By Dr. Lisa Watson
A nutritious diet is the cornerstone of health – a foundation on which we can build healthy choices and behaviours. This is true for most health concerns, and certainly for women who have polycystic ovarian syndrome. Choosing the right foods for PCOS and avoiding others is necessary for women who want to balance their hormones and decrease symptoms of PCOS. And there are no harmful side effects – just the benefits of a healthy, nutritious diet!
The PCOS Diet – What to Avoid
- Refined grains
Breads, bagels, muffins, crackers, pasta – all the many forms of refined grains that are common in the western diet, should be avoided in women with PCOS. These high glycemic-index foods quickly raise blood sugar levels and can lead to insulin resistance – a condition where your cells no longer respond to insulin. This is thought to be one of the underlying hormonal imbalances in PCOS.
- Refined sugars
Sugars found in cookies, cakes, candies, sodas and sweetened beverages can wreak havoc on your hormones in a similar way to refined grains. Best to leave these foods out of your diet entirely and instead opt for naturally sweet fruits to nourish your sweet tooth.
Alcohol is one of the most hormonally devastating things we can put in our body. Not only is it made of mostly sugar (and in PCOS we know what sugar can do to our insulin response!) it also prevents the liver from being able to effectively process and eliminate excess hormones. Women with PCOS also have an increased risk of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Limit alcohol consumption to red wine, have no more than one serving per day and don’t have it every day.
- Red meat
Red meats are high in saturated fats and contribute to inflammation. Saturated fats can also lead to increased estrogen levels. I recommend limiting red meat to lean cuts of grass-fed, hormone free meat and consuming it no more often than 1-2 times per week.
Dairy is a significant source of inflammation, unhealthy saturated fats and should be avoided by women with PCOS. Additionally, dairy increases the production of insulin-like growth factor (IGF) which is known to negatively impact ovulation in PCOS. Rather than reducing dairy, you should consider avoiding it all together to help manage your PCOS.
The PCOS Diet – What to Enjoy
- Vegetables and fruits
The foundation of the PCOS diet are plants. Vegetables, fruits, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds are provide the body with essential nutrients and fiber. Soluble fiber such as that found in apples, carrots, cabbage, whole grains such as oatmeal, and beans and legumes, can lower insulin production and support hormone balance in PCOS.
Healthy proteins are an absolute necessity for women with PCOS. While dairy and red meat are not recommended, plant based proteins like nuts, seeds, beans, lentils and legumes are encouraged. Other healthy proteins like turkey, chicken breast, eggs and fish should also be emphasized. For most women with PCOS, a daily intake of 60-80g of protein per day is recommended.
- Wild salmon
An excellent source of protein, wild salmon is also rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega 3s improve insulin response and blood sugar metabolism and studies have shown lower circulating testosterone levels in women who supplement with omega 3s. Choose wild caught salmon and other cold water fish two to three times per week and incorporate other healthy sources of omega 3s such as walnuts and flax seeds into your diet.
Spices (link to article) are an amazing way to increase antioxidants in your diet, and cinnamon is especially useful for women with PCOS because it can help to regulate blood sugar. Sprinkle it on apples, oats or quinoa in the morning, add it to teas and use it in flavourful stews or curries.
- Pumpkin seedsThese zinc-rich seeds help to lower testosterone levels and are an easy, high protein snack to enjoy every day!
- Green tea
Studies have shown that green tea extract helps to improve the response of cells to insulin, as well as lower insulin levels. Consider drinking a few cups of green tea daily – or better yet, have some matcha to get a big nutritional benefit!
- Spearmint tea
As little as two cups of spearmint tea per day for a month can lower testosterone levels and improve symptoms of abnormal hair growth (hirsutism) in women with PCOS. A must for all women with polycystic ovarian syndrome!
Cabbage, cauliflower, bok choy, broccoli, kohl rabi, kale – these brassica vegetables are a source of indole-3-carbinole, a compound thought to support the detoxification and breakdown of hormones in the liver.
Researchers have found that consuming 1/3 cup of walnuts per day for six weeks can reduce testosterone levels, improve insulin sensitivity, and improve fatty acid status in the body. Combine these with your pumpkin seeds for a satisfying afternoon snack!
- Leafy greens
Spinach, kale, arugula and all the amazing variety of leafy greens are good sources of vitamin B6 – a nutrient necessary for balancing prolactin levels – a hormone that is often elevated in PCOS. Greens are also high in calcium, a mineral necessary for healthy ovulation. One more great reason to get those greens!
I hope you will embrace the PCOS diet – you really can heal your body through food medicine. If you need more support or guidance, contact me to book a free 15 minute consultation and together we can find your vibrant balance.
Dr. Lisa Watson delivers health care that supports balanced and attainable health at all ages and stages of life. Of primary importance is health care that nurtures the body, mind, spirit, family and community. As a Naturopathic Doctor and mother, Lisa believes that health care and a healthy lifestyle are intrinsically linked and that each serves to support the other. Dr. Watson practices at the Integrative Health Institute in Downtown Toronto.
Kaur, Sat Dharam. The complete natural medicine guide to women’s health. Toronto. Robert Rose Inc. 2005.
Hudson, Tori. Women’s encyclopedia of natural medicine. Los Angeles. Keats publishing. 2007.