Confused about the PCOS diet? Whether you're looking to lose weight, boost fertility or simply balance your hormones, if you have PCOS, it's crucial to get to the root of your imbalances. Here we share our advice about weight loss (it may surprise you!), the best and worst foods for PCOS, along with lifestyle changes to help you treat PCOS naturally. Bonus: there's a special section on insulin resistance!
UPDATE: This post was originally published in March 2018 and has been updated to reflect new information, research, and helpful insights.
I'm going to assume that if you're reading this, you already know what PCOS is and you've likely already been diagnosed with it.
But in case you're new here, check out this PCOS primer before moving on.
Ok, now, you've been diagnosed with PCOS and (if you're anything like me), you're feeling totally overwhelmed, unsure of where to start, eager to try some new techniques and totally terrified that you might never get better.
I promise that if you put in the work, you will reverse your PCOS and live a symptom-free life, without medication. I'm living proof!
Would you believe me if I told you that you can reverse your PCOS without medication AND without dieting?!
So many people talk about weight loss and food restriction being the solution to PCOS management, but I'm going to share with you today why this approach is wrong, and even unintentionally harmful. More on that in a minute.
The most important thing to focus on instead? Self-care and stress reduction, so that you feel more at ease in life and empowered in your healing. Simply put, stress causes hormonal imbalances along with things like depression, anxiety, and fatigue–something that many people with PCOS already struggle with.
Reduce your stress, and you'll be amazed at what else falls into place!
What is a Healthy PCOS Diet?
Here are the facts: diets DON'T work. I repeat: diets DON'T work!!
Research shows that 95-97% of diets fail (not just in people with PCOS, but across the general population).
Deliberate food restriction (a.k.a. dieting) has AT BEST a 5% long-term success for weight management when you look at what happens after five years. (source) Studies that show sustained weight-loss is possible almost always only look at the short term (weeks, months, or a period of less than five years).
Not only do diets NOT work, but they have serious long-term effects. Diets have been shown to:
- increase activation of brain regions responsible for attention and reward in response to food, which contributes to increased food preoccupation and obsession
- lead to binge eating and other disordered relationships with our food and bodies (in fact, women with PCOS are six times more likely to develop an eating disorder, especially binge eating (source))
- create weight cycling, which is when you lose a bunch of weight and then eventually gain it all back, and then some; in fact, about 2/3 of people will gain back MORE weight than the number they started at after attempting to diet–so essentially, dieting has been shown to predict 5-year weight gain
To top it off, this process can make insulin resistance–something most people with PCOS already have–worse. Plus, most diets are completely ineffective at addressing hormonal imbalances.
Dieting exacerbates symptoms of PCOS in the long run. Hunger and low blood sugar contribute to anxiety, depression and fatigue. Calorie deficit slows your metabolism even further. Not to mention, your body absolutely needs adequate nutrition to menstruate and for fertility–and when we diet, we rarely (if ever) are nourishing our bodies in the process.
Okay, convinced yet that diets don't work?
I know it can be hard to let go of the idea that dieting is the solution to your PCOS, especially in a culture that demonizes weight loss and idealizes thin bodies, but if you look at your dieting history then you can probably determine whether it has truly helped you with long-term feelings of well-being and health.
Instead, I recommend following a self-care eating framework called Intuitive Eating, which you can learn more about here. Intuitive Eating will reduce stress better than any diet you can choose and helps you create a healthier relationship with food and your body–and THAT, in turn, is going to help you optimize your hormones.
So instead of trying to put a label on foods and diets and create all these rules around ‘good foods' and ‘bad foods', let's focus on a creating a PCOS diet where you simply nourish your body with food.
Best PCOS Foods List
Okay, so while we don't recommend following any specific diet for PCOS (or ever), there are certain foods that nutrition shows help nourish your body:
- Fiber, fiber, fiber. High-fiber foods, like organic fruits and vegetables (especially cruciferous veggies, leafy greens, berries, stone fruits, tomatoes, peppers, squash and sweet potatoes), lentils, and beans, can help combat insulin resistance by slowing down digestion and reducing the impact of sugar in the blood. A great way to incorporate more fiber and veggies? Green Smoothies!
