After reading Part 1 (Getting to the Root of PCOS), you’re now familiar with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, the symptoms and some of the main drivers and causes of the hormonal imbalances. Now for the next steps - what to do about it!
Let’s talk food.
Remember from last time, our root concerns to address are high blood sugar, chronic inflammation and gut health. To balance these, we want to choose a low glycemic, anti-inflammatory and high fiber diet.
Glycemic load is a way of measuring the impact a carbohydrate containing food has on your blood sugar, based on eating a single serving. Foods that rank high on the index will raise blood sugar more significantly than foods that rank low. So focusing on foods that are low will translate to lower levels of insulin released that can negatively alter the ovarian hormonal output.
In general, foods that are high on the list are foods that have a lot of added sugar and are very processed. Soda and juice, pastries and baked goods, sugary cereals and the “white” or refined grains all rank high. Foods that contain more fiber, water, protein and fat will have a lower rank. Vegetables and fruits, beans and whole grains will all have a lower rank and are the carbohydrate based foods to emphasize.
What you eat with your food will also impact its total glycemic load. For example, barley has a low score and that score gets even lower if you pair that with a piece of protein like fish and a fiber like greens.
Considering this info about PCOS, blood sugar and carbohydrates, it’s tempting to consider slashing the carbs down to nearly nothing, Atkins style. This generally backfires, and can create some new hormonal issues if taken to extremes. I also see that many women with PCOS who cut the carbs to extreme levels frequently go on sugar and/or alcohol binges, which clearly will have not-so-great effects on blood sugar and overall inflammation. Striking a balance between some-but-not-too-much rather than all-or-nothing will have much better results.
If you recall, PCOS is not only a condition of high blood sugar but also chronic inflammation. Foods that you eat can either be pro-inflammatory, anti-inflammatory, or neutral. We clearly see a connection between PCOS, markers of inflammation on blood tests and consumption of inflammatory foods. Categories of foods on the pro-inflammatory list: sugar, refined carbohydrates and omega-6 fats (mostly coming from processed “vegetable oils” like corn and soy). Foods in the anti-inflammatory camp are those with tons of antioxidants (think brightly colored fruits, vegetables and spices) and omega-3 fats (fish like salmon and sardines, grass fed animal products and certain nuts and seeds).
Fiber is not only important for keeping our bowels regular, but it keeps us full and slows down digestion. When you digest food slower, your blood sugar has less dramatic highs and lows. You’ll notice in the examples of low-glycemic carbohydrates, fiber was a key ingredient in the difference between a high and a low food. Examples of high fiber foods are sprinkled above and below - but generally the vegetable, fruit, bean and whole grain categories will give you all you need.
In addition to the filling and slow digesting effect, fiber can help bind to excessive amounts of estrogen which happens commonly in PCOS as well. The more the better, but if you are currently on a low fiber diet, add these foods slowly otherwise you may experience some gaseous side effects.
What to eat?
To recap: the best food plan for PCOS is one that is low glycemic, anti-inflammatory and high fiber. Luckily, there are plenty of foods that fit into all 3 of those categories. Here are some of my favorites:
High in monounsaturated fat, fiber, folate and deliciousness, avocado is a fabulous addition to any meal. The fat and fiber will bring down the glycemic load of your total meal and help to keep you full and satisfied. My favorite way to enjoy this beautiful fruit is mashed on a corn tortilla with a pinch of sea salt. Perfect snack.
High fiber, high antioxidants and also a great source of a nutrient called chromium which can help get glucose into your cells more efficiently. My best ways to enjoy broccoli are cut up into small florets and roasted in the oven with garlic and olive oil, or by shredding the stalks along with carrots and having as a slaw. Here’s my go-to recipe for a dairy-free cole slaw (I forego the honey).
All around super fish - low in mercury, high in omega-3 and wonderful source of protein. Choose wild caught for the most concentrated nutrients. Frozen salmon filets are an easy and quick weeknight meal at my house - I defrost in lukewarm water for an hour and then bake in the oven for 15 minutes at 425 degrees. I add capers, lemon juice and a bit of olive oil and it turns out wonderfully yum.
4. Flax seeds
One of the few plant sources of omega 3s fats, flax add a nice nutty/ earthy flavor to a lot of dishes, along with a punch of fiber and protein. Store ground flax in the freezer - these particular fats can go rancid easily, canceling out some of the beneficial properties. I love adding a spoonful or two to my oatmeal (the fat, protein and fiber in the flax will also lower the glycemic load of the oats).
Once maligned as a “bad food,” eggs have been vindicated and now are much more appreciated as a nutritious component of a healthy diet. Choose pastured or omega-3 fortified for the most benefit. Eggs are full of protein, healthy and filling fats and a boatload of vitamins and minerals. But eat the yolk! Most of the good stuff is found in the yellowy goodness.
That’s a wrap! Stay tuned for part 3 in the PCOS series where I discuss my favorite supplements.
About the Author:
Alison is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist specializing in a functional nutrition approach to women’s reproductive health. She holds a Master of Public Health in Nutrition from UNC Chapel Hill and has worked with with many women and men to achieve wellness and correct imbalances via optimizing nutrition. She has a passion for helping women through fertility, pregnancy and postpartum struggles using a “food first” nourishing approach wellness and healing.