Best Diet for PCOS
Learn the best diet for PCOS to help with weight loss, infertility, and other symptoms. Your food choices and other lifestyle practices can help manage PCOS naturally.
Before we get into the specifics of the best PCOS diet, let’s go over the basics of this disorder and why it happens.
What is PCOS?
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, or PCOS, is considered a hormonal condition that can cause small cysts (or what looks like cysts on an ultrasound) to form on the ovaries. This results from a hormonal imbalance in the body. Approximately 1 in 10 women of child-bearing age are affected by PCOS.
Women with PCOS typically have higher levels of androgens, which are “male” hormones (though women have them too, just in smaller amounts!) that include testosterone, androstenedione, and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), among others.
Those with PCOS also often experience higher levels of insulin or insulin resistance. Symptoms of PCOS can include:
- male pattern hair growth
- difficulty with weight management
- irregular or missing periods
- stress and anxiety
PCOS is a very common condition that’s considered irreversible with permanent potential effects like infertility and diabetes. However, with proper diet and lifestyle, you could potentially put PCOS into remission, balance your hormones, and conceive naturally.
Learn more about PCOS and Endometriosis, including their similarities and differences.
Different Types of PCOS
There are actually several types of PCOS in women. Here’s the three most commonly recognized types.
This type is the most common and is characterized by high insulin levels in the body impeding ovulation. Excessive insulin levels trigger your ovaries to put ovulation on hold and instead increase testosterone.
When women of child-bearing age don’t ovulate, the body is unable to make sufficient levels of estradiol and progesterone to balance the testosterone. When you have insulin resistance, your body is less sensitive to the surges of insulin released after eating. This forces your body to produce more and more until your liver and muscles respond.
This type of PCOS is thought to be brought about by poor diet (especially one high in sugar), stress, and environmental toxins.
This type looks a little different than its more common sister, insulin-resistant PCOS. Inflammation-based PCOS is PCOS resulting from chronic systemic inflammation. Women with this type often have other issues like intestinal permeability (leaky gut), skin conditions, joint pain, and other biomarkers of inflammation.
Chronic inflammation signals your body to stop ovulation, again preventing proper estradiol and progesterone balance against androgens. This type of PCOS is usually caused by stress, environmental toxins, and an inflammatory diet causing intestinal permeability.
3. Synthetic hormone-induced
Synthetic hormone-induced PCOS, also known as post-pill PCOS, results when a woman goes off her hormonal birth control. When you’re on hormonal birth control, you are not producing your own hormones–instead, the birth control is supplying you with steady levels of artificial estrogen and progestins and suppressing ovulation (which we already know is a factor in PCOS!)
Over time, this can down-regulate your body’s natural ability to produce its own hormones by preventing communication between your pituitary gland and your ovaries. With no artificial hormones and now difficulty producing natural hormones, your body responds with a hormonal condition like PCOS.
Treatments for PCOS
Now that we’ve gone over the basics of PCOS and some reasons why it can occur, let’s talk about the best PCOS diet for women and how to manage symptoms using natural and holistic methods.
Conventional dietary advice
Conventional medicine treatments for PCOS often include medications like hormonal birth control, metformin (to prevent diabetes), statins (to lower cholesterol), other synthetic hormones to fight androgen dominance, and hair growth inhibitor drugs or treatments (for cosmetic reasons).
Not only do conventional treatments only mask the symptoms of PCOS and not really help manage the root causes, but these drugs can have negative side effects that can potentially be irreversible. I took hormonal birth control for almost 15 years without understanding that it was negatively affecting my mood and causing migraines.
I highly recommend the book Beyond the Pill: A 30-Day Program to Balance Your Hormones, Reclaim Your Body, and Reverse the Dangerous Side Effects of the Birth Control Pill by Jolene Brighten, N.D. for any woman on the pill.
Holistic and functional medicine advice
On the flip side, functional medicine and holistic practitioners believe that the symptoms of PCOS can be managed very well through diet and lifestyle techniques. For example, they often say that dairy and gluten should be avoided with PCOS. A fat-free diet is also a poor recommendation because not consuming enough healthy fats can impair a woman’s ability to make hormones.
