PCOS: Nutrition Basics

Key Facts

  • PCOS is a hormone imbalance that can cause irregular periods, unwanted hair growth, and acne.
  • Women with PCOS often have higher insulin levels and weight loss can be difficult.
  • The treatment for PCOS is healthy nutrition, exercise, and medications.

Diet and exercise are important parts of managing PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome). 

This is because young women with PCOS often have higher levels of insulin (a hormone) in their blood, and many have trouble maintaining a healthy weight.

 Knowing the right types of foods to eat as well as the kinds of food to limit can improve the way you feel and may help you lose weight.

Eating well, staying active, and maintaining a healthy weight (or losing even a small amount of weight if you are overweight) can improve PCOS symptoms.

What do I need to know about insulin and carbohydrates?

The insulin level in your blood goes up after you eat. It goes up the most after you eat or drink something that contains carbohydrates. 

Carbohydrates are found in grains (such as bread, pasta, rice, and cereal), most snack foods (such as crisps, biscuits and sweets), sugary drinks such as fizzy lemonades, fruit juice, and fruits and vegetables.

Are all carbohydrates the same?

No. Even if you eat two foods that have the same amount of carbohydrate, they may have a different effect on your insulin level. 

This effect has a lot to do with the type of carbohydrate the food has.

Carbohydrate foods with FIBRE such as whole grains and vegetables are usually the best to eat if you are trying to keep your insulin level down. 

Carbohydrate foods that are sugary or refined (such as lemonade, fruit juice, white bread, and white rice) can cause insulin levels to go up higher. 

Foods and drinks like this are also not very filling (which means you may feel hungry shortly after eating them). Try to choose high–fibre, low–sugar carbohydrate foods most of the time.

Do I need to buy special foods?

No. You do not need to go out of your way to buy special foods. 

Just like with any healthy eating plan, your meals should include a balance of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, plant–based protein, lean meats, and healthy fats. 

Most foods fit into a healthy eating plan for PCOS, but you should READ FOOD LABELS to help you pick out the better choices. Look for high–fibre grains such as brown rice, whole–wheat pasta, and whole–wheat bread rather than low–fiber grains such as white rice, pasta, or white bread.

Do not be fooled by fat–free treats. They usually have a lot of added sugar. 

Also, some sugar–free foods (such as baked goods) are made with refined grains such as white flour and can raise your insulin levels the same way sugar can. 

Other sugar–free foods are carbohydrate free. These foods, sweetened with artificial sweetener, may be a good alternative if they don’t upset your stomach.

Currently no scientific data suggests moderate amounts of artificial sweetener are harmful to our health. However, these foods and drinks are processed. 

Try to stick to the most natural, whole form of each food (i.e., lemon sliced in water instead of diet lemonade).

Instead of:

  • Sweetened juice, canned fruit in heavy syrup, or sweetened applesauce
  • Starchy vegetables such as potatoes, corn, and peas
  • Refined grains made with white flour such as white bread and pasta, bagels, or white rice
    Sugared cereals such as Coco Pops®, Frosties®, or Crunchy Nut CornFlakes®, and other sweetened grains such as cereal bars (Nutrigrain Bars®), breakfast pastries (PopTarts®), and donuts
  • Sugary drinks such as lemonade or fruit juice
  • Sugary foods such as biscuits, cakes, and sweets
  • Snacks such as crisps, Doritos®, and tortilla chips

Choose:

  • Fresh fruits or frozen/canned fruit without added sugar, or unsweetened applesauce
  • Non–starchy fresh vegetables or frozen/canned vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, and carrots
  • Whole grains such as whole wheat pasta, brown rice, oats, and whole wheat bread
  • High fiber cereals such as Lizis Low Sugar Granola®, shredded wheat, and All Bran®. (Look for cereals that have at least 5 grams of fibre per serving or sprinkle ½ cup of bran cereal or unprocessed bran on a low–fibre cereal to increase the fibre)
  • Water or flavoured water with fruit if desired, unsweetened iced tea
  • High fibre baked goods made from whole wheat flour and oats
  • Crackers and snacks with fiber such as Ryvita®, Nairns Oatcakes®, or popcorn

Are “carbs” unhealthy?

No! Carbs (carbohydrates) give your body energy. Some people think that eating carbs will make them gain weight, but carbs will make you gain weight only if you eat more than your body needs. Many other important nutrients like vitamins and minerals come from carbohydrate foods, so eating no carbs is not a good idea. Because high–fibre carbohydrate foods are higher in nutrients and help you feel full longer than sugary low-fibre carbohydrates, it is best to choose high-fibre carbs as often as possible.

What about foods that have fats and proteins in them?

