Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a common health condition experienced by one out of 10 women of childbearing age. PCOS can also lead to other serious health challenges, such as diabetes, cardiovascular problems, depression, and increased risk of endometrial cancer.
Some research has shown that diet can help reduce the impact of PCOS. Learn more about a PCOS diet in this article.
How does diet affect PCOS?
A diet that includes high-fiber foods may benefit people with PCOS.
Two of the primary ways that diet affects PCOS are weight management and insulin production and resistance.
However, insulin plays a significant role in PCOS, so managing insulin levels with a PCOS diet is one of the best steps people can take to manage the condition.
Many people with PCOS have insulin resistance. In fact, more than 50 percent of those with PCOS develop diabetes or pre-diabetes before the age of 40. Diabetes is directly related to how the body processes insulin.
Following a diet that meets a person's nutritional needs, maintains a healthy weight, and promotes good insulin levels can help people with PCOS feel better.
Foods to eat
Research has found that what people eat has a significant effect on PCOS. That said, there is currently no standard diet for PCOS.
However, there is widespread agreement about which foods are beneficial and seem to help people manage their condition, and which foods to avoid.
Three diets that may help people with PCOS manage their symptoms are:
- A low glycemic index (GI) diet: The body digests foods with a low GI more slowly, meaning they do not cause insulin levels to rise as much or as quickly as other foods, such as some carbohydrates. Foods in a low GI diet include whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits, starchy vegetables, and other unprocessed, low-carbohydrate foods.
- An anti-inflammatory diet: Anti-inflammatory foods, such as berries, fatty fish, leafy greens, and extra virgin olive oil, may reduce inflammation-related symptoms, such as fatigue.
- The DASH diet: Doctors often recommend the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet to reduce the risk or impact of heart disease. It may also help manage PCOS symptoms. A DASH diet is rich in fish, poultry, fruits, vegetables whole grain, and low-fat dairy produce. The diet discourages foods that are high in saturated fat and sugar.
A 2015 study found that obese women who followed a specially-designed DASH diet for 8 weeks saw a reduction in insulin resistance and belly fat compared to those that did not follow the same diet.
A healthful PCOS diet can also include the following foods:
- natural, unprocessed foods
- high-fiber foods
- fatty fish, including salmon, tuna, sardines, and mackerel
- kale, spinach, and other dark, leafy greens
- dark red fruits, such as red grapes, blueberries, blackberries, and cherries
- broccoli and cauliflower
- dried beans, lentils, and other legumes
- healthful fats, such as olive oil, as well as avocados and coconuts
- nuts, including pine nuts, walnuts, almonds, and pistachios
- dark chocolate in moderation
- spices, such as turmeric and cinnamon
Researchers looking at a range of healthful diet plans found the following slight differences. For example:
- Individuals lost more weight with a diet emphasizing mono-unsaturated fats rather than saturated fats. An example of this kind of diet is the anti-inflammatory diet, which encourages people to eat plant-based fats, such as olive and other vegetable oils.
- People who followed a low-carbohydrate or a low-GI diet saw improved insulin metabolism and lower cholesterol levels. People with PCOS who followed a low-GI diet also reported a better quality of life and more regular periods.
In general, studies have found that losing weight helps women with PCOS, regardless of which specific kind of diet they follow.
Foods to avoid
People on a PCOS diet should avoid sugary beverages.
In general, people on a PCOS diet should avoid foods already widely seen as unhealthful. These include:
- Refined carbohydrates, such as mass-produced pastries and white bread.
- Fried foods, such as fast food.
- Sugary beverages, such as sodas and energy drinks.
- Processed meats, such as hot dogs, sausages, and luncheon meats.
- Solid fats, including margarine, shortening, and lard.
- Excess red meat, such as steaks, hamburgers, and pork.
Other lifestyle changes
Lifestyle changes can also help people with PCOS manage the condition. Research has shown that combining a PCOS diet with physical activity can lead to the following benefits:
- weight loss
- improved insulin metabolism
- more regular periods
- reduced levels of male hormones and male-pattern hair growth
- lower cholesterol levels
Studies have also found that behavioral strategies can help women achieve the weight management goals that, in turn, help manage PCOS symptoms. These practices include:
- social support networks
- self-monitoring techniques
- caring for psychological well-being
Reducing stress through self-care practices, such as getting enough sleep, avoiding over-commitment, and making time to relax, can also help a person manage PCOS.
When to see a doctor
Common PCOS symptoms include:
- extra hair growth
- weight gain, especially around the belly
- oily skin
- irregular periods
- discomfort in the pelvic area
- difficulty getting pregnant
Many people who experience these symptoms may not consider them serious enough to discuss with a doctor. Many people do not seek medical help until they have trouble conceiving.
Anyone experiencing these symptoms should discuss their concerns with a doctor: the sooner they can begin a treatment plan the sooner they can feel better.
Although there is currently no cure for PCOS, it is possible for a person to reduce their symptoms and improve their quality of life by adopting a healthful diet and becoming more physically active.
Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight and eating healthful fats, lean proteins, and moderate amounts of low-GI carbohydrates can help a person manage PCOS.