How to lose weight with PCOS and maintain your motivation
Losing weight and keeping it off is challenging in its own right. But it can be even harder when you have PCOS. The main reason for this is PCOS causes the body to make excessive amounts of insulin, which can drive weight gain.
And yet, for women with PCOS, losing weight can improve many of the troublesome symptoms, like acne, excess facial hair, and irregular periods. So, while it may require a little more motivation, taking steps to manage your weight is a worthy investment for your overall health and wellbeing.
Why does PCOS lead to weight gain?
Weight loss can be tricky for women with PCOS due to the role insulin plays. Insulin helps transfer glucose from the bloodstream into the cells for energy. However, those with PCOS are often insulin resistant – in other words, the body can produce insulin but is unable to use it efficiently. As a result, the pancreas releases more insulin to compensate, leading to a build-up of blood sugar, which can cause weight gain and other bothersome symptoms.
To complicate matters further, excess weight can worsen many aspects of PCOS, as it can cause the body to produce even more insulin. If you want to learn more, click here to read about the link between PCOS and weight gain.
How to lose weight with PCOS?
Healthy weight loss with PCOS is much like healthy weight loss for anyone. However, there are specific diet and exercise considerations to keep in mind that can support your overall management of PCOS, and weight loss for those who have the condition.
Most diets are built to fail. They may work initially, despite being punishingly difficult, but they often cause more weight gain further down the line. Plus, the messaging around them can be incredibly toxic, which can damage emotional health and even lead to disordered eating.
If you’ve found yourself in an unsustainable cycle of dieting, don’t worry. Little tweaks to how, what, and when you eat can help you lose weight with PCOS in a healthy, manageable way.
Time-restricted feeding, or intermittent fasting, has gained traction in the female hormone space as a possible intervention to help PCOS weight loss through its influence on insulin (1).
Since eating stimulates insulin production, fasting can help reduce blood sugar and insulin levels. In a fasting state, the body switches from storage mode to fat-burning mode, using up its own energy and sugar reserves, which may result in weight loss.
Aligning your eating time with your circadian rhythm – eating in an 8-10-hour window – is a great place to start. Many people choose to eat between 12 pm and 8 pm, which can feel most achievable. Time-restricted feeding is also known to improve sleep, which further supports healthy weight management.
However, it’s worth mentioning that fasting isn’t suitable for every woman with PCOS. If you’re struggling with infertility or blood sugar issues, then it’s best to avoid it. Additionally, you shouldn’t fast when menstruating.
Choose complex carbohydrates
The internet is awash with PCOS diets telling women to cut carbs completely. But this doesn’t have to be the case. Plus, deprivation isn’t sustainable. Simply adding more of the ‘right’ carbohydrates to your diet will support your weight loss goals and hormonal health.
Unlike simple carbohydrates, which are broken down quickly and cause glucose levels to spike almost immediately, complex carbohydrates are digested more slowly, meaning blood sugar levels rise gradually.
For this reason, complex carbohydrates, like quinoa, buckwheat, whole-wheat pasta, sweet potatoes, and brown rice are much healthier choices than processed ‘beige’ foods, like white pasta, breakfast cereals, and sweets.
Feed your gut
Gut health affects far more than the digestive system, with research now suggesting a healthy, happy gut may play a role in weight maintenance (2).
There are many ways to support your gut health. Eating more fermented foods, like natural yoghurt, kefir, kombucha, pickles, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, and kimchi is believed to increase the microbial diversity of your gut bacteria, a marker of good gut health (3).
Eating 30 different plant foods every week is another easy win for your gut. These foods are rich in polyphenols and fibre, which feed your gut microbes. Studies suggest individuals following a diverse Mediterranean diet have a more varied gut microbiome – and this is a good indicator of a healthy gut (4). Plant foods include fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes, and beans.
Aside from supporting gut health, eating more fibre increases feelings of fullness, further supporting healthy weight management. One study associated higher fibre intake with less total body fat and lower insulin resistance in those with PCOS (5).
You may also wish to add live cultures and natural soluble fibre derived from chicory root to your diet to help the gut work optimally.
Alongside supporting the building blocks of tissues, bones, muscles, skin and blood, protein is essential for metabolic function and satiety. That’s why it’s one of the best weapons for weight loss. It may also reduce cravings and regulate hunger hormones, making it an even better food source for healthy weight management (6).
