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PCOS-friendly diet

Having PCOS can put you at a higher risk of developing some health conditions. Learn the importance of a healthy diet and the glycaemic index.

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a common condition. It’s difficult to know exactly how many women are affected, especially as about half of women with PCOS don’t know they have it, but it’s somewhere around one in ten [1].  

Having PCOS can put you at risk of several long-term conditions, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. PCOS can both cause symptoms and be asymptomatic. 

For women that do have symptoms, PCOS can cause: 

  • Absent or irregular periods 
  • Excess hair  
  • Difficulty controlling glucose levels 
  • High cholesterol 
  • Difficulty controlling weight  
  • Acne  
  • Fertility problems 

Though there is currently no cure, symptoms can be improved through both diet and lifestyle changes. And after being diagnosed with PCOS, you may be given information on what to eat to help improve symptoms.  

For most people, eating a healthy, balanced diet is enough. For others, you may have to consider foods that have a low glycaemic index.  

In this blog we discuss: 

What is a healthy, balanced diet?

You may have been told that to help your PCOS, you need to be eating a healthy, balanced diet, but what does that mean? 

The NHS often refers to the Eatwell Plate or the Eatwell Guide. This shows you each food group and how much you should eat in your overall diet.  

The Eatwell Guide splits up your plate into five sections: 

  1. Bread, rice, potatoes, pasta, and other starchy foods 
  2. Fruit and vegetables 
  3. Milk and dairy foods (or other sources of calcium) 
  4. Meat, fish, eggs, and beans 
  5. High-sugar foods and drinks 

If you are a vegan or vegetarian, it may be worth talking to a dietitian about what a healthy and balanced diet looks like for you. 

The Eatwell Guide recommends that you: 

  • Avoid frying anything in large amounts of oil or fat 
  • Remove any visible fat from foods  
  • Use low-fat milk and yoghurts (including dairy-free alternatives) 
  • Try using sweeteners instead of sugar 
  • Limit the amount of ultra-processed foods in your diet 

When you buy food, look at the traffic light labelling system. Try your best to pick foods that have mostly green or amber labels and limit the number of foods that have mostly red on the label.  

For PCOS, there are a few tips that you can try to help manage symptoms, aid weight loss, and reduce your risk of insulin resistance and diabetes.  One of these tips is to eat foods low in glycaemic index.  

What is the glycaemic index (GI)?

GI is a ranking system that shows how quickly your blood sugar rises after eating carbohydrates [2].  

Carbohydrate foods that are broken down quickly and cause a rapid increase are known as high GI foods. 

High GI foods include: 

  • Sugar and sugary foods 
  • White bread 
  • Potatoes  
  • White rice  

Low or medium GI foods are broken down more slowly and only cause a gradual rise in blood sugar.  

Low GI foods include: 

  • Some fruit and vegetables 
  • Pulses 
  • Wholegrain foods, such as porridge oats 

However, just because a food is high in GI, it doesn’t mean it’s not healthy. A good example of this is watermelon, which is a high GI food. Chocolate cake, in comparison, has a lower GI value – but we all know the healthier choice here. Therefore, if you were too strict with your GI rating, your diet could be unbalanced and high in fat.  

So why is a low GI diet important for people with PCOS? 

Why should I consider a low GI diet if I have PCOS? 

Many PCOS symptoms are related to insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone made by the body that helps the cells take up glucose for energy.  

When the body becomes less responsive to insulin, it tries to compensate by making more. Unfortunately, the rise in insulin encourages the ovaries to produce more testosterone, which can lead to acne and fertility problems. Insulin resistance can also lead to weight gain.  

A low GI diet can help to combat this by managing your blood sugar levels and stabilising the release of insulin [3]. In some cases, metformin may be useful for some women. 

Eating low GI foods can significantly reduce symptoms, but there are other tips when considering diet and PCOS symptom management.  

Three tips for a PCOS-friendly diet

1. Focus on the foods you can eat, rather than the ones you can’t 

Some women with PCOS may be recommended to restrict certain foods in their diets, such as carbohydrates, fats, and (sometimes) dairy.  

Instead of focusing on foods that you need to restrict, focus on the ones you can eat, such as fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, starchy vegetables, and other unprocessed, low-carbohydrate foods.  

You can make these foods more exciting by trying them in new ways. If you’re yet to try a peach sauce on a savoury meal – now is the time.  

2. Balance your meals  

Following the Eatwell Guide, make sure you are getting the right portions of each food group.  

Have a look at your macronutrient split, i.e., how much protein, carbohydrate, and fat are in a meal. Making sure you have a high protein diet, in addition to healthy fats (such as avocados), is vital to manage your symptoms. 

3. Use your diet to support weight loss 

According to the NHS, a weight loss of just 5% can lead to a significant improvement in PCOS [4]. And although exercise plays a part in weight loss, diet is essential.  

To lose weight, you need to be in a calorie deficit. To do so, you need to eat less than you burn, or burn more than you eat. It is also recommended to limit processed foods and saturated fats. Follow the Eatwell Guide, balance your meals, and keep moving will help to aid weight loss and, in turn, improve your PCOS symptoms.  

Can diet help PCOS symptoms? 

PCOS can be a difficult condition to live with at times, but you can significantly improve your symptoms with some smart meal choices.  

As always, diet forms just one part of your lifestyle. Keeping active, getting plenty of sleep, and checking on your stress levels are also crucial factors in managing your PCOS symptoms. 

If you are experiencing PCOS symptoms, go to our Polycystic Ovary Syndrome Blood Test. This is a simple finger-prick test that can help you to investigate your symptoms. 


References 

  1. nhs.uk. 2022. Polycystic ovary syndrome. [online] Available at: <https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/polycystic-ovary-syndrome-pcos/> [Accessed 4 July 2022]. 
  2. nhs.uk. 2022. What is the glycaemic index (GI)?. [online] Available at: <https://www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/food-and-diet/what-is-the-glycaemic-index-gi/> [Accessed 4 July 2022]. 
  3. Bfwh.nhs.uk. 2022. [online] Available at: <https://www.bfwh.nhs.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/pcos.pdf> [Accessed 4 July 2022]. 
  4. nhs.uk. 2022. Polycystic ovary syndrome - Treatment. [online] Available at: <https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/polycystic-ovary-syndrome-pcos/treatment/#:~:text=In%20overweight%20women%2C%20the%20symptoms,a%20significant%20improvement%20in%20PCOS.> [Accessed 28 July 2022].