Recently diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome? Learn how to eat for PCOS management, including the best diets for PCOS symptoms and which foods to avoid.
- How to eat for PCOS will vary person to person: Polycystic ovary syndrome is a complex condition that affects hormones and metabolism.
- Losing as little as 4-5 percent of your body weight can lead to improvement in PCOS symptoms.
- PCOS weight loss can be harder than it is for people without PCOS.
- Some diets, such as low-glycemic index and anti-inflammatory diets, show promising results in PCOS patients.
- Healthy food choices for PCOS include fish, fiber-rich vegetables, and olive oil.
- Avoid refined sugars and processed meats.
- Because there is no single answer to the question of “how to eat for PCOS,” getting individual nutritional support is the best solution.
If you’ve been recently diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome, you may be unsure of how to eat for PCOS symptoms. Because PCOS is a condition that affects your hormones and metabolism, a healthy diet is a must.
Dietary challenges of PCOS
PCOS affects as many as 5 million women and others with ovaries of reproductive age in the U.S. It’s a condition that’s characterized by hormone imbalances. People who have PCOS have problems with ovulation and are at increased risk of infertility. Some develop cysts (fluid-filled sacs) on their ovaries.
People with PCOS often struggle with metabolic issues as well. These include:
- Insulin resistance
Researchers still don’t understand whether PCOS leads to obesity or the other way around, but they do know that losing weight helps people manage their insulin resistance. For some, it can improve hormonal health and fertility.
According to one study, a weight reduction of only 4-5 percent resulted in better insulin and glucose control in participants with PCOS.
Unfortunately, it’s more difficult to lose weight when you have PCOS. We don’t exactly know why, but experts have some ideas:
- Elevated insulin levels can inhibit weight loss.
- High androgen levels can cause weight gain.
- Women with PCOS are more likely to have an underactive thyroid, which causes weight gain.
- Yo-yo dieting can cause weight gain.
All these physical changes affect your mental state, too. You may stress or swing into depressive moods easily. PCOS pain can prevent you from focusing on the right nutrition. And eating comfort foods can seem like an easy way to feel better. Even if you diet and exercise, progress may be slow, and you may get discouraged.
How to eat for PCOS
Unfortunately, current research doesn’t support a single dietary plan that works for all people with PCOS. This is partially because PCOS is a syndrome with a set of co-occurring symptoms, not a disease. That means that two people with PCOS can have different symptoms.
Working with your healthcare provider and a nutritionist or dietitian will help you find the optimal solutions for your specific symptoms and life goals.
For example, if you are planning to become pregnant, your nutritionist can suggest an eating plan for improving menstrual cycle health and increasing fertility.
Maintaining a healthy weight is key to improving PCOS symptoms. If you are overweight, losing weight and keeping it off is perhaps the most effective change you can make toward feeling better.
In fact, there is widespread agreement that maintaining a healthy weight is essential to management of PCOS symptoms. And while there is no conclusive evidence that any one diet is best for all people with PCOS, research does suggest that it’s possible to get relief from PCOS symptoms with dietary changes.
Here are a few diets that have scientific support for management of PCOS symptoms.
Diets that may improve PCOS symptoms
Insulin resistance and diabetes are common among people with PCOS. Doctors and dietitians often recommend low-glycemic-index nutrition for those at risk. The results of a 2010 study look promising: Those who followed a low-glycemic-index diet saw improved insulin sensitivity as well as improved menstrual cycle regularity.
Inflammation is the body’s response to illness or injury. But in PCOS patients, inflammation is a chronic condition that can lead to more health complications.
A 2015 study on the effects of an anti-inflammatory diet delivered interesting results. After 12 weeks on the diet, participants achieved an average 7% weight loss and a 63% improvement in menstrual cycle regularity.
The Mediterranean diet is an example of an anti-inflammatory diet that has been linked to decreased severity of symptoms, including insulin resistance and increased androgen levels (another hallmark of PCOS), in people with the condition.
A 2015 study found that an eight-week low starch/low-dairy eight-week diet led to weight loss, reduction of testosterone levels (a common issue with PCOS), and improvement of insulin sensitivity in PCOS participants with excessive weight or obesity.
Subjects did not count calories; they only modified their food choices.
