PCOS and Your Diet: What You Need to Know
September is Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) awareness month. For some of you, this may be the first time you’ve ever heard of it. But for the estimated 10 million women in the United States who suffer from it, PCOS is an ongoing battle.
Learning about PCOS to increase awareness is only half the battle. Knowing more about effective treatments—including the best type of diet to eat—can help women better manage PCOS.
What is PCOS?
PCOS is the most common female endocrine disorder and the leading cause of infertility. Although the cause is unknown, PCOS occurs when a hormonal imbalance causes the body to produce more androgen, a male hormone that females also produce, than normal. This increased production causes cysts to form on the ovaries.
In addition to infertility, women with PCOS have also been shown to be at higher risk for high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, and heart disease.
While the exact cause of PCOS is unknown, doctors and specialists have found that the following factors can play a role:
- Women whose mothers or sisters have PCOS have an increased chance of developing it as well.
- Research has shown that low-grade inflammation also plays a role in PCOS by causing the ovaries to produce excess androgens.
- Insulin resistance. This causes the body to produce excess insulin, which in turn increases androgen production which can prevent ovulation.
- Environmental factors. Certain chemicals have also been associated with PCOS. In one study, women with PCOS had elevated levels of BPA compared to healthy women without PCOS.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
The signs and symptoms of PCOS can vary with each person, with the most common including:
- Irregular or absent menstrual flow
- Fatigue and lack of energy
- Hair growth on face and body
- Pain in the pelvis
- Weight gain
- High insulin levels
- Mood swings
- Sleep apnea or other sleep disorders
If you think you could have PCOS, your doctor may refer you to a specialist, usually a gynecologist or endocrinologist, to conduct a series of blood tests. An ultrasound or pelvic exam may also be required.
Treating PCOS usually focuses on managing the symptoms. For example, your doctor might prescribe drugs to help you regulate your periods or, if you’re trying to become pregnant, help you ovulate. If you’re overweight, your doctor may also recommend you lose weight through diet and exercise.
Diet and PCOS
Because treating PCOS often comes down to managing symptoms, your diet can play a major role in your treatment. Research has shown that a plant-based diet can help manage PCOS in a number of ways.
First, it can help with weight loss. Because weight is often a risk factor in PCOS, achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is important in the treatment. This study tracked the low-fat diets of overweight participants and found that those who followed a vegan or vegetarian diet lost almost twice as much weight as those who consumed some meat with their diets.
Plant-based diets can also help with PCOS by decreasing the bioavailability of sex hormones in women with excessive testosterone production.
Why Plant-Based Diets?
A healthy, plant-based diet includes fiber-rich whole foods, including whole grains, vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, and legumes. It also limits refined sugars, unhealthy “white” carbs, and processed foods.
Plant-based provides many benefits for women with PCOS. Let’s take a look at a few:
Plant-based diets are low-glycemic
A low-glycemic diet is one that is lower in refined sugars and refined carbohydrates. Refined carbs remove the whole grain, along with many of its valuable nutrients. Examples of foods with refined carbs include white breads, cakes and pastries, pasta, and other “white” flours. Refined sugars and carbohydrates can cause insulin to spike, which can lead to insulin resistance—one of the key factors in PCOS.
Plant-based diets are high in fiber
Vegetables and whole grains are naturally high in fiber and complex carbohydrates. Not only does this help regulate sugar and insulin levels, but it also increases satiety, so you feel fuller after meals and less likely to crave unhealthy carbs and sugars.
Plant-based diets are loaded with phytochemicals
Phytochemicals are compounds found in plants that are beneficial to health. The isoflavones in soybeans, for example, have been shown to help control many of the symptoms of PCOS, including inflammation and high cholesterol.
Plant-based diets are low in saturated fat and cholesterol.
Animal proteins contain saturated fat and cholesterol, which can increase insulin production and cholesterol, two factors associated with PCOS. A plant-based diet can also help maintain a healthy weight. This study also found that vegans and vegetarians had lower BMIs than meat-eaters.
Plant Proteins and PCOS
Protein is also crucial when managing PCOS through diet. Aside from supporting muscle growth, metabolism, and providing sustained energy, protein also helps regulate blood sugar ,insulin production and control weight.
Whole plant-based proteins have a number of advantages over animal proteins. They are free of cholesterol and saturated fats, high in fiber, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and essential amino acids. They’re also free from residual hormones which may be present in animal proteins.
With PCOS, it’s not just the type of protein you eat that matters, but when you eat it. Protein timing involves consuming enough protein in each meal every few hours in order to stimulate muscle protein synthesis (MPS), which helps your muscle tissue rebuild through new muscle protein and prevents your body from using muscle for energy. Most importantly, it also helps to regulate blood sugar and insulin production.
Protein contains amino acids, one of which is leucine. Leucine is the only one that kicks MPS into gear. MPS is active between 3-5 hours of consuming protein, so eating a protein source with 2-3 grams of leucine every 3-5 hours will help keep your muscles fueled.
You probably won’t find leucine listed on nutrition fact labels, but many of the best sources of plant-based protein are also high in leucine. To give you an idea, you’ll get the recommended 2-3 grams in the following foods:
- 4 ounces (almost 2 cups) of pumpkin seeds
- 1 and 1/2 cup of soybeans
- 1 cup of tempeh
- 5-7 ounces (1 cup) of whole almonds
- 1 cup peanuts
- 1 and 3/4 cups of lentils
Technical information aside, most people should aim to consume at least 25 grams of protein (from a variety of sources) in each meal (or closer to 30 grams for plant-based proteins to make up for slightly lower digestibility).
Some of the best sources of plant-based protein include beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, whole grains and even plant-based protein powders which are versatile, convenient, and can be easily mixed into a smoothie or all these other recipes. Unlike whole food plant proteins, Growing Naturals plant protein powders are rich in protein without much of anything else.
PCOS affects an estimated 6-10% of women worldwide and can have a number of negative physical and emotional side effects. But PCOS doesn’t have to get you down. Knowing how to manage PCOS through a lifestyle that includes a healthy, plant-based diet can help treat symptoms of PCOS while living a fuller, healthier life.
Written By: Jill Overmyer
Reviewed and Edited By: Scarlett Full, in-house Registered Dietitian