That said, there is no automatic blueprint for a PCOS diet. Every woman is unique and special, and every woman deserves an individual solution tailored to her needs. What everyone can agree on is that a real food, clean-eating diet rich in vegetables can help. Regardless of what type of PCOS you have, eating real, whole foods is key!
Women with insulin-resistant PCOS may find it helpful to lower their carbohydrate intake, increase protein and healthy fat intake, and avoid refined sugars. This will help normalize your insulin response and give your body a break from constant insulin overproduction. Stabilizing your blood sugar will go a long way to helping manage your PCOS.
Those with inflammation-based PCOS should focus on anti-inflammatory and gut-healing foods, and pay attention to food allergies and sensitivities. A varied diet is key for anyone with a compromised gut, as sensitivities and allergies often form for foods we eat constantly.
Women attempting to stabilize synthetic hormone-induced PCOS may find it especially helpful to focus on foods high in zinc (oysters, pumpkin seeds, grass-fed beef), B-vitamins (nuts and seeds, grass-fed beef, avocado), magnesium (leafy greens, dark chocolate) and Vitamin D (pasture-raised eggs, wild-caught salmon and sardines).
Hormonal birth control robs your body of these essential nutrients, so making them a priority in your diet can help your body adjust. It may also be important for women with PCOS to take higher levels of fish oil.
Incidentally, most of this advice to decrease inflammation and increase nutrition is very closely related to the best diet for fertility. You should also read my article on how to eat for your menstrual cycle.
Why You Should Consider Avoiding Dairy
You will want to avoid conventional dairy products and even grass-fed dairy until any intestinal permeability or inflammation improves, or keep them permanently out of your diet. Dairy is inflammatory for many people due to the A1 casein.
In addition, all dairy contains hormones. Even grass-fed, raw dairy contains natural hormones that can interfere with your own. Grass-fed butter, ghee, and sheep’s milk dairy are nutrient-dense foods, but they are best to avoid when you’re attempting to manage your PCOS.
Read more about the health reasons to go dairy-free.
Why You Should Consider Avoiding Gluten
Many people are familiar with gluten sensitivities and conditions like celiac disease. But avoiding gluten is also crucial for anyone on a healing journey. Gluten is a protein found in some grains (including wheat) that causes small tears in the intestinal tract, and thus inflammation and increased probability of intestinal permeability.
Foods containing gluten are naturally high in carbohydrates and inflammatory proteins, making them ideal to avoid no matter what type of PCOS you have. Read more about why gluten is bad; there are at least six reasons you might want to consider.
Why You Should Avoid Sugar
Everyone can agree that less sugar is a good thing for your health! Sugar, whether artificial or natural, spikes your blood sugar and insulin and causes inflammation in the body.
Sugar is an addictive substance that produces opioids and dopamine in the brain. Avoid refined sugars to lower inflammation and reduce blood sugar swings. Read more about how to follow a no sugar diet. You can also check out my sugar detox plan.
Best Diet for PCOS
Breakfast sets you up for success for the rest of your day. If you eat a proper breakfast, you’ll experience steadier blood sugar, better stress responses, and more energy.
We are most insulin sensitive first thing in the morning, since nighttime and sleep are a natural way of fasting. Rather than shocking the system with sugar and carbohydrates, ease into digestion with a breakfast high in healthy fats and protein.
Adding in green veggies (like in a green smoothie) will get you started with some vitamins and minerals. You won’t overtax your body with insulin production and you’ll stay satiated longer. Add a scoop of paleo protein powder to increase the protein content of your smoothie (see my recipe for a creamy Detox Smoothie).
You should also avoid drinking any sugary beverages in the morning. Stick with sugar-free options like plain coffee or consider my recipe for Lemon Cinnamon Water.
And, don’t be tempted with the stories about intermittent fasting and skipping breakfast. You’re better off eating a solid breakfast (see my article for why intermittent fasting is bad for women).
About 4-5 hours after you’ve eaten a solid breakfast, you’ll likely be ready for a nourishing lunch.
