Very Simple Changes Women Can Make to their Diet to Improve Their Symptoms of PCOS

Having been diagnosed with PCOS myself when I was in my 20s, I have found a progression in the symptoms that I experienced as I got older. This forced me to review my diet to see if there is anything that I could do to improve the symptoms that I experienced. So, in this blog post, I share with you some very simple changes women can make to their diet to improve their symptoms of PCOS.

These changes are based on what worked for me and recommendations by fully qualified nutritionists.

PLEASE SPEAK TO YOUR HEALTHCARE PROFESSIONAL BEFORE MAKING ANY CHANGES TO YOUR DIET!

WHAT IS PCOS?

PCOS stands for Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome and it is a common fertility problem in women that can affect the way a woman’s ovaries work.

According to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, PCOS is thought to affect around 1 in 5 women in the UK.

The 3 main features of PCOS are:

  • irregular periods – this is when a woman does not menstruate regularly eg every 28 days, indicating that her ovaries do not regularly release eggs (ovulation)
  • excess androgen – this is when a woman has high levels of “male” hormones in her body, which may cause physical signs such as excess facial or body hair
  • polycystic ovaries – during an ultrasound scan, it is discovered that your ovaries have become enlarged and contain many fluid-filled sacs (follicles) that surround the eggs. Please note that despite the name, you do not actually have cysts if you have PCOS

If you have at least 2 of these features, you may be diagnosed with PCOS.

The exact cause of PCOS is unknown but many of its associated symptoms are caused by insulin resistance. These include:

  • Absent, infrequent or irregular periods
  • Excess hair (hirsutism) particularly on your face, chest and stomach
  • Difficulty controlling weight
  • Thinning of hair
  • Acne
  • Infertility (problems conceiving)
  • Tiredness
  • Mood swings
  • Raised cholesterol
  • Underactive or overactive thyroid
  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression

Long-term risks of PCOS

Having PCOS can increase your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Treatment

According to South Warwickshire NHS Foundation Hospital, there is currently no cure for PCOS. However, its symptoms may be improved by dietary and lifestyle changes like healthy eating, increased physical activity, cosmetic measures and medication. Stopping smoking is also encouraged as part of a healthy lifestyle. Evidence has shown that these dietary and lifestyle changes are the most effective treatment for PCOS.

WHAT ADVICE DO UK NUTRITIONISTS HAVE TO GIVE ABOUT PCOS AND OUR DIET?

1. Pollyanna Hale says:

POLLYANNA HALE UK nutritionistManaging PCOS through diet is mostly about reducing sugar intake and balancing blood sugar. People with PCOS tend to have higher insulin levels and poor blood sugar regulation compared to most people. Losing weight is always helpful when needed, though PCOS sufferers might have to work harder at that, it’s definitely possible.

  1. Swap refined carbs for slow release, low GI ones. So swap white rice, pasta, bread and cakes and biscuits for beans and pulses and wholegrain versions, and swap mashed potatoes for skin-on new potatoes or baked sweet potatoes. Have smaller portions of carbs overall.
  2. Get a sweet fix from naturally sweet fresh (not dried) fruit, and use a natural sweetener like stevia instead of sugar, though sparingly, don’t overdo sweeteners either!
  3. Eat plenty of protein – some at every meal and snack, and include healthy fats which are not only necessary for health but also slows down food digestion and slows blood sugar rising.
  4. Do high-intensity interval training – it’s great at depleting blood sugar and regulating metabolism and the body’s ability to digest carbs without big insulin spikes.
ABOUT POLLYANNA HALE

Pollyanna Hale helps Mums lose weight, get fit, and have more energy and body confidence with online coaching and programmes, books and a free Facebook community group at thefitmumformula.com. A Mum of two young girls, Polly understands how hard it is for us Mums to make ourselves a priority when all our energy and willpower gets drained before we’ve even done the school run! Everything she teaches is designed to be compatible with crazy busy Mum-life, because you matter too, Mum.

Please click here to visit Pollyanna Hale’s website.

 

2. Ellie Busby says:

  1. Add more spices to your diet – especially turmeric and cinnamon! Studies show curcumin (the active ingredient in turmeric) may improve glycaemic control and lipid metabolism in those with PCOS. Curcumin helps people with PCOS balance their blood sugar, improve insulin sensitivity and improve fat burning. Cinnamon has also been shown to significantly improve the action of insulin in women with PCOS.
  2. Replace simple carbohydrates (like white bread/pasta/rice, sugary foods, etc) with complex carbs like whole grains and sources of protein – especially plant-based protein such as beans, lentils, quinoa and tofu. Studies show women with PCOS on a diet lower in carbohydrate (<50%) and higher in protein had better blood sugar control (and hence better able to control eating and weight).
  3. Eat more soya foods such as tofu, tempeh and soya milk. Studies show that women with PCOS who consumed more soya isoflavones had significantly lower testosterone levels and better overall hormone balance, leading to less unwanted body or facial hair.

