Foods to help manage PCOS symptoms
If you have polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), putting together a PCOS meal plan can play a very helpful role in managing symptoms of this lifelong condition. Adjusting your food choices can improve a variety of symptoms, including increasing your chances of becoming pregnant. In addition, these adjustments can reduce your risk for conditions associated with PCOS, such as diabetes and heart disease. Putting together a PCOS meal plan doesn’t mean drastically limiting your diet or restricting food. Instead, a few relatively simple adjustments can make a large difference. This article includes an overview of PCOS, different types of food that can help manage symptoms, and examples of meals to include in your meal plan.
What Is PCOS?
Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is a fairly common ongoing condition in which hormone imbalances interfere with how the ovaries function. PCOS patients have excess levels of androgen and, often, difficulty processing insulin. PCOS affects approximately 5-12% of people with ovaries, and is a common cause of infertility, often by causing irregular or missed periods. Other PCOS signs and symptoms are:
- Extra hair growth or hair loss
- Severe acne
- Unexplained weight loss or difficulty losing weight
- Development of ovarian cysts
Patients with PCOS can experience higher risks of developing associated complications, including diabetes, inflammation, and cardiovascular disease.
There is currently no cure for PCOS. For this reason, treatment usually focuses on managing symptoms through lifestyle and medical options. In terms of lifestyle, strategic meal planning can significantly help manage PCOS symptoms.
How to Plan for Healthy Meal with PCOS
In general, meal planning for PCOS focuses on making a few fairly simple adjustments and substitutions to improve overall nutrition. Importantly, this approach does not mean a “diet” in the sense of restricting food intake or cutting out entire categories of food. In fact, heavily restricted eating habits can have unhealthy affects, including increased risk of eating disorders.
At PNWF, we also don’t focus on weight or weight loss as a goal in and of itself. While there is a link between PCOS, obesity, and severity of symptoms, the benefits of healthy eating and exercise show up even in patients who don’t lose weight. So, if you’re working on lifestyle changes to manage PCOS, try not to focus too much on the number on the scale. Developing healthy habits overall can have immediate, positive effects.
To accomplish this, at PNWF we encourage patients to look at their everyday meals and identify a few key places where they can swap out ingredients for more PCOS-friendly versions. In practice, this falls into three main categories:
- Reducing processed carbohydrates and sugar
- Increasing vegetable and fiber intake
- Choosing anti-inflammatory foods
Let’s take a look at what each of these steps might include.
Are Carbohydrates Bad for PCOS?
Your body does require carbohydrates to healthily function. However, not all carbohydrates are the same. Processed carbohydrates have a high glycemic index (GI) that can worsen insulin resistance and increase PCOS symptoms. Examples of processed carbs include white rice, white bread, and refined sugar. However, carbohydrates with a low GI can help stabilize insulin levels and decrease symptoms. Reducing the intake of high GI carbs can also improve ovulation, hormone balance, and weight regulation.
PCOS Meal Plan Tip #1: Swap In Low GI Carbs
Try a whole grain English muffin for breakfast, or brown rice at dinner. Most foods made with wheat flour have whole wheat alternatives, including pasta, crackers, bread, bagels, and tortilla wraps.
Reduce PCOS Symptoms by Planning Vegetables and Fiber into Your Meals
Foods with lots of fiber can help regulate your hormone balance and improve insulin processing. These include beans, lentils, nuts, dark leafy greens, broccoli, and spinach. Incorporating vegetable proteins while reducing animal protein sources can also help reduce PCOS symptoms. This includes soy proteins like tofu in addition to whole vegetable proteins such as lentils, nuts, and beans.
PCOS Meal Plan Tip #2: Include Some Vegetarian Recipes
Even planning for just one vegetarian dinner a week can make a difference. Try a black bean burger on a whole grain bun, or a rich vegetarian chili with many beans, tomatoes, and spices.
PCOS and Inflammation
PCOS can be linked to chronic inflammation, which can lead to serious health issues. Some foods increase inflammation, while others help to reduce it. Inflammatory (increasing inflammation) foods include red meat, saturated fats, fried food, and processed meats. Anti-inflammatory (reducing inflammation) foods include:
- Dark leafy greens (ex. kale and spinach)
- Fatty fish (ex. salmon)
- Olive oil
PCOS Meal Plan Tip #3: Try Lean Proteins and Fruit/Vegetable Snacks
Turkey, chicken, tuna fish, and salmon all provide a more PCOS-friendly source of protein. A snack of berries and no-fat Greek yogurt or carrots and hummus can help reduce snacks with high saturated fats.
PCOS Meal Planning Can Be Easy
In general, recommendations for PCOS and nutrition have some overall themes:
- Increasing whole grains, fruits, and vegetables
- Eating dark leafy greens, berries, and lentils or beans
- Swapping out red meat for fish or vegetable proteins
- Reducing processed foods
Changing our eating habits can feel overwhelming. Remember, though, that you don’t need to completely restructure your food intake. One or two consistent changes can still make a difference when it comes to PCOS. Including more salmon into your weekly meal choices or choosing a whole grain pasta can help improve your symptom experience. Most importantly, find some changes that you feel you can maintain in the long run. Consistency and moderation are much more helpful than “yo-yo dieting” or developing negative feelings towards your favorite treats. We’re happy to help patients take a look at their regular food choices and identify a few simple areas that may help with PCOS symptoms.
For another resource on PCOS meal plans, we recommend The PCOS Diet Plan, Second Edition, by Hillary Wright, M.Ed., RDN. As both a registered dietician and a food lover, Wright provides a research-based, practical, and compassionate approach to managing PCOS symptoms through diet and lifestyle tweaks.
PCOS shows up differently for each patient, and your treatment plan should be personalized to you. Our doctors have decades of experience helping patients with PCOS find the combination of lifestyle and medical options that work best for them.