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PCOS diet: Foods to balance hormones

PCOS Diet: Foods to balance hormones

Although there’s no known cure for PCOS, there are still plenty of simple lifestyle changes that can help you take charge of the condition. And re-evaluating your diet is one of the best places to start. 
 

What is a ‘PCOS diet’?

 
PCOS is a hormonal disorder that affects 1 in 10 women of childbearing age in the UK (1). It’s earmarked by higher-than-normal levels of androgens – also known as ‘male’ hormones – and insulin resistance.
 
Though PCOS is always a unique experience, women often have to navigate a range of challenging symptoms, including weight gain, acne, and excessive hair growth, as well as increased rates of anxiety and depression.
Offers 
Many women with PCOS also report a total loss of control over their bodies, which can result in low self-esteem and body image issues.
 
Diet, however, is one area of life you can control if you have PCOS. Simple tweaks to your nutritional intake can help balance hormonal health, improve symptoms, and reduce the risk of other health concerns associated with PCOS.
 

PCOS-friendly foods

 
Broadly speaking, a healthy PCOS diet is diverse, colourful, and crammed with whole, minimally processed foods. This way of eating can also support weight loss, which is known to improve many PCOS symptoms.
 

Healthy fats

 
Fat isn’t a public enemy. We all need good fat to support our health – and it’s especially important for PCOS.
 
Healthy fats are a source of essential fatty acids, which help produce and balance hormones, as well as metabolise vitamins and minerals.
 
There’s also evidence that the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA, have anti-inflammatory properties (2). These findings are promising for women with PCOS, who often have higher inflammatory markers, which can exacerbate symptoms and hormone imbalance (3).
 
Foods naturally rich in omega-3 fatty acids and monounsaturated fats are some of the best additions to your PCOS diet. You can find these healthy fats in nuts, seeds, oily fish, flaxseed oil, avocado, and extra virgin olive oil.
    

Quality protein

 
Protein is another important consideration for women with PCOS. Protein is satiating, which means it can reduce cravings and regulate hunger hormones, making it great for healthy weight management and overall balance. 
 
Combining healthy fats with a protein source can also increase feelings of fullness, supporting weight loss and improving many PCOS symptoms.
 
Try to include a quality 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, satisfied, and less likely to indulge in foods that may unsettle your hormones.
 

Lean grass-fed meat

 
If you have PCOS, it’s worth avoiding unnecessary hormones and toxins that may further disrupt your body. So, if you eat meat, try to choose grass-fed options where possible.
 
The ‘grass-fed’ certification ensures lean meat is loaded with essential fatty acids and vitamins – not hormones, antibiotics and pesticides, which could potentially throw your hormonal profile off even more.

Be mindful that ‘organic’ doesn’t necessarily mean the animal has been reared in optimal conditions. It simply means the cattle were fed organic feed while raised in confinement.
 

Gut-friendly foods

 
Studies suggest that women who experience PCOS have significantly lower gut microbiome diversity than healthy controls (4). Increasing gut-friendly foods, therefore, should be front and centre of any PCOS diet.
 
The gut is responsible for countless physiological functions in the body. As we now understand, good gut health means good general health. A compromised gut can cause a cascade of health problems, including those concerning your hormones.
 
Your gut eliminates and rebuilds hormones; increases the absorption of minerals, including magnesium, iron and calcium; helps control inflammation – often elevated in PCOS – and supports immune health, which, in turn, affects hormone regulation (5).
 
Experts recommend eating 30 different plant foods every week to support gut health (7). Plant foods – fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes, and beans – are rich in polyphenols and fibre, providing ample nourishment for your hungry gut microbes.
 
Eating more fermented foods, like natural yoghurt, kefir, kombucha, pickles, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, and kimchi can also increase the microbial diversity of your gut bacteria, a marker of good gut health (8).
 
Additionally, you may wish to add live cultures and natural soluble fibre derived from chicory root to your diet to support the functioning of the gut. 
 

Fibre-rich foods

 
Besides nourishing the gut, eating more fibre is arguably the quickest, easiest change to support PCOS, offering a multiplicity of downstream health benefits.
 