A randomized controlled trial on managing PCOS with the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet revealed improvement of insulin resistance and inflammation markers. People who ate according to the DASH principles lost weight around the waist and hips.
Combining diet with medication for people with obesity in PCOS
A 2017 systematic review of diets for PCOS suggests that combining lifestyle changes with Western treatments could help achieve long-term effects in weight loss. If PCOS weight loss is your goal, this approach may be the best way to achieve it.
We recommend talking with a qualified nutritionist or dietitian. They can help you pinpoint foods that may be worsening your symptoms and those that may help you feel better.
Foods to eat and foods to avoid
This section is for those who would rather not commit to a formal diet. If you’re overweight, losing weight is critical. But with chronic conditions, it’s also important to stimulate your body’s natural defenses and restore hormonal balance.
Being intentional about the foods you eat is a good starting point.
Foods to eat for PCOS symptom control
- Choose good oils. Extra virgin olive oil is your best bet. This is the foundation of the Mediterranean diet, generally considered to be one of the best eating plans for most people.
- Eat more lean meat and fish. Ditch those steaks and burgers and stick to light poultry dishes. Make sure to put fish and seafood on your table more often. Choose salmon for lunch — it’s an excellent source of healthy fats and often recommended for people with PCOS.
- Veggies and fruit are your best friends. Choosing fiber-rich options helps you stay full and stick to your calorie goals. According to a 2019 study, people with PCOS who did not consume enough fiber had more problems with insulin resistance.
The good news is that adding more vegetables and fruit to your meals can help. Aim for more peas and broccoli. Make friends with those brussels sprouts (they taste great when roasted!) and have some raspberries and pears for dessert.
Foods to avoid for PCOS symptom control
As you work toward eliminating “bad” foods from your diet, remember that you don’t have to do it all at once. Go step-by-step and replace unhealthy products with wholesome alternatives.
- Refined carbs. Eliminate or reduce sweets, pastry, and sugary drinks. Switch from white bread to whole-grain or multigrain. Try switching from high-carb sweets to fruit for dessert.
- Processed and fatty meats. Spend some time preparing your meals at home instead of going for fast-food options, like burgers or hot dogs. Eat more lean meat like chicken and turkey and less red meat. (Look for grass-fed, organic products.)
- Saturated and trans fats. Who doesn’t love French fries? Unfortunately, the ones you get in a chain restaurant are not good for you. If you must have them, invest in an air-fryer and learn how to prepare a healthier version at home, but do it sparingly, as potatoes are high in carbs.
- Get smart about alcohol. If you’re on medication to manage PCOS, talk to your doctor about possible interactions with alcohol. Either cut alcohol from your diet or drink in moderation. Avoid cocktails, as they often contain syrups with high sugar content.
Common myths about nutritional management of PCOS
The internet is full of advice on what to eat and what to avoid if you have PCOS. Some of the earlier theories about PCOS weight loss and diets are not supported by research. Here are the most common myths about eating for PCOS:
Myth: people with PCOS can’t eat dairy
Truth: Research did not confirm popular theories that dairy products cause inflammation. Some studies even showed that certain dairy products have anti-inflammatory properties.
Myth: people with PCOS need to go gluten-free
Truth: There is no evidence that a gluten-free diet is beneficial to all people with PCOS. There is a possible link between inflammation and daily gluten consumption, but more research is needed on the topic. Talk to your dietitian about the best solution for you.
Myth: people with PCOS shouldn’t eat soy
Truth: There is a lot of confusion about the effects of eating soy on PCOS symptoms. According to what we know so far, soy-based foods and soy supplements can actually help restore insulin and hormonal balance.
Find nutritional support for PCOS
To decide on the best nutrition plan for your PCOS symptoms, don’t rely on advice provided by bloggers or popular magazines. Something that has worked for one influencer on social media may have undesirable results for you.
According to the 2018 International Evidence-based Guideline for the Assessment and Management of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, “Ongoing assessment and monitoring is important during weight loss and maintenance in all women with PCOS.”
For that reason, we again recommend that you work with a nutritional therapist or dietitian to learn how to eat for PCOS. They will help you develop an eating plan that works for your specific symptoms.
At SoundCycle, we are your ally in your journey to holistic health. Follow our blog to learn more about PCOS from only the most trustworthy sources. And visit our provider directory to find a nutritional therapist or a menstrual wellness provider specializing in PCOS.