PCOS: Dietary recommendations and how to ditch belly fat
What is PCOS?
Polycystic ovarian syndrome, also known as PCOS, is an endocrine disorder that is characterized by chronic anovulation (lack of ovulation) and hyperandrogenism (high male sex hormones).
PCOS is extremely common, affecting about 10 million women worldwide, and is the most common hormonal disorder and cause of infertility in women of reproductive age.
Common signs and symptoms of PCOS include hair loss (overall thinning on the head), acne, polycystic ovaries on ultrasound, obesity, depression, anxiety, infertility, insulin resistance, hirsutism (excess hair growth in places like the face, chin, cheeks, belly, and chest), skin tags, and irregular periods.
How do you know that you have PCOS?
PCOS is a diagnosis of exclusion, so other mimicking conditions need to be ruled out first such as hypothalamic amenorrhea, non-PCOS insulin resistance, hyperprolactinemia, and hypothyroidism.
Presently, you need to meet 2 of the following criteria in order to be diagnosed with PCOS:
Irregular or missing periods
Excess androgen levels on blood test or physical symptoms such as hirsutism, acne, hair loss or thinning of hair
- Polycystic ovaries on ultrasound
Tests that are routinely ordered for PCOS include a pelvic exam, ultrasound, and blood testing. Make sure you are working with an experienced practitioner to ensure that you receive the proper diagnosis, this is crucial to determine the appropriate treatment needed.
What are the health consequences of PCOS?
If left untreated, PCOS can result in bigger problems down the road such as cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, endometriosis, endometrial cancer, ovarian cancer, miscarriages, and infertility.
This is why it is so important to address PCOS as soon as possible to lessen its detrimental effects and support your long-term health.
Why is it so hard to lose weight with PCOS?
If you have PCOS and struggle losing weight or that stubborn belly fat, you are not alone. Losing weight with PCOS isn’t as simple as reducing calories and exercising more, it’s about addressing the core fundamental imbalances.
So what may be causing you to pack on the pounds and struggle to lose them?
With insulin resistance (also known as prediabetes), your cells are not responding normally to insulin. Insulin is your storage hormone that gets secreted by your pancreas when you eat and when blood sugar goes up. Insulin’s job is to shuttle glucose from the bloodstream into the cell to be utilized as energy or stored as fat for later if immediate use is not required. With insulin resistance, your cells become desensitized to insulin and instead of using blood sugar for energy, it is stored as fat instead. Which, you guessed it, results in weight gain, but also more insulin circulating in the bloodstream in response to high blood sugar levels, which can result in diabetes down the road.
What are some causes of insulin resistance? Sugar, nutrient deficiencies like magnesium, poor food choices, chronic stress, lack of exercise, smoking, lack of sleep, overeating, fructose, obesity, medications, and the birth control pill.
Include foods like cinnamon, buckwheat, and leafy greens to help sensitize insulin receptors and balance blood sugar levels.
Leptin is the satiety hormone that tells you that you have had enough to eat and can put down the fork now. This hormone is secreted by your fat cells and is an important part of appetite control, but with leptin resistance, things go a little haywire. With an increase of fat cells and an overproduction of leptin levels, you no longer respond to leptin appropriately. Instead, your brain is not getting the signal that you have had enough to eat nor to suppress appetite. This means you end up always feeling hungry and unsatisfied, which leads to overeating, cravings and storing more energy as fat.
What are some causes of leptin resistance? Similar to insulin resistance; fructose, chronic stress, poor food choices, sugar, overeating, and high insulin levels.
Chronic low-grade inflammation
When it comes to inflammation, acute inflammation is a good thing (like when you get a cut or a bruise and specific chemicals are made by your body to aid in the healing process), but chronic low-grade inflammation is where problems arise. These inflammatory chemicals can damage our own tissues and cells over time and lead to conditions like hormonal imbalances, depression, anxiety, intestinal permeability, subfertility, and autoimmunity.
What are some causes of inflammation? Stress, poor food choices, food allergies and sensitivities, insulin resistance and blood sugar imbalances, poor gut health, medications, etc.
Anti-inflammatory foods include leafy greens, wild fatty fish, berries, and fermented vegetables, and should make up a healthy diet.