- Whole Grains. Speaking of fiber, getting at least half a cup of whole grains like rice, quinoa, lentils, oats, buckwheat, split peas and even popcorn, every day will help balance blood sugar, hormones and keep your PCOS symptoms at bay.
- Lean protein. Getting enough high-quality protein in your diet is also key if you have PCOS. Try to incorporate chicken, fish, and eggs into your meals every day, and do your best to make sure it's from organic, wild-caught/pasture-raised sources.
- Healthy fats. Jam-packed with nutrients, and heart-healthy omega-3s, healthy fats like avocado, nuts and seeds, wild-caught fish (check out our guide here), grass-fed butter and ghee, coconut oil, and olive oil, squash inflammation, improve endocrine function (sex hormones actually require fat to be produced at adequate levels), balance your glucose-insulin levels, and regulate your period.
- Spices. Incorporating plenty of health-promoting spices, like Cinnamon (which stabilizes blood sugar and supports ovulation) and Turmeric (a powerful detox support) may reduce your PCOS symptoms. I also love using herbs, like basil, mint, thyme, parsley and cilantro, in my cooking to up the nutrition ante.
- Spearmint tea. This is really specific, but if you suffer from high androgen levels (that's male sex hormones like testosterone, DHEA, and SHGB), drinking 2-3 cups of spearmint tea a day can actually lower these hormones, reducing hirsutism, acne and more. (source)
- Apple Cider Vinegar. I know, it's not exactly top of mind when you think of yummy drinks, but hear me out. Taking a shot of apple cider vinegar in the morning, and/or before meals can improve insulin sensitivity, aid in digestion (preventing heartburn and acid reflux), lower blood sugar responses and keep your hormones balanced.
- Bone Broth. You know how I'm always talking about how interconnected the human body is? Well check this out: drinking bone broth can improve your gut health, which in turn may decrease the stress hormone cortisol, which is responsible for regulating all of your other hormones. So try to drink a mug of bone broth at least a few times a week. (Collagen helps too!)
- Superfoods. While I'm a fan of all superfoods for their nutrient density, there are a few that are particularly beneficial for PCOS. One is adaptogenic mushrooms, like ashwaghanda and reishi, which are really helpful for managing stress and anxiety, which are linked with your thyroid and PCOS. I also like drinking superfood teas that contain PCOS-friendly herbs like raspberry leaf, licorice root and stinging nettle leaf. This Traditional Medicinals Healthy Cycle Tea is my fave!
PCOS Foods to Avoid
I don’t believe that focusing on avoiding foods is the way to treat your PCOS.
Restriction creates stress, and stress causes imbalances.
Most people tell you to cut carbs when you have PCOS, which I strongly disagree with. If you have elevated insulin levels (most women with PCOS do), then you will likely be feeling intense cravings for carbs. This is not your fault, but trying to cut them out will not help as it creates deprivation and increased risk for disordered eating.
In fact, cutting back carbs can make a PCOS sufferer feel even worse due to blood sugar instability. Likewise, calorie-restrictive diets like Weight Watchers cause spikes and crashes in your blood sugar, making your PCOS symptoms much worse.
On top of all that, many women with PCOS also have the sister disorder of hypothyroidism. Your thyroid needs the glucose from carbs to operate optimally.
Instead of cutting carbs, focus on adding fat, fiber and protein to most of your meals and snacks.
Also, please don't avoid eating! You need to eat regularly throughout the day. Skipping meals or going long period of time without eating will likely make hormonal imbalances worse.
Intermittent fasting is the most commonly recommend diet for women with PCOS because it has been tied to improvements with insulin resistance–however!–intermittent fasting is also tied to increased internal stress and increased cortisol, which are already two struggles that women with PCOS face. Please, please, please eat at regular intervals so your body doesn't think it's being starved.
Alright, all that said, there are a few things I think can be helpful to reduce if you have PCOS–but this is not a ‘rule' and you're going to be just fine if you have these things sometimes.
