Polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, is a condition that affects as many as five million women of reproductive age in the U.S. alone.
While its exact cause is unknown, there are a few factors that may influence the development of PCOS. For example, things like excess insulin in the blood, chronic low-grade inflammation, genetics, abnormal levels of androgen, and diet may all play a role.
If you’re someone suffering with this condition, making dietary changes may be one way to help alleviate and treat your symptoms.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the evidence-backed ways to manage your PCOS through your diet.
Symptoms of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome
The symptoms of PCOS can vary from case to case, however, most women are diagnosed after experiencing at least two of the following symptoms:
- Irregular periods, including infrequent or prolonged menstrual cycles.
- Excess androgen levels (male hormones), which can cause excess facial and body hair growth, acne, and male-pattern baldness.
- The presence of fluid-filled follicles or cysts in the ovaries, which may prevent ovaries from functioning normally.
Because PCOS affects a woman’s ability to release eggs regularly, this condition is one of the most common causes of female infertility.
Why a PCOS Diet Can Be Helpful
Research suggests that one of the biggest environmental determinants of developing PCOS is your diet. This may be because conditions such as chronic inflammation, obesity, and high insulin levels, which are all risk factors of PCOS, can also be influenced by your diet.
This condition can also significantly increase your risk of metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular diseases. Currently, there is no standard diet recommended for PCOS. However, taking steps to manage your weight and insulin levels through healthy eating and a balanced diet in addition to avoiding foods that cause inflammation is a great place to start.
PCOS and Blood Glucose
When there is a lot of sugar in your bloodstream, your pancreas pumps out insulin so it can be absorbed and used by your body. Over time, these high levels of blood sugar can cause your cells to become resistant to insulin.
Insulin resistance can lead to the development of chronic health conditions like type 2 diabetes. In fact, more than half of women with PCOS develop type 2 diabetes by age 40.
Processed Foods and PCOS
Processed foods tend to be higher in refined starches and sugars and trans fats, which can contribute to health conditions like prediabetes or diabetes, chronic inflammation, and heart disease—all of which can exacerbate PCOS symptoms.
If you have PCOS, it may be beneficial to create a diet plan that limits processed foods and drinks, and reach for whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beverages with no added sugars instead.
PCOS and AGEs
Advanced glycation end products, or AGEs, are molecules that are formed when sugars in the bloodstream react with proteins or fats.
AGEs are associated with many health problems, including inflammation and diabetes. These molecules can be formed when foods that are high in protein (animal products such as red meat or poultry) come in contact with high heat during cooking.
Your body can usually eliminate these harmful compounds, but eating too many of them can affect your body’s ability to do so. High AGE levels can exacerbate the symptoms of PCOS, so you may want to limit foods that are high in AGEs.
Animal products like meat naturally contain AGEs, and more can be formed by cooking them. Nuts like almonds and cashews, butter, some cheeses, and full-fat dairy products can also be high in AGEs.
A Healthy Diet to Help with PCOS Symptoms
There is no diet that will “cure” PCOS, but there are certain foods that may improve your symptoms. Ideally, a PCOS diet will limit inflammatory foods, support insulin and blood sugar regulation, and have a positive effect on heart health to help manage your symptoms.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that before implementing any dietary changes, you should discuss your condition with your doctor or a nutritionist, inflammatory foods may also be highly individualized and dependent on unique responses to foods.
Foods high in fiber have lots of health benefits, but a high-fiber diet may also be particularly beneficial for people with PCOS. Fiber has been shown to improve blood sugar regulation and support cardiovascular health.
The daily recommended fiber intake for women is 21-25 grams per day, while the recommended intake for men is 30-38 grams per day. Plant foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes are all good sources of fiber.
Some examples of high-fiber foods include:
Foods for Heart Health
Foods that may benefit heart health include:
Olive oil has been shown to benefit cardiovascular health. Olive oil may also reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, which people with PCOS are at higher risk for.
Whole grains, unlike refined grains, contain the entire wheat grain, including the bran, germ, and endosperm. Because whole grains are high in fiber, they have a positive effect on cholesterol levels and can lower your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Oats, barley, quinoa, whole wheat, and brown rice are all examples of whole grains you can try adding to your diet to reap these benefits.
Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated Fats
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics advises that the majority of fats in a heart-healthy diet come from monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats. Both types of fat can help reduce bad cholesterol levels, lowering your risk of heart disease.
Avocados, olive oil, flax seeds, fatty fish, and nuts are all high in monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats.
Chronic inflammation is a key component of PCOS. Certain foods, like sugar, can cause inflammation in the body of those with PCOS. This inflammation also can stimulate androgen production and contribute to insulin resistance, two other key components of PCOS.
An anti-inflammatory diet may help regulate hormones in people with PCOS, while also decreasing your risk of cardiovascular problems.
Foods that may have an anti-inflammatory effect generally contain antioxidants, molecules that fight off free radicals in your body. Free radicals contribute to inflammation by damaging cells and DNA in the body.
Vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenoids, flavonoids, tannins, phenols are all examples of antioxidants, and they’re found in foods such as:
Phytonutrients from foods such as berries, herbs, and spices may all have possible health benefits when added to your diet. However, research on the antioxidant action of these phytochemicals is still ongoing, as conclusions drawn from in-vitro studies in labs may differ from those observed in humans.
Fruits like blueberries are high in antioxidants may help reduce your risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and several other health conditions.
Herbs and spices have also been observed to have a number of health benefits apart from enhancing flavor. Black pepper contains an antioxidant called piperine that may help prevent diseases like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
Other spices such as garlic, ginger, turmeric, black cumin, saffron, and chili pepper are also sources of antioxidants that have been linked to a lowered risk for several types of cancer.
Apart from being beneficial for heart health, studies show that omega-3 fatty acids contained in fatty fish like salmon and tuna, can increase antioxidant activity in the body. These foods are also a great source of selenium.
Green tea has been linked to a number of positive health benefits. The catechins found in green tea may benefit heart health, blood sugar, and weight management. However, more in-vivo research is still needed to determine how strong this connection is.
Low-Glycemic Index Foods
The glycemic index, or GI, system was developed as a tool for people with diabetes to make healthy food choices. A food with a low-GI is less likely to increase blood sugar.
However, the GI scale is just one tool you can use to manage your blood sugar. It’s important to always consider the nutritional content of foods as well. Nutrient-dense, low-glycemic index foods include foods like green vegetables, legumes, lean protein sources, some fruits, whole grains, nuts, and olive oil.
Foods to Avoid If You Have PCOS
Because of the strong link that nutrition can have with PCOS, limiting foods that contribute to inflammation, insulin resistance, and heart disease
Foods you may want to limit or avoid to help manage PCOS symptoms include:
Trans fats have been linked to increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Foods high in these fats include commercial baked goods (like cakes, cookies, and pies), shortening, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, fried foods, and margarine.
A diet high in refined carbohydrates can have negative effects on your health, including and increased risk of insulin resistance, heart disease, and inflammation.
Foods high in refined carbs include soda, energy drinks, desserts, white bread, many breakfast cereals, and white rice.
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