Polycystic ovary syndrome is a hormonal and metabolism disorder that affects 6% to 12% of women in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Metabolism refers to how the body processes food and drink to turn it into energy.
Polycystic ovary syndrome can affect any woman of reproductive age and has several symptoms:
Cysts on one or both of the ovaries.
Extra body hair growth.
Higher levels of androgen, or male, hormones.
Insulin resistance. Insulin helps our bodies to process glucose, or sugar. When you have insulin resistance, your body doesn’t process insulin properly. Over time, that can lead to diabetes. In fact, more than 50% of women with PCOS develop Type 2 diabetes by age 40, the CDC reports.
Mental health issues like depression.
Ovaries that develop collections of fluid called follicles.
Treatment for PCOS
Treatment for PCOS often includes hormonal birth control, such as birth control pills. These can help make your periods regular and control the excess hair growth. If you have PCOS and a body mass index of more than 25 – indicating you’re overweight – your health provider may prescribe metformin, says Dr. Endrika L. Hinton, a reproductive endocrinologist and co-director of the Uterine Fibroid Center at Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Baltimore.
Metformin is a medication commonly prescribed for people with diabetes. The use of metformin for PCOS helps to address the metabolism problems associated with the disorder, Hinton says. If you have PCOS, you may receive other treatments for your symptoms.
As many as four in five women with PCOS struggle with obesity, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. In addition to raising your chance of developing diabetes, being overweight or obese when you have PCOS can put you at greater risk for other serious health problems, including:
Because of the health risks from obesity, a commitment to a healthier diet can make a positive impact if you have PCOS. Even a 5% to 10% weight loss when you have PCOS can help your symptoms.
A healthier diet, weight loss and more physical activity won’t make PCOS go away, but they can help reduce the symptoms of PCOS. It becomes easier to manage your blood sugar and lower inflammation, says Alyssa Pike, a registered dietitian and manager of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council in Washington, D.C. Weight loss and a healthier diet can lower your blood pressure and cholesterol and increase the chances that you can have a baby.
Diet and PCOS: What to Eat and What to Avoid
There’s no one specific diet approach that works best for everyone when you have polycystic ovary syndrome, Hinton says. Some people may praise a keto diet (a type of low-carb diet) or intermittent fasting, but that’s only anecdotal. If you have PCOS and want to make healthier food changes, you should rely on some of the basics of healthy eating that include the following:
Fiber from foods such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables fills you up faster because it takes longer for the body to process it. The daily fiber recommendation for adults is generally 25 grams for a 2,000-calorie diet. To help boost your fiber intake, choose brown rice instead of white rice and whole wheat bread instead of white bread. These also provide you with complex carbohydrates that are healthier for the body instead of refined carbs that your body will turn quickly into sugar. Avoiding too many carbs, especially refined carbs, is important when you have PCOS.
Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids
These foods can help fight inflammation and provide healthy fats, Pike says. Good sources for omega-3 fatty acids include fatty fish like salmon and herring, walnuts, chia seeds and canola oil.
Our body needs fat, but not the unhealthy kind that most of us regularly eat in sweet treats and processed foods. Healthy fat food sources include avocados, olives and oils such as olive oil, says registered dietitian nutritionist Rahaf Al Bochi, who’s a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and owner of Olive Tree Nutrition LLC in Atlanta.
In a 2011 study in women with PCOS, eating more protein led to weight loss and caused more decreases in glucose, according to a report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Nuts, nut butters, lean meats, fish, soy and beans are good protein sources, Al Bochi says.
More fruits and vegetables
These are often low in calories and full of fiber and antioxidants, which can help fight inflammation. Berries, peppers, tomatoes and avocados are good choices, Al Bochi says. Most people should get at least four to five servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
As much as you can, avoid foods that are highly processed or that are high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, such as cookies, cake and juices.
Here are sample meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner as shared by Al Bochi. She recommends these because they provide complex carbs, protein, whole grains and healthy fats:
Breakfast: whole grain toast, avocado, eggs and berries.
Lunch: quinoa chickpea salad made with quinoa, chickpeas, chopped veggies and extra virgin olive oil/vinegar dressing.
Dinner: salmon, sweet potato, salad or roasted vegetables.
Snack or dessert: a one-ounce portion of dark chocolate. The healthiest type of dark chocolate has 70% cocoa or more. The label should indicate its cocoa percentage. Ideally, the dark chocolate you eat is also low in added sugar.
A Few More Tips About PCOS and a Healthier Diet
1. Plan your meals in advance. If you plan your meals in advance each week, you’re more likely to eat balanced, nutrient-dense foods that help you avoid mindless eating through the day, Al Bochi explains. As a bonus, you’ll streamline your grocery shopping. That could help you save money.
2. Build new habits slowly. It can seem intimidating to start any new eating plan with so many potential choices to make. Start small and add healthy foods little by little, Pike advises. “Focus on building meals with variety, adding in nutrient-dense foods where feasible,” she suggests.
3. Make changes a family affair. Polycystic ovary syndrome also affects teens, and that’s why Hinton will advise that parents of teens who have PCOS also make healthier life changes, such as eating better and exercising more. It’s not uncommon for those with PCOS to have family members with diabetes or obesity, so these changes often benefit everyone at home.
4. Add physical activity to your daily routine. The combination of healthier eating and more physical activity goes a longer way toward weight loss and managing PCOS. The current federal guidelines recommend 150 minutes of moderate heart-pumping exercise each week. That could break down to 30 minutes, five times a week, or you could do it in smaller chunks. For weight loss, you may need closer to 300 minutes a week, or an hour a day, five days a week.
5. Manage your stress. It’s normal to feel stressed from time to time, but if you find that stress overwhelms you, seek help to get it under control. Stress often makes PCOS symptoms worse, Pike says. Find ways to relax, such as making time for enjoyable activities every day or learning relaxation techniques like deep breathing.
6. See a registered dietitian for help. A registered dietitian who specializes in women’s health can provide tailored nutrition support when you have PCOS, Al Bochi says.