Everyone is different and you need to find what works for you, but here's my short list:
- Soy: I don't believe that we need to eliminate soy from our diets entirely (organic, non-GMO tofu, edamame, tamari and miso are incredibly delicious and nutritious!), but I do think it's worth minimizing our intake to a couple of times per week, max. See, soy acts like estrogen in the body because it contains “phytoestrogen”. I'm going to let my PCOS guru, Alisa Vitti, explain it:
So eating too much soy confuses your body into thinking it has enough estrogen in supply already and signals for your endocrine system to slow down production of your own estrogen. If the body slows estrogen production, the production of LH (luteinizing hormone) is also affected, which prevents the body from triggering ovulation. If you were told you have low estrogen levels you may have thought it made sense to supplement with soy, but it is better to encourage your body to make more of its own estrogen.
- Alcohol + Caffeine: I know, this one is often the hardest for people. But both alcohol and caffeine stimulate your adrenals (and not in a good way), have short-term negative effects on insulin sensitivity, and may even be linked to decreased fertility. In fact, caffeine can cause cyst formation in the breasts and ovaries and disrupts your entire hormonal cascade for 24 hours. (source) Meanwhile, alcohol raises estrogen levels, clogs up your liver, drains the adrenals and disrupts your blood sugar function. So try to limit your daily coffee habit to 1-2 cups max (or switch to decaf or herbal tea), and alcohol to no more than 1-2 drinks per day, max. Even better if you can go booze-free a few nights a week. Red wine is usually the best choice for PCOS gals–twist my arm. 😉
PCOS Diet for Insulin Resistance
If you have PCOS, you may also have insulin resistance–the two conditions are linked, and in fact, women with PCOS are often found to have higher than normal insulin levels.
What does this mean? Without getting overly technical, it means that our bodies tend to over-respond to glucose, aka sugar, causing a release of too much insulin.
Insulin is produced by your pancreas and it helps your cells convert glucose into energy. When our bodies start producing too much insulin to keep up with all the sugar in our bloodstream, our cells become resistant, meaning they're not able to effectively convert insulin into energy.
This results in weight gain and excess androgen production from our ovaries.
To help with insulin resistance, eat every 2-3 hours, as regular eating manages hunger and glucose levels. Likewise, eating first thing in the morning (within 90 minutes of waking) is crucial.
If you're not sure if you have insulin resistance, schedule a blood test to check for fastin glucose, fasting insulin and Hemoglobin A1C levels. Here are ideal ranges:
- Fasting Glucose: ideal is between 70-86; normal is between 60-99
- Fasting Insulin: ideal is less than 3.0; normal is less than 5.0
- Hemoglobin A1C: ideal is less than 5.0
PCOS Hormone Balancing Recipes
To get a list of hormone balancing recipes for PCOS, download our FREE PCOS Recipe Guide here.
PCOS + Fertility Support
When I first got diagnosed with PCOS, I was left feeling shattered after being told that getting pregnant would be very difficult for me. I knew without doubt that I wanted a family. (Update August 2020: Fortunately, once I healed my hormones naturally, I got pregnant on my first try and now have two beautiful babies!)
This topic is near and dear to my heart, as so many women struggle with getting pregnant. If that is you: I see you. I hear you. You are not alone.
Fortunately, there ARE things we can do to increase our fertility, and you don't have to figure it out alone!
Did you know there is actually a science to getting pregnant quickly and easily, staying pregnant, and finally getting to have the baby you’ve been dreaming of?
It turns out that we have some pretty harmful beliefs about fertility in our society.
The mission of the Fertility & Pregnancy Institute is to see what others can’t by using the best of love, science, and commitment to help ensure that your fertility keeps up with your high-achieving life so that you get to have as many superbabies as your heart desires.
Dr. Cleopatra Abdou Kamperveen teaches women about the primemester—the magical and powerful window of opportunity before pregnancy—when we literally have the power to change the quality and expression of the genes that we pass down to our babies and grandbabies.
Using the data-driven, big-hearted Primemester™ Protocol developed and refined by Dr. Cleopatra Abdou Kamperveen over the past 24 years, The Fertility & Pregnancy Institute helps women all over the world: reverse reproductive aging; prepare epigenetically and otherwise for healthy pregnancy; get pregnant quickly and easily; reduce miscarriage risk; and finally have the superbaby™ they have been dreaming of for as long as they can remember (yes, even if you have PCOS!).
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Dr. Cleopatra Abdou Kamperveen is a personal friend of mine who is one of the kindest, most loving people I know. I am confident that you couldn’t be in more trusted, competent, or loving hands. See how the Fertility & Pregnancy Institute can help you today!