Try to include a protein source – animal (meat, fish, and eggs) or plant-based (quinoa, pulses, beans, tofu, tempeh, nuts, and seeds) – at every meal to keep you full and satisfied.
While the content of your meals and snacks matter, your mealtime rituals are equally important. Mindful eating is firmly grounded in Buddhism and aims to reconnect you to the entire eating experience. The practice encourages you to appreciate the smells, textures, flavours, and appearance of your food.
Mindfulness also invites you to tune into and track your feelings, prompting you to ask: “Am I hungry, or am I simply craving food through boredom, frustration, or stress?’ In this, mindful eating can support weight loss by combating overindulgence, cravings and emotional eating (7).
To incorporate more mindfulness into your daily routine, try eating your food slowly, savouring every bite, and listening to your body’s signals; eat until you’re full, no more.
Dehydration is often mistaken for hunger. Since the body compensates for the low energy caused by low fluid levels, dehydration can cause hunger pangs.
When you’re dehydrated, you’re also more likely to experience tiredness, irritability, brain fog and headaches – all of which can chip away at your willpower and motivation to eat healthily.
Guidelines suggest drinking around eight to ten large glasses of water per day. As a rule of thumb, aim for an amount that turns your urine a pale colour. Remember, fruit and vegetables are also packed with water; filling up on these will give you an extra hydration boost.
You can find out more about what to eat to manage PCOS symptoms here.
PCOS weight loss diet plan
To support your PCOS weight loss journey, your daily menu may look a little like this…
Breakfast (at 11.30 am if you decide to fast): Natural yoghurt or a plant-based alternative, berry granola, a spoonful of almond butter, blueberries, strawberries, and flaked almonds
Snack: Small handful of cashew nuts
Lunch: Poached eggs or hummus, sliced avocado, and spinach on wholegrain toast with a sprinkling of mixed seeds
Snack: Sliced apple with a peanut butter
Dinner: Smoked salmon or tofu with quinoa and kale
Dessert: Two squares of 70% dark chocolate
How does exercise help PCOS weight loss?
While diet is crucial, exercise can also be beneficial for managing insulin resistance, supporting weight loss, and improving overall health if you have PCOS.
A growing body of research suggests strength training may reduce insulin resistance, which is at the heart of many PCOS symptoms, including cravings, hunger, fatigue, and weight loss resistance.
Strength training makes your muscle cells more sensitive to insulin, meaning the pancreas needs to produce less insulin to keep your metabolism working efficiently. One study revealed that strength training may even change the gene expression thought to cause insulin resistance in women with PCOS (8).
Strength training uses your own body weight, weights or resistance bands to build strength. If you don’t have access to gym equipment, you could get creative at home with bags of sugar, coffee, table books, and cans.
HIIT workouts are another brilliant tool for women with PCOS. Broadly speaking, HIIT improves insulin resistance and supports weight loss (9). And these effects can last for days after the workout session.
Try incorporating more HIIT into your fitness regime. If you’re going for a run, for instance, consider adding a few sprints. The same applies to a stationary bike: pedal as hard and fast as possible for 30 seconds. Then, pedal at a slower pace for a few minutes.
PCOS often lead to anxiety and low mood – and this can worsen PCOS symptoms. Mind-body exercises, like tai chi, yoga, and Pilates, can help reduce stress, as well as burn calories, which helps support healthy weight loss (10).
Joining a weekly class can work wonders for your health, wellbeing, and PCOS weight loss journey. You can also find plenty of free sequences online.
Does PCOS improve with exercise?
If you have PCOS, moving more is one of the best things you can do to support your health. Regular movement improves insulin resistance and burns calories, making it a helpful tool for PCOS weight loss. Losing even the smallest amount of weight – around 5-10 per cent – could make all the difference to your symptoms.
Weight loss aside, exercise can also improve many other areas of PCOS.
Improves insulin sensitivity
Insulin resistance affects up to 70 per cent of women with PCOS (11). As we’ve already mentioned, insulin resistance means the body’s tissues are resistant to the effect of insulin. The pancreas, therefore, has to produce extra insulin to compensate.
High levels of insulin can lead to many of the hallmark PCOS symptoms, including weight gain, irregular periods, and fertility issues. Excess insulin in the bloodstream can also increase testosterone production, resulting in other common PCOS symptoms, like oily skin, acne, and hirsutism.
The good news is that any variation of exercise can improve the function of insulin in the body and improve many PCOS symptoms.
