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The Role of Diet in Managing PCOS: A Guide for Women

Medically reviewed and written by Meredith Krayenhoff, Registered Dietitian. Published May 19, 2024.


Blog title written on top of pink background with PCOS friendly foods  including salmon, eggs, complex carbs and almonds

Living with PCOS can feel like navigating a complex maze of symptoms and frustrations. From unpredictable menstrual cycles and weight gain to acne and hair growth, the challenges can seem overwhelming. Fortunately nutrition can be a powerful tool for managing these symptoms!


Whether you’re newly diagnosed or seeking better control over your symptoms, this guide will provide you with practical dietary strategies and insights to help you reclaim your health and well-being. Let's dive in and discover how the right nutrition can be a game-changer for managing PCOS.


What is PCOS?


Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome—commonly known as PCOS—is a hormonal disorder characterized by elevated levels of testosterone in women. It affects up to 10% of women of reproductive age, making it one of the most prevalent endocrine disorders in women's health.


While the primary symptom often mentioned, and even reflected in the name, is the development of extra follicles in the ovaries due to ovulation, hormonal changes in PCOS also significantly impact nutrition-related outcomes.



Common Symptoms and Complications


PCOS manifests through a range of symptoms, including:

  • Irregular menstrual cycles: Women with PCOS may experience missed periods, infrequent periods, or prolonged periods.

  • Excess androgen levels: Elevated levels of male hormones can result in physical signs such as excess facial and body hair (hirsutism), severe acne, and male-pattern baldness.

  • Polycystic ovaries: Enlarged ovaries containing multiple small cysts can be detected via ultrasound, although not all women with PCOS will have these cysts.


Beyond these primary symptoms, PCOS is often associated with several complications, including:


  • Infertility: Due to irregular ovulation, women with PCOS may struggle to conceive.

  • Metabolic issues: Many women with PCOS experience insulin resistance, which can lead to type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

  • Weight gain: Difficulty managing weight is a common issue, often exacerbated by insulin resistance.

  • Mental health challenges: The physical symptoms and complications of PCOS can lead to anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.


How Do I Know If I Have PCOS?


PCOS presents a range of symptoms that can vary in severity from one individual to another. Some of the most common symptoms include:


  • Irregular periods: This can manifest as infrequent, prolonged, or absent menstrual cycles.

  • Excessive hair growth: Often on the face or other body parts

  • Hair loss: Particularly from the scalp

  • Difficulty losing weight

  • Family history of PCOS

  • Skin tags: Small, excess skin growths often found in the armpit or neck area.

  • Episodes of low blood sugar

  • Intense carbohydrate cravings, even after meals


Period irregularities are a key sign of PCOS. This includes heavy periods, absent periods, or highly variable cycle lengths. If you are trying to conceive, PCOS can make ovulation and fertilization challenging, making infertility a common reason for diagnosis. While it’s unlikely you’ll experience all these symptoms, many individuals will notice at least a few.


Ultimately, a doctor will diagnose PCOS. If you recognize several of these symptoms and suspect you might have PCOS, make an appointment with your family physician for testing. Diagnosis typically involves a combination of symptom evaluation and bloodwork. Fortunately, determining if PCOS is the cause of your health concerns is usually not invasive.

PCOS - Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome written on a note pad in blue on a desk with a green plant pen

The Impact of Diet on PCOS


PCOS is a hormonal condition, and hormones often work in a chain-like process. This means that an imbalance in one hormone can directly cause an imbalance in another. 


When dealing with PCOS, the hormone insulin doesn’t have as strong of an effect, leading your body to produce more insulin while your cells don’t respond as well. This condition, known as insulin resistance, can impact your ability to maintain stable blood sugar levels, and is often associated with weight gain, difficulty losing weight, and carbohydrate cravings.


Insulin resistance is also linked to many chronic diseases, including diabetes, high cholesterol, and hypertension. Weight gain from insulin resistance is commonly concentrated around the abdomen, increasing the risk of these chronic diseases.


It's important to note that these risk factors do not guarantee any specific outcomes. By following dietary and lifestyle tips, you can significantly reduce these risks, thereby improving your quality of life, managing chronic health conditions, and enhancing fertility.


