PCOS Diet for Weight Loss, Fertility + Hormone Balance
Whether you’re looking to lose weight, boost fertility or simply balance your hormones, if you have PCOS, it’s crucial to follow a PCOS Diet. Here we share the best and worst foods for PCOS, hormone balancing recipes, PCOS meal plans and menus and lifestyle changes to help you treat PCOS naturally. Bonus: there’s a special section on insulin resistance!
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.
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!
First step: Changing your diet is the most important thing you can do to manage your PCOS, and it is the best first place to start when you are diagnosed with PCOS.
Not the birth control pill. Not Metformin. Not Clomid.
Food is medicine. The right foods will nourish your body, balance your hormones and blood sugar, helping you lose weight, boost fertility and feel great.
Likewise, the wrong foods can throw your hormones out of whack and cause your PCOS to flare up with all kinds of frustrating symptoms, like acne, anxiety, weight gain, PMS, and worse, infertility.
Take a look:
What is a Healthy PCOS Diet?
Per usual here at R+R, there is no one-size-fits-all diet for PCOS. It’s going to depend on your specific hormonal imbalances, symptoms, and the kind of PCOS you have (for example, do you have insulin resistance? MTHFR? What about hypothyroidism?).
Despite what a lot of health pros might tell you, a healthy PCOS diet is not simply a low-carb diet.
While doing something like Atkin’s or Paleo or Keto may help alleviate symptoms for some people, there’s much more to healing PCOS than just cutting out carbs.
And not all carbs are created equal–whole grains and fiber-rich veggies are very important foods to incorporate into your diet if you have PCOS, whereas refined sugar and flour can wreak havoc on your hormones.
A healthy PCOS diet is also not as simple as a low-glycemic eating plan, which not only is hard to maintain but also doesn’t take into account what your body needs during certain phases of your cycle. (Learn more about Cycle Syncing here.)
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.
And popular diets like Paleo and Keto, which are really meat-heavy don’t work well for PCOS sufferers because eating too much animal protein can not only increase inflammation, but can also prevent ovulation by increasing the amount of estrogen in the body, decreasing SHBG (which PCOS sufferers need to bring down their high testosterone levels) and can create too much homocysteine, which can cause an increase in PCOS symptoms. source
On top of all that, many women with PCOS also have the sister disorder of hypothyroidism. And your thyroid needs the glucose from good carbs (we’ll cover what that means below) to operate optimally.
Lest you think that you should go Vegan to treat your PCOS–as it turns out, a diet too high in grains for protein can create gut dysbiosis and decrease absorption of all the key nutrients that are required for hormonal balance. source
Ok, so I know I probably just overwhelmed you even more, and really and truly, that was not my intention–rather I just wanted to show you that there is no one “diet” that works for everyone with PCOS.
So instead of trying to put a label on it, let’s simply add in more of the good foods and eat less of the bad. That’s so much more sanity-saving too, isn’t it?
Progress, not perfection. YES!
Best PCOS Foods List
Alright, so while there is no ONE PERFECT diet for PCOS ladies, I do recommend following a real, whole food based, anti-inflammatory diet for the most part. Let’s look at the specifics here:
- Fiber, fiber, fiber. Fiber may just be the most important nutrient to consume if you have PCOS. 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!
- Gluten Free Whole Grains. Speaking of fiber, getting at least half a cup of gluten-free 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 make sure it’s always 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.
- Anti-inflammatory spices. Inflammation is highly linked with hormonal imbalances like those found in women with PCOS, so incorporating plenty of anti-inflammatory foods and spices, like Cinnamon (which stabilizes blood sugar and supports ovulation) and Turmeric (a powerful detox support) will greatly reduce your PCOS symptoms. I also love using herbs, like basil, mint, thyme, parsley and cilantro, in my cooking to up the anti-inflammatory 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, weight gain, 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 reduces inflammation, which decreases the stress hormone cortisol, which is responsible for regulating all of your other hormones. So unhealthy gut = inflammation = excess cortisol = imbalanced hormones all around = PCOS nightmare. 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
Alright, so now you know what you should be eating more of to manage your PCOS. But what about those foods that you should avoid if you have PCOS? Here’s my short list:
- Inflammatory foods. Processed Foods. Fried Foods. Fast Food. Anything artificial. Junk. Not sure what this really means? Click here to read our guide to Real Food and What to Avoid.
- Sugar. If you have PCOS, I can’t say it enough: avoid refined sugar like the plague. This includes white sugar, high fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, and anything artificial, like Splenda, Equal or Sweet’N Low. Instead, opt for raw, organic, unrefined sweeteners found in nature, like honey, maple syrup, coconut palm sugar and dates, and keep your intake to a minimum.
- Flour. When I think of low-carb diets, what I really think of is low refined-flour diets. Because it’s these refined carbs–pasta, pizza, cake, muffins, bagels, cookies, donuts, bread, etc.–that are actually harmful. Not the carbs naturally occurring in veggies and whole grains. Why? Refined carbs spike your insulin levels and throwing your hormones out of whack and disrupting ovulation.
- Raw Cruciferous Veggies: This one’s tricky because in theory, cruciferous vegetables are healthy. BUT…when eaten raw, all cruciferous vegetables contain goitrogens, which suppress thyroid function and contribute to PCOS. You don’t have to stop eating these foods, just be sure to cook them first. Easy peasy!
The list below are foods that people with PCOS can be sensitive too, though it’s not always the case. And in my experience, I’ve found that in moderation, some of these foods can be okay. Just be aware of your intake, and ensure you’re only eating high-quality, organic sources of the following foods:
- Red Meat: I personally recommend limiting red meat intake to 1-2 times per week, and only eating organic, grass-fed meat. Red meat can cause inflammation, increase your risk of Diabetes, and in excess, can mess with your hormones (as discussed in the intro).
- Dairy: This one is tricky, because full-fat, organic, grass-fed dairy is an amazing source of protein and nutrients. But low-quality sources often contain hormones, which obviously mess with our hormones. And many people are lactose-intolerant or have dairy sensitivities which can cause inflammation, skin issues and more. I think dairy is a personal decision, one you should make after determining that you don’t have an intolerance or allergy, and listening to your body to see how it reacts.
- Gluten: This is another tricky one. I personally don’t have a gluten allergy or sensitivity so I have not cut it out completely, though I do try to eat gluten-free at home. The reason why it can be contraindicated for PCOS women is because 1) Many women with PCOS also have hypothyroidism which often makes you sensitive to gluten and 2) Many gluten products are refined carbs that are bad for women with PCOS and 3)The way wheat is grown and treated in our industrialized ag system means it’s often full of inflammatory and toxic pesticides that mimic estrogen in the body, and mess with your gut and hormones. So I say if you don’t have a sensitivity to gluten, limit it to a few servings per week and make sure it’s from organic, non-GMO sources.
- 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 cause inflammation, 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 causes 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 and you’ve tried everything to lose weight without success, 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, (which is what carbs are converted to when eaten), 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, excess androgen production from our ovaries and other less than desirable symptoms.
The solution: limit refined and starchy carbs to reduce those insulin spikes.
It’s also helpful to 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 June 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.
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Dr. Cleo 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!
Photo Credit: Heidi Geldhauser
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