What you can do
When it comes to managing PCOS naturally, there are a few things to consider and address:
- Address blood sugar imbalances
- Reduce inflammation
- Address nutritional deficiencies
- Manage stress
- Increase estrogen detoxification
Whilst there are many “PCOS diets” and recommendations out there, the best approach will be personalized to you. However, there are some guidelines that should be considered for the majority of women with PCOS:
Choose Whole Foods
The first step is addressing your diet. Processed foods, junk food, sugar and refined carbohydrates, are all going to worsen your symptoms of PCOS and increase your risk for chronic disease. The best thing you can do is to get rid of packaged and processed foods and replace them with whole, natural foods from the earth. Aim for foods that don’t have an ingredients list and that are in their natural form; this means fresh fruits, vegetables, and clean animal products.
Add Healthy Fats
Fats are becoming more popular among diets nowadays but it’s important to eat the right ones. Healthy fats support hormone production, increase satiety, promote healthy cell function, increase the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins that are vital for reproductive health, support heart health, prevent depression, reduce anxiety, and support a healthy weight.
Good fats include avocado, extra virgin olive oil, wild salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, ghee, grass fed butter, virgin coconut oil, and raw nuts and seeds. Learn how to incorporate these into your everyday diet.
On the other hand, if you are consuming damaging fats that have been highly processed, they can create significant inflammation in the body. These types of fats include hydrogenated vegetable oils found in processed foods such as safflower oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, soybean oil, and cottonseed oil.
Protein represents the building blocks of our cells and is essential for stabilizing blood sugar levels, making hormones and enzymes, and building and maintaining muscle.
Make sure you are including good quality protein at each meal. Rich sources of protein include meats, fish, eggs, dairy, beans and legumes, soy, quinoa, hemp, and spirulina.
When opting for animal sources of protein, always choose organic/wild/grass fed/pasture raised to ensure the best quality and avoid added hormones, medications, antibiotics, and toxins like heavy metals. These will only worsen hormonal imbalances.
Avoid inflammatory foods
This will look different for each person, however, there are some foods that are not recommended for PCOS, specifically because of their inflammatory and insulin dysregulating effects.
Now, of course, there are foods that should be avoided across the board which includes processed foods, conventional animal products, refined carbohydrates and sugars, hydrogenated oils, and artificial colors and sweeteners.
Commonly problematic PCOS foods include dairy, gluten, and sugars. These can worsen PCOS because they increase inflammation in the body, spike insulin, and shift the gut microbiome in a negative way. Most women who cut out these foods feel better and see quick improvements in their PCOS.
I hate to break it to you, but the sugar has got to go. This is the number one thing that should be avoided with PCOS. Sugar worsens insulin resistance, depletes vital nutrients, triggers inflammation, disrupts our healthy gut bacteria, and leads to weight gain.
Women with PCOS are more sensitive to sugar so it’s important to be mindful when you do decide to treat yourself. Watch out for portion sizes and choose healthier options like honey, dates, maple syrup, and molasses. Or even better, go for sweeteners that don’t affect your blood sugar such as cinnamon, vanilla, monk fruit, stevia, or lucuma. Fruits are great for PCOS but should not be eaten in excess. Lower sugar fruits are best and include avocados, lemons, limes, berries, grapefruit, and rhubarb.
Did you think you had to give up muffins? Check out a healthy PCOS friendly recipe here.
And of course, we can’t forget about lifestyle changes! Because even if you are eating all the right foods, if you are stressed out of your mind, neglect your sleep, and don’t move every day, then it will be difficult to see positive changes.
Sleep is so important for overall health as your body undergoes repair and regeneration. Our body takes this time to do things such as regulate our hormones like insulin, ghrelin and leptin, and reduce stress hormones which are often high in PCOS. Not only that but getting enough sleep will help you feel more energized, focused, and happy, which will make it easier to stick to your healthy habits and crush your goals. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep every night and the closer to 10 PM the better.
Manage your stress
Stress has a tremendous impact on your hormonal health but also your menstrual cycle, fertility, weight, cardiovascular health, energy levels, blood sugar and inflammation. So yes, stress is a big deal for PCOS. If you are dealing with chronic high stress, you need to address it ASAP! This means managing your time properly, saying no, scheduling play and fun, addressing your sleep, and promoting relaxation every day. A great supplement to help with relaxation is magnesium. This is one of our favourite bedtime supplements to lower stress and promote sleepiness.
In addition to nutrition, and stress and sleep management, exercise is another important factor in managing your PCOS properly.
The right amount and type of exercise can help reduce stress levels, regulate insulin (so that your cells become more sensitive and can open up for glucose instead of storing it as fat), improve mood and brain function, promote the elimination of toxins, reduce inflammation, and improve weight loss. If you are new to exercise, simply walking every day or adding in some strength training on a weekly basis can result in significant changes in your health. Make a point of getting up and moving every day and find something that you enjoy and that makes you feel good, so that you can commit and stick to it.