Please click here to visit Ellie Busby’s website.

 

3. Sarah Hawkins says:

Sarah Hawkins UK nutritionist‘Due to the associated insulin resistance seen with PCOS, balancing blood sugars is key. Some ways to do so include eating every 3-4 hours to prevent getting too hungry, adding a source of protein (meat, fish, eggs, chicken, dairy, lentils, beans, peas, tofu, soy products) and fibre (fruit, veggies, potatoes, wholegrain rice, lentils, beans, peas, spelt and rye, quinoa, buckwheat, sweet potato, parsnips, beetroot, turnip and carrots) to each meal as these help to balance blood sugars as well as keeping us feeling fuller for longer, ensuring you’re eating enough fats (plant oils, oily fish, nuts, seeds, nut butter, meat, butter) to support hormonal production as well as starchy carbohydrates as these give a slow release of energy, keep us feeling fuller for longer and prevent that spike in glucose in the bloodstream. In addition to diet, lifestyle factors play a role in managing PCOS. Getting at least 7-9 hours of good quality sleep and managing stress help to keep cortisol (stress hormone) levels low and resistance training can improve insulin sensitivity.’

ABOUT SARAH HAWKINS

My name is Sarah Hawkins BSc ANutr of F.I.G (Food is Good) Nutrition and I am a freelance nutritionist with a special interest in female health, digestion and improving our relationship with food. I work one to one with clients to support their female cycle, uncomfortable gut symptoms, emotional and comfort eating and build a better relationship with both food and their bodies.

Please click here to connect with Sarah Hawkins on Instagram (my handle is @f.i.g_nutrition_).

 

4. Janice Tracey says:

Janice Tracey UK NutritionistImproving insulin sensitivity is by far the biggest win as this will support all the other areas, including making weight loss easier which is often (but not always) an issue with PCOS sufferers

Dietary Tips for improving insulin sensitivity:

  1. Someone with PCOS will want to make their cells more sensitive to insulin.  So the less amount of insulin secreted (in response to a high sugar/refined carb diet) the more sensitive the cells will become.
  2. Reduce significantly (eliminate initially) refined carbohydrates (sweets, processed food, chocolate, white bread, white pasta, pastries and biscuits)
  3. Reduce the proportion of starchy carbohydrates you have in your diet and increase the proportion of protein, healthy omega 3 fats and fibre you consume
  4. Avoid processed foods
  5. Always consume some protein when eating carbohydrates as this slows the release of the sugar into the bloodstream

So in other words follow Low GL style of eating.

  • Swap High Glycaemic Load foods for Low Glycaemic Load foods
  • Examples
    • Crisps -> Almonds/Chika Smoked Almonds
    • Mashed Potatoes -> Mashed Turnip & Carrot
    • Potatoes chipped -> Butternut Squash chipped
    • Granola -> Bircher Museli/Overnight Oats/Chia Pudding
    • Toast & Butter -> Oatcakes & Peanut Butter
    • Can of Coke -> Bottle of Kombucha
    • Chocolate Bar -> Protein Balls (Recipe attached)
ABOUT Janice Tracey

I’m a Nutritional Therapist, I have worked with a number of PCOS clients, including a few who were trying to regulate periods in order to get pregnant.

The main areas I support are:

  • Improving Insulin Sensitivity
  • Adrenal support (stress)
  • Balancing hormones
  • Weight Management

I have a Diploma in Nutritional Therapy from the Institute of Health Sciences Dublin (3.5 years study). I am Accredited and affiliated with the Nutritional Therapists of Ireland and working in Northern Ireland.

Covered by Balens

Please click here to visit Janice Tracey’s website.

 

5. Debbi Nathan says:

PCOS is a complex disorder with a variety of symptoms. For women taking Metformin, I strongly recommend increasing foods high in vitamin B12, as Metformin treatment may inhibit B12 absorption. This is particularly relevant for anyone following a vegan diet, as B12 is found predominantly in animal products such as meat, eggs, chicken, liver.

Women with PCOS also tend to have gut issues and a lower diversity of beneficial gut bacteria. I would recommend fermented foods such as miso, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha.

