The PCOS Diet: How to Lose Weight If You Have PCOS
Having polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) makes it easy to gain weight—and tough to lose. These strategies can help.
What is PCOS?
There are things every woman needs to know about PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome), a hormonal imbalance that affects one in 10 pre-menopausal women in the United States, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. “It’s one of the most common hormonal disorders in the developed world,” says nutritionist Janine Whiteson, MS, based in New York City. PCOS comes from an overproduction of male hormones or androgens that a woman’s ovaries naturally produce. This excess androgen secretion is responsible for most PCOS symptoms. Unfortunately, just because it’s a common affliction doesn’t mean the symptoms are easy to manage, so you’ll want to make sure you’re following a PCOS diet.
What are the symptoms of PCOS?
Women with PCOS have higher-than-normal levels of androgens, which can wreak havoc with your overall system. PCOS has been associated with serious health effects, according to the CDC—including heart conditions, infertility, increased risk of diabetes, skin issues (like acne), hair thinning, and obesity. Here are other reasons your hair might be falling out.
Why is PCOS linked to weight gain?
Women with PCOS tend to gain weight easily because they have higher-than-normal levels of insulin—a hormone that is produced in your pancreas that helps the cells in your body turn sugar (glucose) into energy. “PCOS coupled with weight gain promotes insulin resistance, which makes it very difficult to lose weight, it dramatically increases the risk of type 2 diabetes (and other metabolic health conditions), and it appears to upset the regulation of sex hormones in the body which worsens the symptoms of PCOS—a vicious cycle,” explains Whiteson. With that said, it should come as little surprise that between 40 to 80 percent of women with PCOS are overweight or obese. But you can avoid gaining weight—and even drop pounds—with PCOS if you follow these guidelines.
PCOS diet tip: Eat more fiber
To combat the symptoms of PCOS and reduce insulin levels, Whiteson urges her patients to follow a high-fiber diet. “High-fiber foods can help combat insulin resistance by slowing down digestion and reducing the impact of sugar in the blood, which may be beneficial to women with PCOS,” she says. Among the options she recommends are cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussel sprouts, greens including red leaf lettuce and arugula, green and red peppers, beans and lentils, almonds, berries, sweet potatoes, winter squash, and pumpkin. (And there are plenty of other benefits for your body when you eat more fiber.)
PCOS diet tip: Eat more lean protein
Protein keeps you fuller longer, so you’re less likely to reach for unhealthy snacks. “Lean protein such as tofu, chicken, and fish don’t provide fiber but are very filling and a healthy dietary option for women with PCOS,” says Whiteson. “Eggs are also a great diet component for women with PCOS. Not only are they a wonderful source of protein, but they’re packed with nutrients that improve the symptoms of PCOS. The egg yolk provides a good source of omega-3 fats, iron, folate, vitamins A, D, and E, thiamin, and choline.” Check out more ways to add lean protein to your diet.
PCOS diet tip: Eat foods that reduce inflammation
Inflammation may have a role to play in PCOS weight gain, and research from the North American Journal of Medical Sciences found that eating foods that help reduce inflammation can minimize PCOS symptoms and help study participants lose weight. Whiteson recommends tomatoes, kale, spinach, almonds and walnuts, olive oil, fruits (no fruit juices, which are often filled with added sugar and don’t have the fiber of fresh, whole fruits), fatty fish high in omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon and sardines, and whole grains.
PCOS diet tip: Cut back on certain foods
Refined carbohydrates cause inflammation and exacerbate insulin resistance, which is problematic for women suffering from PCOS, according to Whiteson. You’ll want to avoid highly processed foods and anything overly sugary—when reading food labels, be sure to look for sugar’s various names, which include sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, and dextrose, and be wary of “healthy” foods with hidden sugars. In general, cut back on white bread, muffins, breakfast pastries, white potatoes, and anything made with white flour. Skip pasta that lists semolina, durum flour, or durum wheat flour as their first ingredient because they’re high in carbohydrates and low in fiber. Instead, opt for pasta made from bean or lentil flour—you won’t believe these amazing new pasta alternatives!
You’ll also want to avoid foods that trigger inflammation, including margarine, processed meats, and fried foods like French fries.
PCOS diet tip: Make sure you’re getting enough iodine
Heads up if you’ve been watching your sodium—if you aren’t getting enough iodine (from iodized salt), that could be impacting your thyroid, contributing to PCOS issues with fertility. Not sure if you’re getting enough? The National Institutes of Health recommends taking 150 mcg of iodine daily. If you aren’t achieving that, iodine supplementation could help you with weight loss.
PCOS diet tip: Get your daily dose of vitamin D
Many women with PCOS have low vitamin D levels—these are the signs you could be vitamin D deficient. Studies have shown that correcting vitamin D deficiencies can be effective at improving insulin resistance. Foods that can help with your vitamin D levels include eggs (with the yolk), sardines, and wild-caught sockeye salmon. Should you get your vitamin D levels checked?
PCOS diet tip: For best results…
PCOS, like many disorders, responds positively to proactive lifestyle choices. This includes daily physical movement. “Exercise may reduce insulin resistance, especially when coupled with a limited intake of unhealthy carbohydrates – most experts agree that at least 150 minutes per week of exercise is ideal,” says Whiteson. “Women may experience improved ovulation with weight loss, so women who are obese or overweight and want to get pregnant may find physician-approved exercise especially important.”
Whiteson also notes that the symptoms associated with PCOS can cause stress. “Stress reduction techniques, which help calm the mind and let you connect with your body—like yoga—can also help.” Try these 8 mini-meditations to reduce stress on a regular basis.
- Janine Whiteson, MS, nutritionist based in New York City.
- CDC: "PCOS and Diabetes, Heart Disease, Stroke"
- National Institutes of Health: Iodine
- US National Library of Medicine: "Prevalence of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) in Obese Premenopausal Women"
- North American Journal of Medical Sciences: "Anti-Inflammatory Dietary Combo in Overweight and Obese Women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome"
- Human Reproduction: "Delayed conception in women with low-urinary iodine concentrations: a population-based prospective cohort study"
- PLoS One: "Effects of vitamin D on insulin resistance and myosteatosis in diet-induced obese mice"