Many women live with a hormonal disorder known as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Making small lifestyle changes, including diet and exercise, as part of an overall care plan can help improve the symptoms of PCOS.

What is PCOS?

Polycystic ovarian syndrome, also known as PCOS, is a common hormonal disorder that affects both girls and women of child-bearing age. With PCOS, the ovaries produce too much of male sex hormones called androgens. In some cases, the hormonal imbalance may affect menstrual cycles, prevent women from ovulating and could cause fertility problems.

Symptoms of PCOS include:

  • irregular periods
  • weight gain
  • excessive body hair (also known as hirsutism)
  • acne
  • thinning hair
  • elevated blood sugars
  • dark velvety skin in skin folds and creases (called acanthosis nigricans)

Your OB/GYN, primary care physician or endocrinologist can help with diagnosis of PCOS and treatment with medication. Medications can be helpful for symptom management including insulin resistance, regulating menstruation and treating acne.

How might PCOS be connected to weight gain?

PCOS is also related to metabolic conditions that may cause weight gain, elevated blood sugars and higher blood pressure. People with PCOS may have what is called insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas. Insulin is needed to help your body bring sugars from the blood stream into cells to be used as energy for your muscles, body fat and liver.

With insulin resistance, the body doesn’t use insulin the way it should, and insulin levels build up in your body. This often leads to higher blood sugars. If you have higher amounts of insulin, you may produce more androgens, which may make it harder to ovulate regularly.

For women with PCOS, working with a registered dietitian as part of their treatment plan can be helpful. A registered dietitian will take a closer look at your current food choices and offer ways to make improvements in sustainable and easy ways.

Dietary changes that can help PCOS

As with many health conditions, adopting healthier lifestyles can improve the symptoms of PCOS. There is good evidence to support adding in whole plant-based foods, such as those suggested on a Mediterranean diet plan or DASH diet. These diets balance fiber-rich foods, healthy fats and foods rich in antioxidants.

Focus on adding:

  • Whole grains such as oatmeal, brown rice and quinoa.
  • Non-starchy vegetables such as broccoli, green beans and eggplant.
  • Green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale and collard greens.
  • Legumes and pulses such as black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas and lentils.
  • Fish and shellfish.
  • Nuts and seeds such as walnuts, pistachios and sunflower seeds.
  • Fruits, including a variety of berries and citrus fruits.

When making lifestyle changes, it’s always better to start slowly and work on incorporating these changes a little bit at a time. The following tips are easy ways to add more whole plant-based foods into your diet.

  • Swap juice and soda to fruit infused water if you don’t like plain water (try adding cucumber, citrus fruits, berries or mint!).
  • Instead of crackers or chips, aim to have fruit with peanut butter or a handful of nuts as a snack.
  • Swap white bread, rice or pasta for 100% whole grain or whole wheat.
  • Make half of your plate “non-starchy vegetables” (start with any vegetable that you already like and increase how much you are eating).
  • Have beans as your protein instead of meat a couple times per week (including trying a hearty soup like Minestrone, having whole grain pasta tossed with white beans and veggies or adding chickpeas to a salad for lunch).

The following websites are great for trying new recipes!

Foods to reduce to help PCOS

While you work on incorporating more nutritional foods, work on cutting back on the foods listed below.

  • Foods made with white flour including white bread, dinner rolls, pasta, crackers, pizza crust.
  • Sugary beverages like soda, juices, iced tea, energy drinks.
  • Processed snacks including cookies, cakes, granola bars and candy.
  • Certain cereals including instant oatmeal with added sugar and granola.
  • Fried foods (including French fries, fried chicken and fish, potato chips).
  • White rice.
  • Excessive red meat including hamburger, pork and steak.
  • Processed luncheon meats, hot dogs and sausage.

Add physical activity to your day

Aside from making changes in your diet, increasing physical activity can help improve PCOS symptoms. You can start small by walking, if you are able, for 10-15 minutes a day at a time of day that works best for you. Or you could do some light yoga, biking or swimming.

The registered dietitians at the Lifespan Lifestyle Medicine Center can help you identify the small changes to make to start improving not only your PCOS symptoms but also your overall health. Learn more on the Lifestyle Medicine website or call 401-793-7837.