Consuming more dietary fibre is one of the best ways to keep yourself regular, which helps hormone balance. If you’re constipated, you risk recycling unwanted hormones throughout the body, which is less than ideal if you have PCOS.
 
All plant foods are packed with fibre, so try to eat plenty every day. Think cruciferous vegetables, dark leafy greens, dried fruits, and whole-grain bread.
 

Antioxidants 

 
Women with PCOS often have higher levels of inflammation and oxidative stress, so increasing antioxidant-rich foods – which are known to fight free radical damage – is another easy win to bring balance to the body (9).
 
Antioxidants are abundant in the natural world. You can find them in blueberries, goji berries, pecans, dark chocolate, kale, and carrots.
 

Insulin-resistant PCOS diet

 
High insulin isn’t just a symptom of PCOS; it can also drive the condition. Around 70 per cent of women with PCOS have insulin resistance (10).
 
High-than-normal insulin levels make the ovaries produce more androgens, ‘male’ hormones, like testosterone, which are often behind distressing physical and emotional PCOS symptoms. Insulin resistance can also make women with PCOS more vulnerable to developing type-2 diabetes.
 
Improving insulin sensitivity, therefore, is one of the best ways to balance your hormones and support your health – and should be a top priority of any PCOS diet. To do this, you should consider prioritising the following:

  • Choose complex carbohydrates

  • Limit refined sugar

  • Add more plant foods

 

Learn more about following a diet that supports insulin sensitivity here.                                                           
 

Keto diet for PCOS

 
Some voices in the health and wellness space have suggested the ketogenic diet might be helpful for PCOS.
 
The ketogenic diet is a high-fat, low-carbohydrate style of eating. Several things happen to the body when you start eating this way. Firstly, it improves your insulin resistance. Secondly, your body starts to use fat for fuel instead of glucose, which creates a by-product called ‘ketones’.
 
A low-carb diet doesn’t have to be boring or unsatisfying. Within the parameters of the ketogenic diet, you can eat grass-fed meat, bacon, free-range eggs, butter, extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, oily fish, shellfish, vegetables, and a limited amount of fruit including avocados, strawberries and blueberries. 
 
In terms of ratios, think 20 grams of carbohydrates or less per day, 50-70 grams of protein per day, and a 1:2 ratio of protein to fat.

 

The pros

 
The ketogenic diet could be promising for PCOS. Research suggests it may support weight loss, improve satiety, balance hormones, and even support skin health, potentially offering some relief from PCOS symptoms (11).
 

The cons

 
However, there are a few drawbacks. In the first few weeks of the ketogenic diet, you may experience the famous ‘keto flu’ – headaches, digestive issues, nausea, brain fog, drowsiness and fatigue. These symptoms are merely a result of you adjusting to a low carbohydrate diet but can still be challenging.
 
You may also feel constipated. Since the ketogenic diet restricts certain carbs, your fibre intake – important for regular bowel movements – tends to diminish, too. And this may disrupt hormone regulation.
 
Perhaps most importantly, the ketogenic diet can be hard to maintain. And since PCOS is a chronic condition, this style of eating might not be sustainable long term.
 

The verdict

 
As always, you have the final say on what PCOS diet you choose to follow. You may wish to try the ketogenic diet and see how you get on.
 
Equally, eating a minimally processed, whole food, mainly plant-based diet with a moderate amount of complex carbohydrates can still nourish your body and help manage PCOS symptoms.
 

Foods to avoid with PCOS

 
Change doesn’t happen overnight. But committing to eating healthier every day will support your health and happiness. While the occasional treat is okay, here are some foods to avoid with PCOS.
 

Processed foods

 
The GI rating system measures how quickly carbohydrate-containing foods affect your blood sugar level when eaten. Processed foods have a higher GI (glycaemic index), which causes a spike in blood sugars, leads to insulin resistance, and triggers more androgen production, so it’s best to avoid them.
 
Consuming ultra-processed foods is also linked to higher rates of inflammation in the body, something women with PCOS are already more vulnerable to and should try to manage (12).
 
Consider reducing your intake of processed snacks, drinks, and ready meals. Instead, choose food in its ‘whole’ form – in other words, as close to its natural state as possible. 
 

