Can the way PCOS sufferers eat help to manage the symptoms and effects of the syndrome? Before exploring the answer, a quick summary of PCOS. The symptoms vary from woman to woman and can change over time. The most common ones are: weight gain particularly around the middle; increased hairiness on the face and other areas; thinning hair: oily skin with acne; irregular periods that can lead to infertility. These symptoms can be present alone or in combination and tend to be more severe the more weight is gained and improve with weight loss.
Weight that is gained by PCOS sufferers tends to be more around the middle and this is known to increase the risk of high blood pressure, increased risk of heart disease and insulin resistance (which can lead to type 2 diabetes). PCOS sufferers tend to have high levels of insulin and it is this that contributes to the tendancy to gain weight and makes the weight hard to lose. It is also the effects of raised insulin that drives the the ovaries to produce more androgens (this causes hairiness, acne and thinning hair). High levels of insulin can result in insulin resistance which, in the long term, increases the risk of type 2 diabetes and has a negative effect on heart health. Insulin resistance can cause tiredness and lethargy, something that many PCOS sufferers complain of.
Back to eating then. Eating foods that release sugars more slowly into the blood stream (low Glycemic Index) helps to combat insulin resistance – less sugary foods and foods high in refined carbohydrate like white bread. Choose foods that are higher in fibre. If you crave something sweet try to keep it to meal times where the rest of the meal helps to slow the absorption of the sugars.
Raised insulin levels increase the risk of metabolic syndrome so foods that helps to keep cholesterol in check and reduce the risk of high blood pressure are important. Less saturated fats and salt, more fruit, veg, oily fish, pulses, wholegrain and oats all help to improve heart health.
Weight management is really beneficial but can be hard to achieve. It is reassuring to know that, if you are overweight then as little as 5% weight loss can give significant improvements in the symptoms. Weight loss shouldn’t overide the importance of eating foods that help combat the effects of high insulin levels and promote good health. If you are overweight then choose a weight loss diet that is based on low glycemic index (GI) foods.
Exercise helps to improve insulin sensitivity as well as increasing muscle which uses calories, in partnership with eating well this can help weight management and insulin levels.
Thanks to Gaynor Bussell’s fantastic summary of PCOS in Complete Nutrition. Gaynor is a nutrition scientist and dietitian who has written a book called Managing PCOS for Dummies and there is a great summary ‘Cheat Sheet’.