If you’ve been diagnosed with PCOS, chances are your doctor must’ve prescribed making changes to your diet and exercise as part of the treatment plan — and for good reasons. Lifestyle modification is often the first line of treatment for both lean and overweight PCOS. For overweight patients, weight loss is the single most important determinant in alleviating symptoms. Current guidelines suggest that a weight loss of even 5%-10% can help improve reproductive and metabolic health.
It is no secret that what you eat and how much you eat have a direct impact on your weight. But the role of nutrition does not end at weight loss. Following a healthy, nutritious diet is also crucial for improving your quality of life, treating symptoms of PCOS, and preventing the risk of developing other chronic conditions, such as diabetes and hypertension.
1. Hormonal imbalance
PCOS is primarily linked to hormonal imbalance — specifically elevated androgen (male hormone) and insulin levels. If hormonal imbalance goes unmanaged, it can increase the risk of developing other chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. In fact, research suggests that women with PCOS who followed Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet saw beneficial effects like lower blood insulin levels, lower inflammation and less abdominal fat accumulation. The DASH diet is a low-glycemic index (GI) diet i.e. it includes foods that do not instantly spike your blood insulin and sugar levels but instead raise the blood sugar leveIs gradually. This diet is rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, and low in saturated fats — all of which are favourable for people with PCOS.
Inflammation is your body’s immune response to protect itself from a foreign substance. But sometimes your body’s immune system reacts to its own cells causing a state of inflammation. C-reactive protein (CRP) is one such marker that is elevated during an inflammatory response in the body and is used to detect inflammation via blood test. CRP levels are known to be elevated in people with PCOS. Research shows that following an anti-inflammatory diet, can help reduce PCOS symptoms. Some anti-inflammatory foods you can include are:
1. nuts (almond and walnut),
2. Seeds (chia seeds, flaxseeds (alsi seeds)),
3. green leafy vegetables (spinach, mustard greens, fenugreek),
4. olive oil,
5. fruits (strawberries, orange, blueberries),
6. fatty fish (salmon, mackerel)
There is no diet that has been proven to be superior over others for women with PCOS. Rather, your diet should be designed in a way that will suit your body’s needs and goals. Like any other healthy diet, PCOS diet focuses on whole foods, fresh fruits and vegetables, while limiting sugar, processed food and saturated fat intake.
Although fruits are also considered to be carbohydrates due to their sugar content, most of them have low GI — barring certain fruits such as watermelon, pineapple, etc which have high GI. In addition, fruits are also rich in vitamins and minerals that help reduce oxidative stress, which damages cells inside your body, and fibre, which keeps you full for longer. This is why you should Include a variety of fruits such as berries, plums, grapes, peaches, apples, oranges, pear, and strawberries in your diet.
Low GI vegetables such as spinach, green peas, onions, lettuce, cabbage, green beans, tomatoes, and cucumbers can help improve insulin levels by raising blood sugar levels gradually. They are not only high in fiber, but are also rich in vitamins and minerals such as folate, magnesium and calcium.
Focus on including whole foods instead of processed foods in your diet. For example, replace your refined flour (maida) with whole wheat flour or bajra which have low glycemic index. Refined carbohydrates such as pizza, pastries, and sodas can cause a sudden increase in your blood sugar and insulin levels, which can ultimately increase your androgen (male hormone) levels. Slow-releasing carbohydrates that you can include are quinoa, steel cut oats, brown rice, kuttu ka atta (buckwheat), ragi, jowar and bajra. Although a gluten-free diet is also popular among women with PCOS, it is not necessary to eliminate gluten but rather to limit the amount of refined carbohydrates.
Proteins are not only important for muscle building and repair but also help keep you full for longer. You can choose to have a mix of proteins including plant and animal-based proteins. Plant-based sources include tofu, lentils (dal), chickpeas (chana) and other beans, hemp seeds, green peas, amaranth, soy milk, chia seeds, nuts, nut butters & seeds. For animal protein, you can include sources such as chicken and eggs. However, it is best to avoid red meat such as mutton, beef, pork and processed meat such as sausages and bacon that are high in saturated fat.
In any diet, fats have always received ‘bad press’. The truth is fats are equally as important as carbohydrates and proteins to maintain a balanced diet. Healthy fats provide energy, support and cushion internal organs, and are important in producing hormones and maintaining reproductive health. Some healthy sources of fats include nuts and seeds, avocado, olive oil and fish. However, it is important to cut down sources of trans fat and saturated fat found in baked goods (cakes, cookies, donuts), fried food, sausages, and fast food. You can grill meat or vegetables instead of frying them. Additionally you can use olive oil in homemade dressings, have nuts for snacks and include omega-3 rich fats as found in salmon, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts and canola oil.
Some studies have found that milk and milk products may lead to insulin resistance which can result in weight gain and elevated male hormone levels in women with PCOS. However, you do not need to completely cut out dairy; small amounts of dairy such as Greek yoghurt or paneer are beneficial sources of protein. The trick is to listen to your body – if you feel dairy worsens your acne or your body is intolerant to it, it is best to replace it with non-dairy products such as almond or soy milk.
Insulin increases your appetite, which might be one reason why women with PCOS crave carbohydrates. When you eat sugar, especially processed foods, it instantly spikes your insulin levels and too much insulin can result in weight gain and high male hormone levels. Sugar can also increase inflammation which is not desirable for PCOS. It is best to cut down on packaged snacks and baked goods and instead switch to healthier options of sugar such as a whole fruit or a small piece of 70% or greater dark chocolate. Although a small portion of dark chocolate is OK, it is important to keep it in moderation.
However, good nutrition is only one part of the equation. Research shows that incorporating regular physical activity such as 30 minutes of cardio along with strength training is helpful for weight loss, maintaining insulin levels and eventually reversing PCOS symptoms.
If you experience any of the above symptoms, it is best to visit a doctor to get a proper diagnosis. While these symptoms don’t necessarily mean you have PCOS, they could also be underlying symptoms of other conditions. Early detection and treatment can make a huge difference in managing your PCOS and maintaining your overall health.
Disclaimer: Content on Veera is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice, or as a substitute for medical advice given by a physician