Fried food

 
Fried food is loaded with unhealthy fats, like saturated fats and trans fats. These foods increase the risk of inflammation and weight gain, which can make life harder if you have PCOS. 
 

Unhealthy fats

 
Unhealthy fats hiding in processed meat, margarine, and lard can exacerbate many PCOS symptoms and increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and weight gain.
 

Dairy

 
Limiting your dairy consumption may also support your health with PCOS. Dairy contains bioequivalent hormones to human hormones, which may lead to further hormonal dysregulation if you have PCOS.
 
For instance, the hormone insulin-growth factor, IGF-I, is found in dairy and may increase androgen production in women with PCOS (13).
 
Thankfully, we live in an era of delicious plant-based dairy alternatives so you can easily consider swapping cow’s milk for sugar-free nut alternatives.
 
Be careful, however, with some vegan substitutes like dairy-free cheese which are still processed and often loaded with sugar and salt. 
 

Alcohol

 
Drinking alcohol in moderation is fine. But it’s important to be aware that drinking can disrupt blood sugar levels, increase hunger, cause sleep disturbances, and lead to mental health changes, all of which can worsen PCOS symptoms.
 

PCOS diet plan

 
If you want to balance your hormones, minimise your symptoms, and improve your overall health and happiness, your PCOS diet plan might look like this.
 
Breakfast: Natural yoghurt or a sugar-free, plant-based alternative, high-fibre granola, a spoonful of peanut butter, raspberries, blueberries, hemp seeds, and milled flaxseed
 
Snack: Small handful of pecans and goji berries  
 
Lunch: Red lentil soup with mixed seeds and whole-grain toast
 
Snack: Celery and hummus 
 
Dinner: Grass-fed steak or tofu with brown rice, kale, avocado, and sauerkraut
 
Dessert: Two squares of 70% dark chocolate
 
Drinks: 6-10 large glasses of water and herbal teas
 

Find out more

 
PCOS can make feel powerless over your own body. But diet is one of the most effective and useful tools available to take charge of the condition. Simple changes to the food you eat can minimise symptoms, improve insulin sensitivity, and support your overall health and happiness.
 
If you found this look into the best PCOS diet useful, 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.

 

References:

  1. Available online: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/polycystic-ovary-syndrome-pcos/

  2. , EPA and DHA differentially modulate monocyte inflammatory response in subjects with chronic inflammation in part via plasma specialized pro-resolving lipid mediators: A randomized, double-blind, crossover study. Atherosclerosis. 316, p. 90-98.

  3. , The Role of Chronic Inflammation in Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome - A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Int J Mol Sci. 22(5), p. 2734.

  4. , Alterations in gut microbiome composition and barrier function are associated with reproductive and metabolic defects in women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS): A pilot study. PLoS One 12, e0168390.

  5. , The Gut Microbiome and Sex Hormone-Related Diseases. Front Microbiol 12, 711137.

  6. , The gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous systems. Ann Gastroenterol 28(2):203-209.

  7. Jones, P. (2023) Eating 30 plants per week: How to do it and why, Eating 30 Plants per Week: How To Do It and Why. Available online: https://joinzoe.com/learn/30-plants-per-week

  8. , The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) consensus statement on fermented foods. Nat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. ;18(3):196-208. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/33288843

  9. , Roles of Oxidative Stress in Polycystic Ovary Syndrome and Cancers. Oxid Med Cell Longev. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4782660/

  10. , Women with polycystic ovary syndrome have intrinsic insulin resistance on euglycaemic-hyperinsulaemic clamp. Hum Reprod. 28(3):777-84. Available online: https://academic.oup.com/humrep/article/28/3/777/648591

  11. . The effects of a low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet on the polycystic ovary syndrome: A pilot study. Nutrition and Metabolism. (2) 35.

  12. . Gut Microbiome Response to Sucralose and Its Potential Role in Inducing Liver Inflammation in Mice. Front Physiol. 24; 8:487.

  13. . The effects of dairy processes and storage on insulin-like growth factor-i (IGF-i) content in milk and in model IGF-i–fortified dairy products. Journal of Dairy Science. 89(2), 402–409.



 

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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.

 
 
Our Author - Olivia Salter

Olivia

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.

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