Omega 3 fatty acids play an essential role and increasing healthy fats found in salmon, herring, fresh nuts and seeds is very beneficial.

Foods containing Myo-inositol are also important. Citrus fruits are a great source as well as cantaloupe melon, oats, and quinoa.

Eating organic foods wherever possible is highly recommended in order to avoid endocrine disruptors found in pesticides. Endocrine disruptors affect hormonal balance and female reproductive systems.

Low GI foods are beneficial and all processed foods should be avoided. Sugary snacks and drinks, refined grains and wheat found in baked goods and refined oils in crisps and takeaway foods should be avoided as much as possible.

ABOUT DEBBI NATHAN

Debbi Nathan is the founder of Your Gene Team, which is a personalised nutrition and genetic testing business based in London.

Please click here to visit Debbi Nathan’s website.

 

6. Ruby Raut (founder of Wuka) says:

wuka period pants for super heavy flowWe recently created WUKA super heavy flow for people who have heavy bleeding which is common in people who have PCOS and Endo. With this range, we also donate 1% to Endometriosis UK.

We also have WUKA period advisor Dr Bajekal who is a Gynaecologist with over 35 years of experience in Women’s Health and often talks about PCOS and nutrient-based remedies to improve the symptoms of PCOS.

Here are her recommendations when it comes to making changes to diet when you have PCOS:

  • Adopt a predominantly fibre rich whole food plant-based way of eating to see maximum gain. Focus on foods that are rich in fibre and are absorbed slowly by the body (porridge for example). This will prevent surges of insulin and blood sugar, which can make PCOS more difficult to treat.
  • Aim for 10 -13 portions of fruit and vegetables daily (80 grams or what fits in the palm of your hand is one portion for example 2 broccoli florets, one apple, two satsumas).
  • Eat a varied and rainbow coloured diet.

 

7. Anne Iarchy says:

Anne Iarchy nutritionistPCOS is a hormonal condition that can be compared in a certain way to diabetes. I generally like to describe it as “diabetes of the ovaries”.

Once you know that, the diet changes to make is very similar to a person with diabetes with a few additions:

  1. Cut out sugar
  2. Cut out processed food
  3. Reduce carbohydrates, and if need be only have complex carbohydrates
  4. Remember that vegetables are a great source of carbohydrates, so replace your rice for instance with cauliflower rice. Replace your pasta with pea pasta, lentil pasta, etc.
  5. Up your oily fish intake: tuna, salmon, sardines, mackerel, cod, etc.
  6. Up your omega3 intake through olives, avocado, nuts and seeds: don’t overdo it as those are high in calories, but half an avocado a day and a handful of nuts, or 10 olives and a spoonful of seeds daily are important.
  7. To help reduce cravings especially during period times, take a good supplement of magnesium and chromium on a daily basis.

From a lifestyle point of view:

Reduce stress, exercise regularly and get enough sleep.

Please click here to visit Anne Iarchy’s website.

 

MY DIET STRUGGLES

Let’s be honest, after decades of forming our eating habits, it is not an easy feat to make all these changes. Even as I write this article, I do not see myself following every single recommendation here.

I am a big believer in STARTING. Just START! Just make ONE CHANGE. That’s all you need to do right now.

I love the taste of white bread and as someone who doesn’t drink alcohol, smoke or have any other vices, I can’t imagine myself giving up bread voluntarily. Like most smokers will tell you, we’re all going to die of something anyway.

Over the years, I have come to realise that our bodies are an organism in their own right. My body knows what it wants and would not let me do anything else.

WHITE BREAD

In 2015, I noticed that every time I ate the co-op brand of white bread, my tummy used to hurt. I thought there was something wrong with their bread, so I stopped buying from the co-op. In 2020, I discovered that my tummy did not agree with some other supermarket brand bread, so I stopped buying them. Now, I can only eat the Aldi/Lidl brand bread. I imagine it is only a matter of time that my body rejects ALL white bread.

Thankfully, I do know how to bake and I have some lovely white bread recipes that are filled with vegetables. My favourite bread recipe is my courgette white bread/bread rolls.

So, to look after my health and keep the taste of white bread that I love, I make my own bread. The beauty of baking bread is that you can choose a recipe that fits your own needs. I tend to add grated courgettes, organic maca powder and chia seed powder to the bread dough.

I have not baked recently because I have found myself struggling with controlling my stress levels. I have to remind myself that I do not have to be perfect all the time and I do not need to do every single thing on my to-do list every single day. I pick my battles.

On my to-buy list is a bread maker that kneads and bakes bread loaves and bread rolls. This would save me a lot of time and would be one less thing for me to worry about.

