How to Maintain a Healthy Weight with PCOS
Ok, hold up. We know that it isn’t quite as simple as that. Firstly, not everyone with PCOS is overweight. And secondly, losing weight when you have PCOS can be…..well, a little challenging.
Even so, the fact remains that if you’re overweight, losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight can reduce symptoms of PCOS and improve fertility. Even small amounts of weight loss (5-10% over six months) can improve fertility and reduce PCOS symptoms.
If you’re struggling with your weight, you may be glad to know that it’s not just you. There is a reason for this. One of the main reasons it can be difficult for women with PCOS to shed weight is down to insulin.
When you have PCOS, you are more likely to have insulin resistance. When your body is resistant to insulin, it stops using it properly. This means that you end up with lots of extra unused insulin floating around your body (known as high circulating insulin levels). Insulin is a fat-storing hormone, so the more that accumulates, the harder it becomes to burn body fat. High levels of insulin can also make you feel tired, bloated and hungry.
A PCOS Diet Can Be Varied & Interesting
Don’t worry, it’s totally possible to lose weight in a healthy way when you have PCOS. The trick is to address the insulin resistance. You can do this by changing your diet.
You might not think that what you eat impacts your symptoms of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) but it does in unexpected ways.
When we talk about changes to your diet, most people’s first thought is about what they can’t have. Contrary to this belief, it’s equally important — if not more so — to consider what you are eating as well.
Foods You Can Eat
There’s some high-quality research to show that a lower carbohydrate diet helps. But fear not. Research has shown that you don't have to cut out carbs completely. Just reducing the amount of carbs at mealtimes can help. Why not experiment with courgetti spaghetti or cauliflower rice!
The type of carbs that you eat will make a difference too. Glycaemic Index (GI) is a ranking system for carbs which describes the way they will affect blood sugar levels. Avoiding sugary foods and high GI carbs and choosing low GI options can improve insulin levels and reduce PCOS symptoms.
Low GI foods you may want to include at meals are:
• Mixed grain breads
• Sweet potato
• Beans and pulses
• Wholemeal pasta, barley and bulgur wheat
• Apples, pears and peaches.
High GI foods to avoid in large amounts include:
• White bread, rice and pasta
• Cakes and biscuits
• Refined cereals such as cornflakes and rice krispies
• Sugary energy drinks
• Watermelon, dates
Eat Vegetables / Salad and Fruit at Every Meal
It’s vital you get your five-a-day as fruits contain myo-inositol, which can help with normal ovarian function. Alternatively, you can take food supplements, which will help you get the nutritional elements you need with a PCOS lifestyle to help minimise the effects of the condition.
Plus, there is actually a science to eating more fruit and vegetables when you have PCOS. Not only are fruit and vegetables filling, high in fibre and low in calories but they also contain phytochemicals and antioxidants. These naturally occurring chemicals may have a role in helping restore hormone balance in PCOS.
Antioxidants are chemical substances found naturally in many foods. Antioxidants counteract harmful free radicals. These free radicals are the end product of metabolism in our bodies and can be increased in PCOS. They cause damage to cells and tissues and reduce fertility. Certain vitamins and minerals found in many foods, especially vegetables and fruit, act as antioxidants. You should make sure to include these in your diet.
Some types of antioxidants are:
• Vitamin A (found in carrots, pumpkin, apricots, sweet potato)
• Vitamin C (found in berries oranges, peppers, kiwifruit, blackcurrants, mangos, broccoli, spinach)
• Vitamin E (found in almonds, other nuts, broccoli, avocado, spinach).
Phytochemicals are natural compounds found in plants. All vegetables and fruit and many grains contain phytochemicals. They are what give vegetables and fruit their vibrant colours.
Just a few types of phytochemicals are:
• Carotenoids (found in green leafy vegetables, carrots sweet potato, sweet corn, red and yellow peppers, tomato, watermelon, apricots, cantaloupe, papaya)
• Flavonoids (found in grapes, red cabbage, strawberries, blueberries, onions, apples, lemon, lime, kale)
• Indoles (found in cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage).
Seeing a pattern? These are pretty much all the good stuff (fruit and vegetables). Try to include fruit and plenty of vegetables at every meal and as snacks, if needed. The more variety you have, the better. Have as many different colours as you can on your plate. Each different coloured fruit or vegetable contains different kinds of phytochemicals, so eating a variety of colours ensures optimal phytochemical support.