Improving PCOS with Diet & Supplements


Managing the symptoms of PCOS and limiting their impact on your health involves dietary strategies that keep your blood sugar stable. The goal is to rely less on insulin to manage fluctuations in blood sugar and more on a diet that provides a slow and steady release of glucose into your bloodstream. This even-keel blood sugar helps prevent carbohydrate cravings and makes weight loss more attainable. Here’s how to achieve it:


Choose Complex Carbohydrates


Opt for complex carbohydrates to stabilize blood sugar levels and reduce insulin resistance. This means choosing whole grains such as quinoa, brown rice, oats, and barley over refined carbohydrates like white bread and sugary snacks.


Pack a Punch with Protein


Including adequate protein in your meals can increase satiety, slow down the release of carbohydrates into your bloodstream, regulate blood sugar levels, and support muscle maintenance. Incorporate lean protein sources such as poultry, fish, tofu, tempeh, beans, lentils, cottage cheese, and Greek yogurt into your diet.


Focus on Heart-Healthy Fats

Incorporate healthy fats into your diet to support hormone production and reduce inflammation. Sources of healthy fats include avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and mackerel.


Fill Up on Fibre


Fibre aids in digestion, promotes fullness, and helps regulate blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Aim to include plenty of fibre-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains in your meals.


Regular Meals and Snacks


Eat regularly throughout the day to help stabilize blood sugar levels and prevent energy crashes. Your ideal schedule depends on your body and lifestyle, but generally, you’ll feel best if you wait at least three hours between meals/snacks and go no more than five hours without eating. If you can’t go three hours without eating, revisit the points above and ensure your last meal included all these healthy components.


Limit Added Sugars and Processed Foods: 


Minimize your intake of added sugars, sugary beverages, and processed foods, as these can exacerbate insulin resistance and promote weight gain. This cycle can quickly become a hamster wheel of chasing cravings, satisfying them, only to have them return a moment later.


Explore our blog for tips on managing cravings: How to Curb Late-Night Cravings: 7 Science-Backed Hacks.


Supplements for PCOS


While dietary strategies are the foundation of managing PCOS, certain supplements can complement these efforts and help improve symptoms. Here are some supplements that may be beneficial for clients with PCOS:


PCOS supplements spread out of a table

Inositol

  • Commonly recommended for PCOS and naturally found in some fruits.

  • Benefits: Can reduce androgens and boost insulin sensitivity.


N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC)

  • NAC has antioxidant properties that support overall health.

  • Benefits: May help reduce inflammation and androgen levels.


Omega-3 Fatty Acids

  • Prioritize food sources like fatty fish (e.g., salmon, mackerel) 3-4 times weekly.

  • Benefits: Effective in reducing inflammation.


Zinc

  • Women with PCOS often have lower zinc levels. Adequate zinc intake supports overall metabolic health.

  • Benefits: Important for insulin metabolism and reducing androgen levels.


Magnesium

  • Magnesium deficiency is common in most, including PCOS, and is linked to higher depressive scores. Ensuring sufficient intake can mitigate several PCOS-related symptoms.

  • Benefits: Enhances insulin sensitivity and alleviates PMS symptoms such as mood swings and cravings.


Vitamin D

  • Many individuals with PCOS have low vitamin D levels. Supplementing can improve both metabolic and reproductive health.

  • Benefits: Improves insulin sensitivity and is vital for reproductive health.



Incorporating a balanced diet and the right supplements can significantly improve PCOS symptoms and overall well-being. By focusing on nutrient-dense foods and addressing specific nutritional deficiencies with supplements, you can take proactive steps towards managing your PCOS effectively. Always consult with a registered dietitian or healthcare professional to tailor your diet and supplement regimen to your unique needs, ensuring the best possible outcomes for your health.


Key Takeaways: The Role of Diet in Managing PCOS


Taking control of your PCOS symptoms through diet is a powerful step towards better health and supporting overall hormonal balance. By making mindful dietary choices, you can significantly improve your quality of life and alleviate some of the challenging symptoms associated with PCOS. 


Taking control of your PCOS symptoms through diet is a powerful step towards better health. Each small change contributes to a larger, positive impact on your well-being. If you need personalized guidance, our team of expert dietitians is here to support you. They can help you develop a tailored plan that fits your lifestyle and health goals. Embrace the journey towards a balanced and vibrant life by starting with your diet today.


Working with a PCOS Dietitian


For personalized nutrition care and guidance on the right supplements for you, connect with our team of registered dietitians at In Good Nutrition. There are many other diet and lifestyle factors that can play a role, depending on your specific symptoms and condition, so individualized support is crucial. If you're looking to improve your hormonal health, fertility, and blood sugar management, book an appointment —we'd love to help you on your journey to better health!


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