If you’re dealing with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), you’re in the company of roughly 1 out of every 15 women in the U.S. who have the condition. Your hormones become unbalanced, which can affect how you look and feel, your menstrual cycle, and your fertility.
You have a greater risk of developing PCOS if another woman in your family also had small cysts on her ovaries. It’s these cysts that cause the hormone imbalance.
Although it’s not 100 percent clear why these cysts develop, what is clear is that your risk for diabetes is higher: about 50 percent of PCOS sufferers have diabetes or pre-diabetes. It’s similar to metabolic syndrome in that you’re at increased risk for heart attack, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, as well as anxiety and depression.
Therefore, you need to be extra diligent about your diet and choosing nutritious foods — which can be a powerful prevention tool.
Hone in on PCOS hormones
The hormonal changes you experience with PCOS have everything to do with the fact that these cysts impair the regular functions of your ovaries:
You produce more androgens such as testosterone, the male sex hormone. Ovulation is impaired, so you may have abnormal menstrual cycles as well as difficulty with fertility. Too much male hormone also causes acne and hirsutism, or unwanted facial and body hair.
You have difficulty processing insulin. When your blood sugar levels are high, and insulin isn’t able to clear it out like it’s supposed to, your pancreas works harder and harder to pump out more insulin to control your blood sugar levels.
Over time, your cells become less and less sensitive to insulin, resulting in insulin resistance with an increased risk for diabetes. Being unable to use glucose for energy, your body then stores it as fat.
Too much insulin and androgen leads to accumulating more abdominal, or visceral, fat around your organs. You can be at a healthy weight but still have too much of this fat, which puts you at increased risk for metabolic disease. But this isn’t the norm — about 80 percent of women with PCOS are overweight or obese.
Your hunger hormone, ghrelin, could be disregulated. This means that you may be more hungry and less able to sense your satiety, or fullness.
Research shows that a combination of diet and prescribed medication, such as oral hypoglycemic agents used for diabetes, can help regulate your menstrual cycles, fertility, and overall health. The most effective diet for PCOS focuses on aspects to improve your insulin sensitivity and reduce your weight.
Make your diet PCOS-friendly
Although you’ve got to cut calories for weight loss, making that strategy effective for PCOS means not cutting out too many and packing the most nutrition you can into the calories you do eat. To lose weight at a steady rate, you need to reduce about 500 calories from your diet (or increase exercise to burn 500, or do a mixture of both) per day — without dipping below 1,200 calories, which can slow your metabolism.
The goals of nutrition therapy with PCOS are weight loss if you’re overweight, reducing your body fat percentage (if you’re over 31 percent body fat), optimizing blood glucose control, and balancing out your hormones overall.
When restricting your diet and getting nutritious foods, especially with a hormone-disrupting condition like PCOS, you need to make sure you’re satisfied with the foods that you eat. If you feel hungry or deprived, something’s got to give. You’re probably not feeding yourself properly and you won’t be able to sustain that in the long run. For a well-rounded diet with PCOS, focus on getting enough:
Fiber. Fiber helps buffer the impact that carbohydrates have on your blood glucose levels. That’s because fiber takes longer to be digested and isn’t quickly absorbed like refined carbohydrates, which cause rapid peaks and drops in blood glucose. Because of the extra time for digestion, fiber helps keep you fuller longer. Aim for about 25–40 grams per day from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes.
Magnesium. Women with PCOS have significantly lower levels of the mineral magnesium, so getting more through your diet may help the risk factors that come along with PCOS as well.
Vitamin B12. All the B vitamins function to help your body convert nutrients to energy, but lower levels of B12 have been observed specifically in women with PCOS. Because B12 is mainly found in animal products, if you’re following a vegetarian or vegan diet, you may need a supplement.
Omega 3 fatty acids. Not only are omega-3 fatty acids beneficial to reducing inflammation and improving blood cholesterol levels, they’re also may help lower the male sex hormone, decreasing unwanted side effects like facial hair.
Zinc. Zinc is a mineral that may also help increase circulating leptin to help you become more in tune with your physical hunger. Start off your meal with oysters, which are a great source of zinc, as well as whole grains and red meat.
Calcium and vitamin D. Most women with PCOS, and many who are infertile, are also deficient in vitamin D and calcium. The two go hand in hand. Calcium may improve insulin sensitivity and requires vitamin D for absorption, and they both are required for ovarian follicle development. If you can’t get enough from food, there may be cause to take supplements.
Fight back against insulin resistance to reduce your risk of developing diabetes with PCOS:
Monitor your caffeine intake. It’s possible that too much caffeine can reduce insulin sensitivity by up to 15 percent, according to a study published in Diabetes Care. So if you typically pound several cups of coffee or diet soda, consider cutting back or avoiding caffeine completely.
Limit refined carbohydrates. This isn’t to say a piece of white bread can never pass your lips, but too much refined carbohydrates leads to more erratic blood glucose levels.
Don’t forget about activity. Exercise helps improve insulin sensitivity and boosts your weight loss overall.