Natural treatments for PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) can be very effective, and among them is eating the right diet for this condition. Let's work out what the best diet for PCOS looks like (and why) – including some strategies that may surprise you.
What is PCOS?
PCOS is the most common hormonal disorder affecting as many as 1 in 10 women of childbearing age in the U.S., and it is the largest known cause of female infertility. (source)
Women with PCOS often have fluid-filled sacs (cysts) in their ovaries, insulin resistance, and elevated androgen levels (male hormones).
Common symptoms of PCOS include:
- Irregular or absent menstrual periods
- Infertility and miscarriage
- Weight gain, especially around the middle
- Facial hair or other male hair growth/balding pattern
- Blood sugar imbalances
- Acne or oily skin
- Other skin abnormalities including skin tags or patches of dark, thick skin on the neck, arms, breasts, or thighs
- Pelvic pain
Many women with PCOS will not have all of these symptoms, and some are asymptomatic, or are only diagnosed after frequent miscarriages or the inability to conceive. While there is no known cause of PCOS, it is likely that poor diet and lifestyle are contributing factors.
Which brings us to…
The best diet for PCOS – 6 surprising strategies:
#1 – STOP DIETING
According to a recent study at the University of California in Los Angeles, the most consistent predictor of future weight gain is dieting. In other words, diets don't work. Many diets are based on either gimmicky products with toxic ingredients or some sort of deprivation.
Any dieter will tell you that dieting is hard and results are inconsistent and difficult to maintain.
Being overweight can make PCOS worse, but frequent dieting actually slows your metabolism and deprives your body of essential nutrients, contributing to further deterioration of your health.
So the #1 rule of healing through food for any condition is to stop dieting. The next steps are to eat REAL Food, and start listening to you body. I know, this task falls into the much-easier-said-than-done pile, but I promise it's not that hard.
Read this beginner's guide to Real Food, and make sure to start with what inspires YOU. Then read below to learn how to heal your metabolism, manage your blood sugar, and control food cravings.
#2 – Eat more fat
I meet lots of women who believe that they eat “healthy,” and while their diets don't contain lots of processed junk, they are missing (or super skimpy with) one of the three main macro-nutrients of food: FAT.
Contrary to mainstream beliefs, saturated fat and cholesterol are essential to human health. Your body needs these “evil” nutrients to produce hormones and keep them in balance, and saturated fats help your body to metabolize vitamins and minerals.
It has only been since the advent of modern “franken-foods” (margarine, industrial vegetable oils) that we have sought to demonize good-quality animal fats.
Hang on to your hats… here's what to include:
- Butter and cream from grass fed cows – read more about why butter is better than those weird “heart-healthy” spreads.
- Lard from pigs raised outdoors on organic feed – this includes nitrate-free bacon! – Read why I heart bacon.
- Meat – including the fat – from pasture raised beef, bison, venison, etc.
- Eggs – including the yolks – from pasture raised hens
- Coconut oil
- The usual “healthy” fats – olive oil, avocados, wild caught fish from cold waters.
#3 – Eat meat, but choose pasture raised only
When it comes to PCOS, your body needs nutrient-dense foods, and does NOT need extraneous hormones and toxins.
“Red meat” has gotten a bad reputation in the health-conscious community, but it really depends on how the animals are raised.
That's why it's important to seek out grass fed meat to ensure that you are receiving the essential fats and fat-soluble vitamins without an extra toxin load (hormones, pesticides) from unhealthy animals raised in stressful confinement.
You can read all about the health benefits of grass-fed vs. feedlot beef here.
Keep in mind that “organic” doesn't necessarily mean an animal has been raised in the proper conditions. It just means they were fed organic feed while raised in confinement.
A note about eating out: Most restaurants (even fancy ones) serve factory-raised meat and dairy unless otherwise specified. If you aren't willing to only eat at home for every meal, familiarize yourself with eateries that carry pasture-raised, or at least organic, meat. Find more tips on how to eat out here.
What About Dairy?
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, it is advised that women diagnosed with PCOS avoid dairy products. PCOS is thought to be a condition of “damp accumulation,” and dairy generally contributes to this problem.
As at TCM practitioner, I take this on a case by case basis. For women who have dairy allergies or sensitivities, I certainly recommend avoiding milk, yogurt, cream, and cheese at least until their food allergy is reversed. (Learn about reversing food allergies here.)
For others, I recommend only eating raw dairy from pasture-raised animals. Because of the natural probiotic content of raw milk products, they are often much easier for the body to assimilate, resulting in less “damp and phlegm” conditions. I never recommend eating low or non- fat dairy. Read why you should skip skim milk here.
You can read more about the general milk controversy here.