Period irregularities, including infrequent and completely absent periods, are also widely experienced by women with PCOS. An abnormal menstrual cycle indicates the body isn’t ovulating regularly, which can lead to fertility problems.
In a systematic review assessing the impact of exercise on PCOS, researchers found that moderate-intensity exercise improves ovulation (12). The same study also found that physical activity reduced insulin resistance and lead to weight loss.
If you experience PCOS-related irregular periods or other PCOS fuelled menstruation issues, you can read our top recommendations here.
Due to the challenging nature of symptoms, living with PCOS can be emotionally overwhelming, with research suggesting women are at a much greater risk of developing mental health conditions, like anxiety and low mood (13).
Since movement releases feel-good hormones called endorphins in the body, exercise is tried and tested tool to support mood and wellbeing if you have PCOS. It can also serve as a much-needed distraction.
PCOS can also increase your risk of high cholesterol, which can affect heart health. Fortunately, physical activity can help buffer against this.
Exercise increases levels of HDL (‘good’) cholesterol and helps the body remove LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol from your blood. Understanding how to monitor your cholesterol could help you to manage PCOS.
Weight loss motivation
If you want to lose weight with PCOS and keep it off, staying motivated is the secret to success. But, what’s the secret to staying motivated?
Make it manageable
Building a sustainable workout routine can help you stay motivated and committed to your weight loss goals.
Many of us have been conditioned into thinking we need to spend hours exercising to enjoy the health benefits. But the truth is micromovements are often enough. Even 10 minutes of activity can support your weight loss journey, so try to pepper your day with short bursts of movement.
Cycling to work, going for a lunchtime walk, or making a commitment to always take the stairs are some easy ways to incorporate more movement into your daily life.
Be kind to yourself
Self-compassion is essential for long-term weight management. Speaking to yourself in a kind, gentle, and loving way – as you would a best friend – will help you feel worthy and deserving of habit and lifestyle change. And if you indulge one day, remind yourself that’s okay. You’re only human. Just put your best foot forward tomorrow.
Get enough sleep
Quality rest is also vital for weight loss. One night of bad sleep can disrupt the hormones responsible for hunger and fullness, often leading to weight gain. Try to get at least 7-9 hours of sleep every night. Avoiding caffeine after midday, flooding your eyes with plenty of natural light in the morning, and following a relaxing wind-down routine can support sleep hygiene.
You can find out more about improving your sleep here.
Find out more about PCOS
While PCOS can make it harder to lose weight, there are still plenty of simple dietary interventions and lifestyle changes that can support safe, effective weight loss.
If you enjoyed learning about how to lose weight with PCOS, you can find similar guidance on our dedicated PCOS health hub. Alternatively, please get in touch with our team of expert Nutrition Advisors, who are on hand to provide free, confidential advice.
Li C, Wang W, Yang Q, Zhang X, Sun Y, Zhang S, Li Y, Ma Y, Liu C, Yao W, Yu X, Li J. (2021) Eight-hour time-restricted feeding improves endocrine and metabolic profiles in women with anovulatory polycystic ovary syndrome. Journal of Translational Medicine. 19(1).
Insenser M, Murri M, Del Campo R, Martínez-García MÁ, Fernández-Durán E, Escobar-Morreale HF. (2018) Gut Microbiota and the Polycystic Ovary Syndrome: Influence of Sex, Sex Hormones, and Obesity. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. 103(7):2552-2562.
Marco ML, Sanders ME, Gänzle M, Arrieta MC, Cotter PD, De Vuyst L, Hill C, Holzapfel W, Lebeer S, Merenstein D, Reid G, Wolfe BE, Hutkins R. (2021) The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) consensus statement on fermented foods. Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology. 18(3):196-208.
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Cunha NBD, Ribeiro CT, Silva CM, Rosa-E-Silva ACJS, De-Souza DA. (2019) Dietary intake, body composition and metabolic parameters in women with polycystic ovary syndrome. Clin Nutr. 38(5):2342-2348.
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Disclaimer: The information presented by Nature's Best is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications.
Olivia Salter has always been an avid health nut. After graduating from the University of Bristol, she began working for a nutritional consultancy where she discovered her passion for all things wellness-related. There, she executed much of the company’s content marketing strategy and found her niche in health writing, publishing articles in Women’s Health, Mind Body Green, Thrive and Psychologies.