Nutrition for PCOS (without cutting food groups!)
Written by Guest Blogger and Accredited Practising Dietitian Danielle Bell
What is PCOS?
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome or PCOS is an endocrine disorder that affects at least 8-13% of reproductive-aged women and has metabolic and reproductive consequences that influence the whole body (1). It presents itself as at least two of the following symptoms: hyperandrogenism (high levels of steroid hormones, such as testosterone which can present as ache and excess body hair); disrupted ovulation (in up to 75-85% of women); excess follicles or cysts on either ovary (1).
It is also marked by a state of chronic inflammation throughout the body and a host of challenges (1) such as:
- insulin resistance
- type 2 diabetes mellitus
- risk of cardiovascular disease
- poor body image
Why dieting is NOT the solution
So what is dieting? Dieting can refer to a million things, but overall it can be described as eating in order to manipulate your body/weight, rather than to improve your health and wellbeing. To clarify, when I say dieting in this context I am not referring to therapeutic diets which are used to assist people with diagnosed medical conditions, such as an allergy or intolerance. Dieting for the purposes of weight control may look like this:
- ignoring your hunger
- cutting out food groups
- labelling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’
- fixating on the calorie content of what you eat
We know that dieting and weight control (whether or not you have PCOS) can be a potent trigger for the onset of disordered eating (2) and often leads to a cycle of weight loss followed by weight regain (3). Now if you have PCOS this is particularly dangerous as it has been found that PCOS is a risk factor for body dissatisfaction, anxiety and depression (4) and binge eating (5), all of which can be fuelled by dieting.
Nutrition & PCOS
So, if dieting is not the answer, what is?
It’s time to talk about food and nutrition and all the GOOD it can do.
Omega 3 fatty acids
Omega 3 fatty acids have been found to support ovulation and to help reduce insulin resistance (6). Their anti-inflammatory powers also mean they help manage the stress that your body is trying to cope with (6). If that wasn’t a cool enough wrap of this impressive type of fat, science also tells us that they can help reduce your risk of heart disease by increasing levels of your helpful cholesterol that scavenge the cholesterol that is prone to sticking in our arteries (6). That’s right – eating this type of fat can actually reduce your harmful cholesterol levels! You can find omega 3s in:
- Oily fish e.g. salmon, tuna, sardines, snapper
- Chia seeds or linseeds
- Soy and linseed bread
- Canola margarine
- Soy products
If you have PCOS you may find that eating slightly more protein each day than other individuals of the same age and size works best for you. While the research is still developing in this area, it seems that having some protein in your meals and snacks can help those with PCOS improve their sensitivity to insulin (7). What that means is your body may be better able to use the energy from the food you eat. So next time you have a meal or snack, consider your protein foods:
- Red meat
- Legumes and lentils
- Dairy e.g. yoghurt, cheese, milk
- Nuts and nut butters
Lower GI carbohydrates
If you have PCOS you may find it useful to consider the quality of carbohydrate you choose. That’s right, no carb cutting here. Carbohydrates, such as bread, pasta, rice, noodles and cereal can be categorised into those of a low glycaemic index (GI) and high GI. Without getting bogged down in the details, GI basically refers to how quickly the carbs we eat are broken down into glucose (simple sugar) and released in our blood. Low GI carbs are those that slowly release glucose into our blood. This type of carbohydrate may help you feel more energised by helping your body better regulate its blood glucose levels AND by reducing the inflammation that may be making you feel warn out (8). Some examples of carbohydrates with a lower GI include:
- Rolled oats – hello porridge
- Multigrain bread/wraps
- Basmati rice
- Wholemeal pasta
- Rice noodles
- Legumes e.g. baked beans, lentils
- Sweet potato
Now that isn’t to say that you need to totally avoid high GI carbohydrates. Remember your intuitive eating; listen to your body, honour your hunger and cravings, find what makes you feel good. As the amazing Dietitian, Julie Duffy Dillon once said people with PCOS can eat cake too.
Happy eating and exploring different foods!
For more information about PCOS and nutrition and how you can work with someone who can support you in making these changes work for YOUR body and YOUR needs, speak to an Accredited Practising Dietitian.
- Teede HJ, Misso ML, Boyle JA, Garad RM, McAllister V, Downes L, et al. Translation and implementation of the Australian?led PCOS guideline: clinical summary and translation resources from the International Evidence?based Guideline for the Assessment and Management of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. Medical Journal of Australia. 2018;209(7):S3-S8.
- Bacon L, Aphramor L. Weight science: evaluating the evidence for a paradigm shift. Nutrition journal. 2011;10(1):9-.
- Mann T, Tomiyama AJ, Westling E, Lew A-M, Samuels B, Chatman J. Medicare’s Search for Effective Obesity Treatments: Diets Are Not the Answer. American Psychologist. 2007;62(3):220-33.
- Barry JA, Bouloux P, Hardiman PJ. The impact of eating behavior on psychological symptoms typical of reactive hypoglycemia. A pilot study comparing women with polycystic ovary syndrome to controls. Appetite. 2011;57(1):73-6.
- Jeanes YM, Reeves S, Gibson EL, Piggott C, May VA, Hart KH. Binge eating behaviours and food cravings in women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. Appetite. 2017;109:24-32.
- Yang KL, Zeng LT, Bao TT, Ge JW. Effectiveness of Omega-3 fatty acid for polycystic ovary syndrome: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology. 2018;16.
- Moran LJ, Ko H, Misso M, Marsh K, Noakes M, Talbot M, et al. Dietary composition in the treatment of polycystic ovary syndrome: a systematic review to inform evidence-based guidelines. Human Reproduction Update. 2013;19(5):432-.
- Gonzalez F. Inflammation in Polycystic Ovary Syndrome: Underpinning of insulin resistance and ovarian dysfunction. Steroids. 2012;77(4):300-5.