#4 – Ditch this stuff:
Hopefully this is the least surprising strategy as we carve out the best diet for PCOS, but it is essential that you eliminate the following junk from your daily meals:
- Soy – contains phyto-estrogens that mimic estrogen and throw your hormones out of whack. Read more about why soy is not safe here.
- Reduced-fat foods – Reduced fat foods often contain weird stabilizers to maintain desired consistency or – in the case of low-fat dairy – oxidized cholesterol (the bad kind).
- Industrial oils – Despite what anyone tells you, canola oil is not healthy. It falls in the same trash bin as corn, soy, cottonseed, and grapeseed oils, and should be avoided. These oils contain very unstable poly-unsaturated fatty acids or PUFAs. You can read all about the evils of PUFAs here.
- Chemical preservatives, additives, artificial sweeteners, and coloring – This should go without saying, but chemicals will put more strain on your already taxed system. Eat Real Food, read labels, and think before you bite.
#5 – Manage your cravings
I've experienced a few sugar cravings in my life. So I also know that wanting a cookie can feel more like a starving lion being tempted with a juicy gazelle just out of reach.
Thankfully, I recently had the privilege of listening to a lecture series by a really smart lady named Dr. Julia Ross who taught me a thing or two about managing those roaring sugar cravings.
What I learned from Dr. Ross, is that sugar is FOUR TIMES more addictive than cocaine, and that many sugar cravings are due to a neurotransmitter deficiency (these are the brain chemicals that communicate information throughout our brain and body). This can happen because you eat a crappy diet, you don't get enough sleep, or you have been under a lot of stress (either acute or chronic).
Here's the good news:
You can cut craving for sugar by giving your body the amino acids it needs to correct your particular imbalance.
Check out this chart to find out if you may be low in any of these five neurotransmitters and what amino acids which may help to curb your cravings.
If this seems relevant to you, check out The Diet Cure to learn more. You can also read my friend Kristen's experience with beating sugar cravings at Food Renegade.com.
In relationship to PCOS and diet, I think neurotransmitter therapy is a great tool to you use while you work on #6…
#6 – Heal your metabolism to manage your blood sugar
One of the most common dietary recommendations for PCOS is to control your blood sugar, because insulin resistance and elevated blood sugar play a role in perpetuating PCOS symptoms.
In a nutshell, here's what happens:
In healthy folks, insulin helps to make a gate for glucose (sugar) to pass through cell membranes where it will be processed into energy.
Insulin resistance (IR) develops due to high stress, unhealthy lifestyle, or sometimes genetics. With this condition, your body's cells don't play nice with insulin, so there is no way for the glucose to pass through.
Glucose then floats around the blood stream (elevated blood sugar) until it is converted to fat by the liver.
Insulin resistance also elevates insulin levels in the blood stream. This excess insulin stimulates the ovaries to produce large amounts of the male hormone, testosterone – which can inhibit ovulation.
Elevated insulin also triggers the body to convert testosterone to estrogen, which upsets hormone balance, perpetuates weight gain, and contributes to the formation of ovarian cysts. (source)
Mainstream advice is to cut out processed carbohydrates including white breads, pasta, potatoes, and cereals. Many people turn to a gluten-free, low sugar diet, including paleo or primal diets.
These approaches may work for some women to manage blood sugar, reduce the symptoms of PCOS, and promote fertility – at least in the short term.
Does eliminating carbs fix the problem or just avoid it?
Health researcher Matt Stone claims that avoiding sugar and starches to deal with insulin resistance is dodging around the problem rather than healing it, and that a long-term restrictive diet will only lead to more health issues down the road.
Stone asserts that in order to truly correct insulin resistance, you must heal your metabolism. And in order to heal your metabolism, you CANNOT eliminate macro-nutrients (protein, fat OR carbohydrates). He says:
The root cause [of PCOS] is probably a quintuple combination of excessive polyunsaturated fat accumulation in your tissues (which is estrogenic), excessive consumption of xenoestogens (toxic chemical pollutants) and phytoestrogens – soy being the worst offender, oral contraceptive use, excessive stress and inflammation, and repeated attempts at weight loss through any of the popular approaches ranging from doing lots of “cardio” to calorie restriction. (source)
Stone's program that includes “Rehabilitative Rest and Aggressive Re-Feeding” – basically lots of sleeping and eating until balance is restored – may be the right solution for many women with PCOS and infertility, especially those with a history of restrictive diets or endurance exercise.
I highly recommend Stone's book Diet Recovery: Restoring Hormonal Health, Metabolism, Mood, and Your Relationship with Food, an intriguing approach at permanently healing your metabolism and improving overall health. While his methods are certainly unconventional, healing the root of any condition always makes the best sense to me.
Whoa! Are you still there? Apparently I have a lot to say about the best diet for PCOS…and that's because it's so important. I hope you find this information useful.
Leave them in the comments below.