Diet for PCOS: Nutrition and Eating Tips for Hormone Health
We all know the benefits of a nutritious diet, but when you have PCOS, eating right is arguably more important than ever. That’s because many of the condition's symptoms can be managed by eating well-balanced, nutrient-dense meals.
Eating well not only helps reduce the impact of physical symptoms but can also support mood, energy levels and sleep.
While lifestyle changes aren’t a replacement for necessary medication, research shows that diet and exercise are huge factors in managing some of the side effects of the condition. In 2021, researchers from Tel Aviv University published a review of 20 years of study into the condition found that diet changes alone could reduce insulin resistance, fasting insulin, ‘bad’ cholesterol and testosterone levels.
When combined with exercise and supplements, levels of ‘good’ cholesterol, sex hormone binding globulin (a protein that regulates androgens and estrogens in the body) and body fat were also improved.
So, what should you be eating to improve your health if you have PCOS?
What is the best diet for PCOS?
People with PCOS tend to have higher than average levels of insulin in their bodies. Insulin is a hormone created in the pancreas and used by the body to turn glucose into energy.
There is a number of problems associated with excess insulin, including an increased production of androgens (sex hormones like testosterone which can lead to hair growth on face and body) as well as poor blood sugar control which creates spikes and crashes in energy levels. Long term, poor blood sugar control can lead to diabetes.
With this in mind, it is important for people with PCOS to support their insulin levels with their diet. This includes avoiding meals with a high glycemic index (GI) – that is foods that are processed quickly in the body. Usually, these are foods like simple carbohydrates, eaten without additional fibre, proteins and fats that slow the release of glucose.
What are the best foods for PCOS?
Low GI meals are ideal for PCOS. These include wholemeal carbohydrates (including bread, rice and pasta), fruit and vegetables which are high in fibre and can help to reduce the production of insulin.
A small 2019 paper showed that increasing fibre intake helped reduce insulin resistance and hyperandrogenemia in those with PCOS. The NHS recommends that all women eat at least 25g of fibre every day, and adding more plants and wholegrains to your diet is the best way to increase your fibre intake.
High fibre foods also reduce inflammation and help to keep you fuller for longer which can help women with PCOS to manage their weight more effectively.
The same paper showed that magnesium – found in nuts, seeds, beans and meat – was effective at reducing insulin resistance, while the paper from Tel Aviv showed that eating enough omega-3 (also found in nuts and seeds, as well as oily fish) reduced physical symptoms of PCOS.
While gut health is becoming an increasingly researched area for overall health, some studies, albeit in mice, show that the bacteria Bifidobacteria correlates with insulin secretion and helps reduce inflammation. You can feed this bacteria with dietary fibre from vegetables, grains and legumes and fermented foods like kimchi and kefir.
What foods to avoid if you have PCOS?
It’s really important to remember that no foods should be off-limits. While carbohydrates are frequently demonised, the most important thing is that you are balancing your meals with all macronutrients – protein, fats and carbs – and getting enough nutrients like vitamins and minerals.
Really sugary and ultra-processed foods are best eaten in moderation by everyone, and that’s true for those with PCOS too. That’s because these items have a higher GI and less fibre, spiking your blood sugar levels.
Limiting caffeine can be advisable because of the impact it has on your stress levels and adrenal glands, which are often more sensitive in people with PCOS. But research does not show that caffeine impacts general ovarian function or fertility.
Make sure you stay within the safe intake of 400mg of caffeine a day, around four cups of coffee, or less if you are sensitive to caffeine.
Alcohol is always best enjoyed in moderation, especially in those with PCOS due to the mood and stress impact it can have.
While a nutritious diet can have a positive impact on your life with PCOS, we are all different and will thrive with different diets. Always make sure you talk to your GP or other qualified healthcare providers before making any changes to your diet.