4 Facts About Healthy Eating With PCOS

Bowl of apples, peaches, and grapes

​Verywell / Zorica Lakonic

If you have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), it's likely you've been given advice on the best foods to eat and those to avoid to keep your weight down and your hormone levels in check. The truth is, there are no food groups that are entirely off-limits for most women with PCOS. It's just a matter of making the healthiest choices and moderating your intake.

This article helps clear up some of the misconceptions about PCOS and food. It also offers four facts about healthy eating for PCOS and how to make them work for you.

Fruit Is Allowed

Carbohydrates in general get a bad rap, but most fruits (which are carbs) don't deserve it.

Fruits provide important vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber that offer numerous benefits to women with PCOS.

These benefits include:

  • Improved cholesterol levels: Up to 70% of women with PCOS have high cholesterol.
  • Lower blood pressure: Women with PCOS are 53% more likely to have high blood pressure than women without.
  • Reduced insulin resistance: Insulin resistance, the body's inability to utilize the hormone insulin to control blood sugar, is common is in women with PCOS.
  • Cancer prevention: Women with PCOS are at an increased risk of breast cancer, endometrial cancer, and ovarian cancer.

A study published in the Hormone and Metabolic Research Journal showed that women with PCOS who ate a diet rich in fruits and vegetables lost more abdominal fat and had significant improvements in their responsiveness to insulin (the hormone that helps regulate blood sugar) and markers of inflammation.

Choose fruits with the skin on them (such as apples, blueberries, and strawberries). These tend to have a lower glycemic index (GI) than fruits eaten without the skin, such as pineapple and watermelon. The lower the GI of a fruit, the less it will raise blood sugar levels.

Remember that fruit consumption should be spread out evenly throughout the day. Pair fruit with a protein source (for example, an apple with peanut butter) to help stabilize glucose and insulin levels.

On the other hand, you need to avoid fruit juice as it will quickly spike insulin levels.

Recap

Fruits can be a healthy part of a PCOS diet, but choose fruits with skin that tend to have a lower glycemic index. Consume fruit in moderation, and avoid fruit juices that can raise insulin and blood sugar levels.

You Don't Have to Go Gluten-Free

Gluten is a protein found in cereal grains like wheat, rye, and barley. While most women with PCOS can eat gluten without problem, a small percentage may have gluten sensitivity or celiac disease. These are immune-related disorders in which the body responds abnormally to gluten, causing digestive symptoms like diarrhea, bloating, and nausea.

For these women, removing gluten from the diet will reduce digestive symptoms and help them feel better. However, cutting gluten from your diet is not necessary if you don't have gluten intolerance or celiac disease.

Many women with PCOS think that eating gluten-free will help them lose weight. However, there is no scientific evidence to support this. While some women may lose weight by going gluten-free, it's more likely due to eating fewer calories overall.

Focus on eating sensible portions of foods containing gluten, such as whole-grain bread, along with protein-rich foods that help normalize blood sugar and aid with weight management.

Recap

A gluten-free diet is not necessary unless you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. It is OK to eat gluten if you have PCOS, but focus on eating whole rather than refined grains.

Dairy Is Not Off-Limits

Milk is a rich source of calcium, vitamin D, and protein. It is also considered a carbohydrate due to its high lactose content.

An article in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics showed a positive link between dairy consumption and acne. It concluded that milk, nonfat in particular, can contribute to increased androgen and insulin levels.

For these reasons, it may be advisable for some women with PCOS to limit their intake of yogurt or milk.

Consider consuming just a few servings per week, unless you have a milk allergy or are lactose intolerant, in which case you may need to avoid it altogether. Dairy offers bone-strengthening benefits, so it's best not to cut it out entirely unless you have to.

Recap

Dairy can affect insulin and hormone levels in people with PCOS. Because of this, you may need to reduce your dairy intake but not avoid it altogether. Milk and other forms of dairy help maintain strong bones and are a rich source of calcium and vitamin D.

You Can Indulge Your Sweet Tooth

While desserts and other sugary foods aren’t great for PCOS and should be limited, they can be part of a healthy PCOS diet if enjoyed in moderation.

A square or two of dark chocolate (70% cocoa or more) can satisfy a sugar craving. It also contains compounds called antioxidants that help fight unstable molecule (free radicals) that damage cells and tissues.

Sometimes being too restrictive with sweets can backfire and lead to episodes of binge eating. So go ahead and indulge your sweet tooth from time to time, but focus on whole foods with sensible portions as the main component of your diet.

Recap

You will want to limit your intake of sugar if you have PCO, but cutting it out altogether can lead to binge eating. An occasional sweet can help stem a sugar craving. A square or two of dark chocolate (70% cocoa or greater) is a good choice.

Summary

If you have been diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), you will be advised to adjust your diet to better control your insulin and hormone levels and, in turn, manage the signs and symptoms of this common hormonal disorder.

Overly restrictive diets can cause more harm than good by robbing you of essential nutrients and increasing the risk of binge eating. Sensible eating with moderate portions is key.

This includes eating fruits like apples and blueberry that have a low glycemic index. You don't need to avoid dairy and gluten; simply limit your intake and choose healthy options (such as low-fat milk and whole-grain bread). An occasional sweet is OK to curb a sugar craving.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are some treatment options for PCOS?

    PCOS is treated in various ways, including lifestyle changes, medications to help stimulate ovulation, and metformin to help with insulin resistance. Birth control pills may be used to improve acne and regulate periods for those who do not wish to become pregnant.

  • Are there specific PCOS diet plans?

    There are some specific dietary changes you can make to help with PCOS symptoms and associated conditions like insulin resistance, inflammation, and obesity. The PCOS diet focuses on high-fiber whole foods, lean proteins, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats while avoiding refined sugars, red meat, full-fat dairy, and processed foods.

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10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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