Polycystic ovarian syndrome affects a significant number of women of childbearing age, with 1 in 10 suffering from the condition.
Many women are misdiagnosed with the condition, which can mean that they don’t pick up on it until they are trying to conceive.
PCOS is an imbalance of reproductive hormones, which can also have an effect on metabolism and insulin levels.
As it has an effect on the metabolism, women suffering from PCOS could have an increased risk of developing other health complications like diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, depression, or even endometrial cancer.
For example, studies found that more than half of women with PCOS developed either diabetes or pre-diabetes before the age of 40.
For this reason, women with PCOS have been turning to their diet to try to alleviate the symptoms and prevent the condition from worsening over time.
So which foods should you enjoy, and which should you steer clear of if you’re suffering from PCOS? We break down the main ones below.
Foods to Avoid with PCOS
While there’s no one diet that is considered to be THE one to help with PCOS, there is evidence that certain foods can help and that others should best be avoided.
There is still ongoing debate over which ones are ultimately beneficial for PCOS, but some small studies are giving signs that these foods are best avoided.
Processed Foods with a High Glycaemic Index
The glycaemic index or GI rates how quickly your food affects your blood sugar levels–or glucose – when eaten on its own. Lower glycaemic index foods like vegetables and pulses release energy slowly over a longer period of time.
High glycaemic index foods result in a sharp spike in blood sugar and therefore affect insulin levels too.
As insulin plays a big role in PCOS, having a diet that manages glucose levels and keeps them more stable over a longer period of time can help.
Foods to avoid:
- Sugary foods and sugar itself
- White bread
- White rice
Instead, you could opt for:
- Low GI fruits (like berries)
- Whole Grain foods
Cow’s milk contains IGF-1 or insulin growth factor 1. This is a hormone that is similar to insulin both in its structure and its activity. It also occurs naturally in our bodies.
Women with PCOS tend to have higher than normal levels of IGF-1, anyway. Drinking dairy can increase the IGF-1 levels further, and even though it is a small increase, it can have an effect on them.
Also, a number of farms still use hormones and antibiotics when treating cows, and there are concerns that these could also affect women with PCOS.
For these reasons, it’s often advised to avoid dairy to see if it helps alleviate PCOS symptoms.
Saturated or hydrogenated Fats
Any kind of ‘unhealthy fat’ can make PCOS symptoms worse as they increase the body’s oestrogen levels.
They could also cause weight gain, which is also not advised for women with PCOS. In fact, the opposite – losing excess weight and maintaining a healthy body weight – is considered to be helpful instead.
Some of these ‘unhealthy fats’ are:
- Fatty cuts of red meat
- Certain meat products like sausages
- Butter, ghee, and lard
- Hard yellow cheeses
- Salty snacks
- Biscuits, cakes, and pastries
Instead, you could choose foods that are higher in healthier fats:
- Whole eggs
- Fatty fish
- Olive oil
Soy and Soy Products
Soy products may increase oestrogen levels. As women suffering from PCOS tend to have high oestrogen levels anyway, there is some evidence that soy and many soy products should be avoided.
However, the research is still being debated, so the advice to avoid soy is more precautionary than one backed by definitive research.
Inflammatory Foods like Gluten
We’ve already mentioned other inflammatory foods like dairy products, processed foods, and unhealthy fats as ones to avoid.
Another food that may be worth removing is ‘gluten.’
There is no evidence that women with PCOS have a gluten intolerance, but it is considered to be an ‘inflammatory’ food. Cutting out gluten may reduce the symptoms of PCOS related to having this inflammation.
There have also been some positive signs that following an anti-inflammatory diet could help regulate PCOS symptoms.
A small review, which was published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, found that as many as 63% of women recovered menstrual regularity after following a specific anti-inflammatory diet. 12% of women conceived. Both of these are encouraging results.
The diet was rich in anti-inflammatory foods such as:
- Fatty fish
- Olive oil
- Green tea
It should also be mentioned though, that the women in the study lost 7% of their body weight as well. The diet was generally low calorie, low fat, and low glycemic index with some high fibre foods.
Therefore, it’s not clear whether it was the weight loss that helped alleviate the symptoms of PCOS or the anti-inflammatory nature of the foods (or both together).
So, where should I start?
While there is still debate over the exact diet that women with PCOS should follow, the signs seem to be pointing towards an anti-inflammatory diet, which also helps us to maintain a good weight.
Low GI foods can assist with weight management and with PCOS by keeping glucose and insulin levels stable.
On the other hand, avoiding inflammatory foods like dairy, gluten, processed foods, and unhealthy fats could help with the symptoms of PCOS. This is both through avoiding inflammation and avoiding weight gain through unhealthy fats.
These are all great places to start when trying to use diet as a way to help with PCOS.
The above information is for general informational purposes only and is not intended as, nor should it be considered, a substitute for professional medical advice. Do not use this information for diagnosing or treating any medical condition. Always consult a doctor if you have specific health concerns that you want to address with your diet, as everyone’s situation is unique.