Include fruit or vegetables with your breakfast (e.g., sliced pear or berries with your oats, mushrooms and spinach with scrambled egg), add a large side salad or roasted vegetables to your meals, prepare tasty vegetable soups or homemade vegetable-based pasta sauces, and keep them in the freezer. That way they take only a few minutes to heat up before eating. When it comes to amounts, try to replicate the proportions of different food groups shown in the diagram.
A quarter of your plate should contain high fibre, lower GI carbohydrates (breads, cereals, brown rice, pasta and legumes/pulses - like beans), another quarter should be lean protein (e.g. lean meat, chicken or fish), and half the plate should consist of vegetables or salad.
What Type of Diet is Best for PCOS?
Swap from a “Western Style” diet to a Mediterranean diet. A typical western diet is low in fibre and high in red meat, processed and pre-packaged foods, saturated fats and sugars. Sound familiar? Well, this way of eating won't be doing your hormones any favours.
Simply moving to a more Mediterranean-style diet can reduce insulin resistance, and improve ovarian function (i.e. releasing eggs and female hormones like oestrogen).
The Mediterranean diet is high in vegetables, legumes, fruits, nuts, olive oil and fish, has moderate amounts of dairy products and wholegrains, and is low in red meat, processed foods and saturated fats.
Try to include the following foods in your diet:
• More fruit and vegetables
• Healthy mono-unsaturated fats such as olive oil or rapeseed oil
• Oily fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel
• Lean meats, egg, plant-based alternatives (e.g. tofu, tempeh, lentils)
• Wholegrains, pulses, beans, nuts and seeds
Add some Soy to your Diet
You may be confused about whether or not soy is good for you when you have PCOS. While not conclusive, accumulating evidence suggests including soy and other phytoestrogen foods may help to keep our natural hormones in balance.
Phytoestrogens (plant oestrogens) are substances that occur naturally in plants. They have a similar chemical structure to our body's oestrogen. While more studies are needed, exciting research looking at soy and PCOS suggest that eating foods containing phytoestrogens may help to improve insulin resistance and reduce testosterone/androgen levels. This may be beneficial for weight loss, excess facial hair and acne.
Phytoestrogens can be found in:
• Soya milk and soya flour
• Pumpkins seeds
• Sesame seeds
• Sunflower seeds
• Edamame beans
• Chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans
Tips for including soy in your diet:
• Drink a glass of soy milk each day (or use it in your smoothies)
• Use firm tofu or tempeh in place of meat in stir-fries
• Add edamame beans to salads or noodle dishes
• Add grilled tofu to a salad
• Enjoy mixed seeds or roasted chickpeas as a snack
• Add lentils or kidney beans to staple meals (e.g. bolognaise or Mexican dishes)
• Add miso or reduced salt soy sauce to flavour dishes
• Add tofu or tempeh into a sandwich or wrap
Foods To Avoid
Unfortunately, there are foods which people with PCOS should avoid when making changes to their diet to improve their condition.
These foods include:
- complex carbohydrates
- refined sugars
- processed or inflammatory foods
While you are not expected to completely cut these things out of your diet — everybody has a cheat day! — reducing the frequency with which you consume them can lead to improvements in your health.
Specifically, foods like white bread, potato dishes, pasta, and sugary desserts or pastries should be avoided when possible. Other foods that can cause inflammation are red meat like steak or hamburgers, and excessively salty or buttery foods like chips.
Additionally, be careful when choosing a pre- or post-workout beverage. While you might think it necessary to rehydrate and recharge your electrolyte count after exercise, sports and energy drinks are often loaded with extra sugar that your body doesn’t need.
By making a few smart and simple swaps in your daily diet, you can improve your health and manage your PCOS effectively. While it may seem daunting at first, eventually these small changes will become habit, and you will see a marked improvement in your overall health and wellness.
If premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and menstrual bloating is your problem, you should look to reduce the salt in your diet.
Start by reducing salty snacks and by not adding salt to your food. Be mindful, however, that even if you don’t add salt to your food, you may still be eating too much. A lot of the salt we eat has already been added to the food we buy, such as sauces (including pasta/curry sauces), breakfast cereals, soups and bread. Keep an eye out for the salt content on food packaging and try to cook from scratch as much as possible. Try to eat less than 6g (around 1 tsp) of salt each day.
When buying pre-packaged foods and drinks, understanding the information on the label can help when making healthier choices. Many products have a “traffic light” system of colour coding to help you to make healthier choices. This tells you if a food is high (red), medium (amber) or low (green) in fat, saturates, sugar and, of course, salt.
You can use these labels to choose between products. Try to avoid products which have mostly red(s) on the label for salt.
More information & help
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