PCOS and Weight Gain

Weight is a delicate, yet, prominent topic where PCOS is concerned. It's the symptom that seems to garner the most attention, and is, unfortunately, all too often named responsible for the development of someone's PCOS.

PCOS affects people of all sizes, but research indicates that some 40-80% of people with PCOS are – in medical terms – overweight or obese. It's clear that weight and PCOS are intrinsically linked, but, how? And, what steps can you take to maintain a weight that feels healthful for you? Read on... 

What causes PCOS weight gain?

It's complicated. We'll break it down...

PCOS causes some sufferers (around 65-70%, to be exact) to develop insulin resistance, which essentially means that the body struggles to produce and use insulin as effectively as it should. Research shows that high insulin levels is linked with excess body fat – particularly around the abdomen.

Elevated insulin is also thought to increase levels of androgens (commonly referred to as "male" hormones, such as testosterone) in people with PCOS. And, high levels of androgens have also been linked with weight gain and excess fat being stored around the abdomen.

It's complex but, in short, excess fat not only aids the development of PCOS but is a symptom of PCOS, too.

How do you stop gaining weight when you have PCOS?

PCOS isn't a one-size-fits-all illness – it occurs in people of all shapes and sizes, and symptoms vary from person to person. That said, for those who are – in medical terms – overweight, there is reason to believe that losing (a relative amount of) weight may help to relieve or reduce symptoms. Specifically, studies have found that losing around 5-10% of body fat could be the sweet spot for improving insulin resistance in those who are overweight. Separate research has found that a similar percentage of weight loss could improve ovulation, too.

It's crucial to note here that weight loss can be a massively triggering subject for some, particularly anyone with a history of disordered eating patterns. And, whilst science appears to conclude that weight loss and management can be key to long-term symptom-relief, it's definitely not the be-all and end-all.

If weight loss is something you're interested in, there are a few ways to approach it if you have PCOS. Keep in mind, though, always talk to your GP or healthcare provider before beginning a new diet plan or exploring new treatment options.

1. Eat a nutritious, balanced diet

One way to manage weight gain if you suffer from PCOS is to take a look at your diet. Though, steer clear of crash-diets and those which have super restrictive rules, as whilst they may promise quick results, they're unlikely to be sustainable (and may also have mental and physical health implications).

A balanced diet that's rich in protein, fats, vitamins and minerals can help to manage PCOS symptoms – and it doesn’t need to be complex, either. In fact, the Eatwell Guide is a great place to start.

Research has also shown that a low glycaemic index (GI) diet, where wholegrains are eaten in place of refined carbohydrates, can be beneficial for people with PCOS, as it could help to reduce insulin resistance and regulate periods. The Mediterranean diet is another good option for people with PCOS.

2. Get regular exercise

Let's get one thing straight – exercise isn't solely for weight management. It's also for wellbeing, reducing the likelihood of developing illness, and also for enjoyment. That said, exercise can help to facilitate weight loss and weight management for people with PCOS.

First and foremost, exercising burns energy. This can be helpful if you're aiming for a calorie deficit or you're working towards calorie maintenance. But, also, there's research to suggest that regular exercise may also help to improve insulin levels which, as we know, can directly impact weight gain.

What exercise should you do if you have PCOS? Whatever exercise you enjoy. You could try: 

• Steady-state cardio (cycling, jogging, walking, rowing).

• HIIT (short bursts of high intensity exercises – like squat jumps or sprints, for example – at max effort, followed by rest periods and then repeated).

• Strength training (using equipment, like kettlebells or dumbbells, or your body weight for resistance. Think: deadlifts, squats, push-ups).

• Yoga or pilates.

3. Reduce stress levels

Studies have concluded that stress hormone cortisol can contribute to the development of insulin resistance, so tackling stress and anxiety levels is crucial not only for those wanting to lose weight, but for everyone who has PCOS.

Exercise is a great stress reducer – particularly gentle yoga, whilst breathing exercises encourage relaxation and mindfulness. Other complementary therapies such as meditation, aromatherapy and acupuncture could also help to relieve anxiety and stress.

A solid support system will also help boost mood and mental wellbeing. If you don't have a PCOS network, join The PCOS Collective – our private Facebook group for Cysters far and wide.

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