Food can have a major impact on your condition. Here, how to design the best diet for PCOS — and feel better, naturally.
When it comes to polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), the old adage "food is medicine" couldn’t be more applicable. That’s because the hormonal disorder is closely connected to insulin levels, so what you do and don't eat — i.e. a PCOS diet — can significantly influence how you feel.
Affecting about 6 to 12 percent of people born female in the United States, PCOS is characterized by excess production of male hormones called androgens. This can lead to a myriad of health issues, such as reduced fertility, irregular periods, ovarian cysts, acne and unintentional weight gain, according to the Office on Women’s Health (OASH).
And while there’s no cure for PCOS, your dietary habits can play a big role in the state of your condition. Read on to learn about the basics of a PCOS diet, plus how to figure out what works best for you, all according to experts.
How Does Diet Affect PCOS?
Although the exact cause of PCOS is unknown, the disorder is often associated with insulin resistance, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This is when the body doesn’t respond to insulin — a hormone that’s responsible for shuttling blood glucose into cells to be used for energy — effectively. As a result, glucose remains in the bloodstream, causing "a loop where the pancreas is producing and secreting more insulin in hopes of the cells responding to [insulin]," explains Christina Negrete, MPH, RDN, CDN, registered dietitian at LK Nutrition. The resulting high insulin levels can not only increase your risk of developing diabetes, but they can also encourage your ovaries and adrenal glands to produce more androgens, further contributing (or even exacerbating) PCOS symptoms, according to the PCOS Awareness Association.
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So where does diet fit in? When you eat, food breaks down into glucose and enters the bloodstream. This raises your blood sugar levels, triggering your pancreas to make insulin and help glucose enter your cells. But some foods can cause drastic spikes in blood glucose, resulting in even higher insulin levels and therefore, excess androgens.
PCOS also can also cause low-grade inflammation, according to a 2020 scientific article. And food can increase or decrease this inflammation, depending on the nutrients it holds.
What Does a PCOS Diet Look Like?
Generally, the goal of a PCOS diet is to manage symptoms by stabilizing blood sugar and reducing inflammation.
To do this, it emphasizes anti-inflammatory foods, such as nutrient-dense, lean proteins, healthy fats and lots of veggies, explains Lauren Burkowski, MS, Health Coach at THE WELL New York. It also places more focus on complex carbohydrates, which are high in fiber and low in sugar, which can help manage insulin levels and, thus, PCOS.
It’s important to note that a PCOS diet is not about strictly eating this or that food. Instead, it’s about bringing certain eats to the forefront of your plate (so-to-speak) while allowing some space for others. As Negrete points out, "all foods are able to fit into a diet, even [for] someone who has PCOS."
That said, if you’re wondering if a PCOS diet is for you, know that the ideal eating plan is different for each person. PCOS cannot be managed by a single diet, and individualized nutrition support is key, says Negrete. (As is receiving adequate medical attention, such as by, say, an endocrinologist or a functional medicine practitioner.)
Foods to Eat
As a form of nourishment and holistic medicine, food is crucial for managing your symptoms. Here are several foods that may help provide relief.
Low-Glycemic Fruits and Vegetables
The glycemic index (GI) is a system that organizes food based on how quickly it raises blood glucose levels. Each food is assigned a number; those with lower numbers (aka low-GI foods) increase your blood glucose more slowly, making them a fit for a PCOS diet. Bess Berger, RDN, CDN, CLT, registered dietitian and founder of Nutrition by Bess, suggests berries (think: blueberries and strawberries), as they have a minimal effect on blood glucose and insulin resistance. Other options include green vegetables (e.g. spinach, broccoli), oranges and apples.
Omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory, meaning they can reduce the inflammation involved in PCOS, says Burkowski, who calls out fatty fish, such as salmon and sardines, as nutrient-rich lean proteins that often fit seamlesly into a PCOS diet. Nuts (e.g. walnuts, almonds) are also great options for omega-3 fatty acids, adds Berger.
Probiotic foods — e.g. yogurt, kimchi, kombucha — are a source of “good” gut bacteria, which can help prevent gut imbalance (dysbiosis), a situation that can also trigger insulin resistance and worsen PCOS, according to a 2021 scientific review. Negrete points out that probiotics are also beneficial for regulating inflammation and androgens — both of which play a role in PCOS.
“High-fiber foods, such as vegetables and legumes, can help keep you satiated [for a long time],” shares Burkowski. This is ideal for weight management in PCOS, she says. As mentioned above, unintentional weight gain is a symptom of PCOS, so healthy weight management can specifically target that symptom and, in turn, improve your overall condition, per the OASH. Furthermore, fiber slows down glucose absorption, which can help stabilize blood sugar. Other high-fiber foods include whole grains, barley and quinoa.
Foods to Limit
When it comes to foods that could exacerbate or trigger PCOS symptoms, consider looking at them as items you may want to be more mindful of, rather than things to avoid, suggests Negrete. This mindset will give yourself grace as you learn which eats work for you and your PCOS diet.
Artificially Sweetened Foods
In some people with the hormonal condition, foods with artificial sweeteners (e.g. sorbitol, xylitol) can trigger PCOS symptoms, says Negrete. This may be due to the inflammatory effects of the ingredients, according to a 2021 scientific review. In general, however, sugar substitutes are often worth limiting, as they’re known to wreak havoc on the gut, causing gas, cramps and diarrhea. So whether you have PCOS, a sensitive stomach or both, consider steering clear of processed foods such as soft drinks, candies and puddings — all of which are common sources of fake sugars.
High-Glycemic Fruits and Vegetables
The opposite of low-GI foods (which, remember, are PCOS diet-approved), high-GI foods quickly increase your blood sugar. This can raise insulin production, potentially leading to inflammation and worsening PCOS symptoms. Examples of high-GI fruits and vegetables include potatoes, watermelon and dates.
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Similarly, refined carbs can lead to spikes in blood sugar and overall inflammation in the body — something you want to avoid with PCOS, says Burkowski. White bread and white pasta are two good examples of these not-so-PCOS-friendly foods.