juice
Other lifestyle changes to consider with PCOS
Beyond diet, managing your PCOS symptoms requires a multi-pronged approach that includes exercise.
In addition to helping with weight management, physical activity increases insulin sensitivity, helping your body to manage your blood sugar. Along with techniques like mindfulness meditation, exercise reduces stress, which can wreak havoc on your hormone levels.
If you’re not used to regular exercise, start small — try taking the stairs instead of the elevator or walking around the block. Pick the exercises you enjoy most, as they’ll be the easiest to sustain over the long haul.
Can supplements help with PCOS?
More research is needed, but it appears that there are a number of supplements that may help reduce the symptoms of PCOS.
Although it’s also known as vitamin B8, inositol isn’t a vitamin at all. Instead, it’s a sugar alcohol. That may sound like a bad thing, but inositol is beneficial when it comes to counteracting PCOS. It increases insulin sensitivity, helping your body process blood glucose better. Inositol has also been shown to lower androgen levels and support fertility.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3s help improve insulin resistance and decrease cholesterol and triglycerides (a type of fat found in the blood). However, more research is needed to show that they can address other aspects of PCOS, such as androgen levels.
PCOS and vitamin D deficiency go hand-in-hand. Additionally, greater vitamin D deficiency is correlated with higher insulin resistance, excessive androgen production, and irregular menstruation. More research is needed to determine whether supplementing with vitamin D can address the symptoms of PCOS. In the meantime, it’s worth adding it to your routine.
PCOS and weight gain
Poor blood glucose regulation is often associated with weight gain, so it’s not uncommon for PCOS and weight gain to occur together. Moreover, excess androgen triggers changes in your body that push it to put on visceral, or belly fat. As a result, individuals with PCOS may gain weight rapidly.
Beyond exacerbating symptoms, the excess weight that PCOS often brings can result in several other health issues. These include:
- Type 2 diabetes
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Heart disease
What’s the best PCOS diet to lose weight?
Because of the risks of a PCOS diagnosis and excess weight, doctors often recommend weight loss. The good news is that even losing 5 to 10% of your body weight can profoundly impact your blood sugar and spur meaningful improvements in symptoms.
So, how do you lose weight with PCOS? Instead of drastically reducing calories to drop excess weight fast, take a healthy and sustainable long-term approach.
The best diet for PCOS weight loss includes “high-quality” calories from whole plant foods, lean proteins, and healthy fat. This will keep you feeling full and satisfied, make you less likely to grab sugary snacks, and help reduce the overall calories you consume. Here are some tips for maintaining a healthy weight with PCOS.
1. Eliminate added sugars. Sugar isn’t your enemy, but the glucose, fructose, and high-fructose corn syrup in many processed foods are. If you’re craving something sweet, try a piece of dried fruit or a teaspoon of honey instead. It’ll hit the spot without the drastic spike in blood sugar.
2. Don’t drink your calories. Juice, soda, energy drinks, and frozen coffee drinks can contain more sugar than a piece of chocolate cake. Avoid a sugar overload by keeping yourself hydrated with water, tea, coffee, or kombucha.
3. Check your portion sizes. Eating what’s in front of you is easy, even if it’s way more than you want. Make sure you understand how much you should consume at each meal to avoid overserving yourself.
4. Eat mindfully. We eat for many different reasons — boredom, loneliness, and habit, to name a few. Focusing on what you’re eating without distraction will help you listen to your body’s natural cues. This will keep you from eating beyond fullness and stop you from consuming excess calories.
5. Prepare for snack attacks. Cravings and hunger can hit hard, and it’s much easier to head them off if you’re prepared. To that end, prepare healthy snacks like cut-up veggies and nuts in advance. This’ll keep you from ordering takeout or grabbing a bag of chips when you’re hungry.
How can an online dietitian help manage my PCOS?
By viewing food as a tool to fuel your body, keep you in good health, and improve your quality of life, you’re on the way to an exemplary PCOS diet. But knowing exactly which foods to incorporate and in what amounts can feel overwhelming.
Connecting with a dietitian can help you develop a diet for managing your PCOS safely and effectively. But forget clearing your schedule for half a day for your appointment. Seeing an online dietitian on Maple gives you access to the support you need on your own schedule. Best of all, you can learn how to eat for your condition from the comfort of your home or wherever else suits you best.
Your PCOS symptoms may seem challenging now, but working with a dietitian can help you lose weight, regulate blood sugar, and reduce symptoms to barely detectable levels. Regain control over your PCOS with diet by making an appointment with an online dietitian today.
This blog was developed by our team and reviewed by a medical professional.