I like to make a salad with lots of raw vegetables for lunch, topped with a lean protein and maybe a side of gluten-free toast or a carbohydrate.
To end the day, it’s important to have a balanced meal with protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Stick with complex carbs like sweet potatoes.
For recipe ideas, check out my list of the best gluten-free dairy-free meals.
Conventional medicine says no. However, there have been several women who have reversed or sent their PCOS into remission with lifestyle and diet. PCOS does not have to dominate your life.
By taking care of your body and following a healthy healing protocol and taking PCOS supplements, you can diminish and even reverse your symptoms and condition. In fact, you’ll likely be in better hormonal health than ever by implementing healthy PCOS-managing strategies.
This is an important question, especially since many women do become overweight before getting their PCOS under control. Make your health your priority. Clean eating, plentiful sleep, moderate exercise, and stress management are the biggest keys to overall health and crucial for hormonal conditions like PCOS.
When you focus on health, you likely will find that weight loss comes naturally and easily. If you find that you can’t lose weight no matter what, there may be other health and lifestyle issues that you need to work on.
Weight Loss Tips for PCOS
1. Don’t restrict calories, just eat clean!
Lean proteins, legumes, low-sugar fruits, veggies, gluten-free whole grains, nuts and seeds, and healthy fats will keep you satiated. You’ll also lose some inflammation weight when you focus on an anti-inflammatory diet.
2. Exercise moderately
Don’t feel compelled to engage in chronic cardio or an aggressive exercise routine. This will not help you lose weight, and may actually make you gain more as you stress out your body.
Focus on gentle daily movement (take the stairs instead of the elevator!) with a few strength-based workouts per week. Don’t overdo it–if you’re sore for days afterward, you’ve gone too far! Walking is excellent exercise for women with PCOS. It helps to manage insulin, doesn’t drive up inflammation, can help with weight loss, and can improve mood.
3. Focus on sleep and stress management
These are absolutely key for your hormonal health, and thus your weight management. Lack of proper sleep has been linked to impaired blood sugar regulation, thus causing inflammation and weight gain as your cortisol spikes.
Aim for 8-9 hours per night of quality, steady sleep so your body can repair and heal itself. Make self-care a non-negotiable part of your routine–stress is a factor in inflammation and many chronic diseases.
My PCOS started early, around age 11. My home life was chaotic and stressful and so I think I had the inflammation type of PCOS. I also think I have a genetic component to it, because my sister also has PCOS.
I wasn’t formally diagnosed with PCOS until decades later. In fact, I had never really heard of PCOS until my sister was diagnosed after she had a hard time getting pregnant.
Once I read more about PCOS, it explained so much about my symptoms. I had been on birth control pills from about age 19-32, so it wasn’t until I got off hormonal birth control that I was forced to manage my symptoms holistically.
Going gluten free, dairy free, and sugar free, plus managing stress and getting enough sleep are the keys to managing my PCOS. I have regular menstrual cycles now, and my other symptoms are manageable. I take a lot of PCOS supplements to help manage it too.
There are constant developments in the scientific community about the management of PCOS and its troublesome symptoms. Here are some of my favorite resources to stay updated on PCOS:
- Period Repair Manual: Natural Treatment for Better Hormones and Better Periods (2nd edition) by Lara Briden, N.D.
- Beyond the Pill: A 30-Day Program to Balance Your Hormones, Reclaim Your Body, and Reverse the Dangerous Side Effects of the Birth Control Pill by Jolene Brighten, N.D.
- 8 Steps to Reverse Your PCOS: A Proven Program to Reset Your Hormones, Repair Your Metabolism, and Restore Your Fertility by Fiona McCulloch, N.D.
There may not be one diet for all women with PCOS, but most experts agree that a healthy diet filled with lots of whole foods is a good starting point. You can try going gluten-free and dairy-free to see if that helps improve symptoms, and you might also consider reducing your intake of sugar.
In addition to watching what you eat, you might also want to manage stress, make sure you get enough sleep, and practice other healthy habits to help reduce symptoms of PCOS.
Note: this post is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your healthcare provider for recommendations related to your individual situation.
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