Protein foods such as beans, hummus, nuts, peanut butter, tofu, eggs, fish, chicken, meat, and vegetarian meat substitutes, and fats such as olive oil, nuts, and avocado are important parts of a PCOS–friendly eating plan. 

Combining foods that contain protein or fat with a carbohydrate will help to slow down the absorption of the carbohydrate and keep insulin levels low. For example, instead of plain rice, have rice with beans and a little avocado.

Keep in mind that some fats are much healthier than others. 

Healthy fats are found in olive oil, canola oil, nuts, avocados, and fish. 

Choose healthy fats and proteins instead of creamy sauces or dressings.

Do I need to follow a diet that is extra high in protein?

No. Really high protein diets (such as the Atkins diet) are not a good diet option for teens because they can be low in some important nutrients such as fiber, the B vitamins, and vitamin C. It is also important to remember that even if you limit your carbohydrate intake, overeating fat or protein can cause weight gain. You should aim for a way of eating that has a balance of protein, healthy carbohydrates, and some fat.

What does low glycemic index mean?

Glycemic index is a term used to describe how a food affects blood sugar. The higher a food raises blood sugar, the higher the glycemic index. High–fiber carbs have a lower glycemic index than sugary or refined carbs. Combining a carbohydrate food with another food can lower the glycemic index because it allows your body to absorb the carbohydrate more slowly. For example, if you have a piece of candy immediately after a meal it will not raise your blood sugar as high as it would if you ate the candy on its own between meals.

What fruits and vegetables have a low glycemic index?

Vegetables such as asparagus, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucumber, green beans, spinach, tomatoes, and zucchini and fruits such as apples, berries, grapes, oranges, peaches, and plums have a low glycemic index. Fruits and vegetables with more sugar or starch have a higher glycemic index (such as dried fruit, tropical fruit, corn, potatoes, squash, and peas).

Should I avoid dairy, sugar, gluten, or soy?

There is no current scientific data to support restricting or avoiding specific food groups or types of foods in order to improve PCOS symptoms. Following the dietary advice presented here, in addition to exercising, are healthy ways to manage weight and decrease symptoms.

If I choose the right foods, do I still need to be worried about my portion sizes?

Yes! In addition to what you eat, how much you eat also affects your insulin levels. For example, your insulin will go up much more if you have 3 cups of pasta than if you have 1 cup of pasta. This means it is usually better to have several small meals and snacks during the day than it is to have a few really big meals. Having more frequent smaller meals and snacks will keep your insulin level lower throughout the day.

What is the Nutrition Facts label?

The Nutrition Facts label explains what nutrients (components of food your body needs to grow and stay healthy) and how much of those nutrients are in found in one serving of the food. It is located on the outside of most food packages, but is not on most fresh foods (such as fruits and vegetables or meats). The Nutrition Facts label can help you make choices about the food you eat.

What should I look for on the Nutrition Facts label?

The first thing you should look at is serving size. The amount of each nutrient on the label is what is found in one serving of that food, not in the whole container. If you do not know what one serving size is, you will not know the amount of each nutrient you are actually getting. For example, a large bag of microwave popcorn has three servings in it. Its okay to eat more than one serving at a time, but it is important to know that if you eat the whole bag, you would be getting three times what is listed on the label. Portion control is an important part of healthy eating for PCOS, so keep the serving size in mind.

Do I need to read every Nutrition Facts label?

No. You do not need to keep track of every nutrient you are eating. Just look at Nutrition Facts labels occasionally to help you make healthy choices and choose foods that will give your body the nutrition it needs. For example, if you do not drink much milk, you should read Nutrition Facts labels to help you find other foods and drinks that are high in calcium. You can also use the Nutrition Facts label to compare two different foods. For example, if you are deciding between two different kinds of bread, reading the Nutrition Facts labels can help you make the healthier choice. Consider choosing the bread that has the highest amount of fiber.

The Nutrition Facts label lists a 2000-calorie diet. Should I be eating 2000 calories?

It’s possible that a 2000-calorie diet may be right for you, but many adolescents need more than 2000 calories as they grow in height, build bones, build muscles, and stay active, and some may need slightly less. The 2000–calorie diet is just an estimate and is used to help calculate the Percent (%) Daily Value listed on the Nutrition Facts label.

Is it important for me to exercise?

Yes! It is important that girls with PCOS exercise, because exercise brings down insulin levels, can help with weight loss, is important for cardiovascular health, and can help improve mood. Exercise can be especially helpful in lowering insulin directly after a meal. So, if possible, go for a walk or find an enjoyable way to move your body after you eat a meal. Any increase in exercise helps, so find an activity, sport, or exercise that you enjoy. If you are not doing a lot of exercise now, start slowly, and build up to your fitness goal. If you only exercise occasionally, try to exercise more regularly. Work towards increasing your physical activity to at least 5 days a week for 60 minutes per day.

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