The thing I love most about baking and cooking, in general, is that you can cook according to YOUR own tastes, not what anyone else tells you.

Last year, I tried baking with cinnamon and I HATED the taste. I accidentally used mixed spice instead of cinnamon when I wanted to make some pancake for my daughter and it felt like that was what my body had been craving.

SPICES

Now, my spice rack always has:

  • Maca (where has this been all my life?)
  • Ground ginger
  • Mixed spices
  • Curry powder
  • Turmeric
  • Cloves
  • Cinnamon
  • Flaxseeds
  • Chia seeds

SUPPLEMENTS

At one point, I found that I was struggling really badly with tiredness. Sometimes, I would get dizzy just walking and I was having lots of mood swings. This was the point that I knew that I needed to do something urgently.

Here are my daily supplements:

  • Multivitamins with Iron
  • Evening Primrose Oil
  • Glucosamine with Vitamin C
  • Actimel probiotics

The first day I took an evening primrose oil capsule, it felt like the clouds on my head was lifted. It felt like I used to look at the world through a dirty window and suddenly, the window was clean and I could see the world clearly.

The multivitamins with iron help to combat my tiredness. The iron content was small enough that I didn’t experience any of the routine side effects associated with taking iron supplements.

The glucosamine tablet was to help with joint pain.

The first day I took a small bottle of Actimel probiotics, it felt like I drank liquid happiness. I really don’t know how else to explain it.

PROBIOTICS

Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that are good for you, especially your digestive system. Thus, probiotics are often called “good” bacteria because they help keep your gut healthy.

The gut is thought to be our second brain. What happens in the brain happens in the gut, hence the Gut-Brain axis.

According to several articles that I read, research has shown some women to be calmer when taking probiotics. Could this be the reason why I feel a burst of happiness when I take my probiotic?

Here are some articles that you can read on the subject:

Probiotics may help boost mood and cognitive function – Harvard Health

Probiotics alone or combined with prebiotics may help ease depression | BMJ

Can Probiotics Help Ease Depression? (webmd.com)

 

White Rice

I once tried to eat brown rice but didn’t like the taste. So, I have decided to keep eating my easy cook long-grain white rice.

However, here’s how I make my white rice healthy:

FRIED RICE

First, I parboil my rice then cook it to perfection. Whilst the rice is cooking, I make some scrambled eggs. Once done, I put it to the side. Using the same frying pan, I stir fry some frozen mushrooms and shrimps. I add in some onions and scotch bonnet pepper then some frozen spinach. I add in my go-to spices – maca powder, curry powder, ground ginger, turmeric and mixed spices. Obviously, salt to taste.

Once it is cooked, I add in some frozen peas before adding the scrambled eggs.

I used to hate the taste of frozen mixed veg as a child, so I have not cooked with it for over 15 years now.

Finally, I add in my rice and voila –  a healthy white rice dish. I have found that every time I cook rice this way, instead of simply eating eg a cup of rice, I end up with half a cup of rice and half a cup of veggies/protein.

Sometimes, when I find that I have a bit of time on my hand, I slice some onions and bell peppers and freeze them in individual portion sizes. This way, all I have to do is take out a portion when I want to cook.

I always freeze two portions of the rice, to save me cooking the following week.

RICE AND STEW

Sometimes, I crave the taste of plain white rice, so I make a stew to go with it.

I first fry some diced beef in a pot, I am a big fan of one-pot cooking. I add in some onions and scotch bonnet peppers, salt and spices as above. If I have any frozen bell peppers, I add them at this point

In the past, I felt that my food tasted better when I blended fresh tomatoes and different peppers. But I found myself getting stressed with all the cooking from scratch. I now opt for passata or very rarely, I would use tinned chopped tomatoes.

I add my tomatoes to my fried beef and lower the heat. It takes at least 30 minutes of cooking for the sharpness in the taste of the tomatoes to be cooked out.

Because of the length of time of cooking and heat, I do not use vegetables that denature easily. So not green peas.

I add either chickpeas or red kidney beans. I prefer using chickpeas as I find the flavour to be mild. Sometimes, I add some frozen spinach to the stew.

I always boil some eggs to have with my rice and stew.

***

If you would like some more very simple changes women can make to their diet to improve their symptoms of PCOS, please leave a comment below.

Remember, PLEASE SPEAK TO YOUR HEALTHCARE PROFESSIONAL BEFORE MAKING ANY CHANGES TO YOUR DIET!

Also consider joining PCOS Rant, a support group for women living with PCOS.

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