The Best Foods To Eat + Avoid On A PCOS Diet, According To A Functional Medicine Expert
PCOS is one of the leading causes of infertility and affects up to 12% (1) of women in America. Unfortunately, this insidious health problem can go undiagnosed for years and can leave many women feeling hopeless about ever feeling like themselves again.
But as a functional medicine practitioner, I am here to tell you that you are not alone. There is hope for healing and it can be done naturally. In fact, once we learn more about PCOS we see just how much this condition can be managed through dietary changes. Read on to learn more about this hormonal condition, the best foods to eat, and the foods you should avoid to help overcome PCOS naturally.
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What is PCOS?
Polycystic ovarian syndrome - more commonly referred to as PCOS - is a hormonal condition that affects women typically between the ages of 15-44 in their prime childbearing years. While the number of women diagnosed with this condition is on the rise, unfortunately, a lot of women with this condition don’t even know it, leaving them struggling with symptoms and no real answer as to why.
PCOS is characterized by small, fluid-filled sacs that grow inside the ovaries. This ends up impacting female hormone levels as the ovaries control their production and can result in missed ovulation every month.
In order to get diagnosed with PCOS you have to meet the following symptom criteria:
- Ovarian cysts
- Low levels of female hormones, estrogen, and progesterone
- High levels of the male hormones, androgens
- Irregular or skipped periods
Other common symptoms of PCOS include:
- Excess hair growth: this can occur in places more common for men to grow hair such as the face, chest, and back
- Obesity: The majority of people with PCOS are considered overweight
- Acne: A rise in androgen hormones can lead to excess oil production and acne
- Thinning hair: While excess hair growth in other areas is a problem, high male hormones can lead to thinning hair on the head
- Painful periods: Heavy, painful periods can be a result of a buildup of uterine lining that happens when periods aren’t happening as frequently
At this time, researchers don’t fully know what causes PCOS but it is believed to be correlated with chronic inflammation and insulin resistance - thankfully two things that can be managed through a specific PCOS diet.
How your diet affects PCOS
In functional medicine, we understand just how powerful diet is to your overall health. Knowing that PCOS is correlated with high blood sugar and obesity, we see that a diet aimed at addressing insulin levels through approved foods for PCOS can be one way of addressing PCOS-related ovarian cysts. With insulin resistance, your body is not able to use the insulin you produce effectively, causing your body to produce more insulin than needed in an effort to stabilize your blood sugar. When your insulin levels are too high this can result in your ovaries producing more androgen hormones like testosterone that are directly correlated with PCOS symptoms like acne and weight-loss resistance. Foods like refined carbs and sugar can further perpetuate high blood sugar levels.
What foods are good for a PCOS diet?
There’s no “one-size-fits-all” diet for PCOS. Since everyone’s biochemistry is unique, you’ll have to take into account food sensitivities, nutrient deficiencies, lifestyle factors, and more. However, the best diet for PCOS focuses on nutrient-dense foods like these:
Ah, the beloved avocado. So delicious and versatile, it is my go-to for its healthy fat content. If you are on a PCOS diet plan, healthy fats are key as they act as a more sustainable fuel source than carbs and sugar, helping you feel fuller for longer while avoiding blood sugar spikes.
- Wild-caught seafood
Wild-caught seafood like salmon and sardines are also high in healthy fats as well as vitamin D. Deficiencies in vitamin D have been linked to PCOS with studies showing that supplementation was able to improve (2) androgen and blood sugar levels to mitigate PCOS symptoms.
Vegetables are packed with fiber and other vitamins and nutrients that play a role in managing blood sugar and inflammation levels. Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower in particular are a great high-fiber, low-carb option for people on a PCOS diet. Since your body takes longer to break down fiber, it helps you maintain steady blood sugar levels throughout the day.
- Nuts and seeds
Loaded with fiber, healthy fats, protein, and micronutrients, nuts and seeds give you a little bit of everything. They make great snacks and nut and seed butter and milk can be used in a variety of recipes - just be sure to check labels for unnecessary additives!
- Dark leafy greens
Kale and spinach are not only low in carbohydrates, but they are also high in B vitamins. Studies have found (3) that women with PCOS tend to have lower levels of vitamin B, especially if taking Metformin - a common medication prescribed for PCOS-related insulin resistance - that happens to inhibit your body’s absorption of vitamin B.
Raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries are lower in fructose - a type of natural sugar that can impact your blood sugar. While you shouldn’t be afraid to eat other types of fruit with PCOS, just be mindful of how much you are eating.
Studies have found that women with PCOS have higher levels (4) of oxidative stress making berries like these a plus since they have the addition of beneficial antioxidants that combat oxidative stress and associated free radical damage.
- Green tea
If you really want to up your antioxidant intake, look no further than green tea. Green tea has some of the highest levels of catechins, specifically epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) with one study showing that women with PCOS who started drinking green tea were able to lose weight and significantly lower (5) their levels of insulin and testosterone.
- Grass-fed beef and organ meats
Unlike conventional meats that are pumped with growth hormones that can further perpetuate hormone imbalances, grass-fed and organic meats contain more bioavailable forms of important nutrients like B vitamins that play a role in PCOS. Organ meats have some of the highest amounts of these nutrients, so while not always the most appetizing, can be a great nutrient-dense choice when looking to heal through diet.
High in fiber and protein, legumes are another filling choice to add to your PCOS diet. Just be mindful that legumes also contain lectins and phytates that can irritate people with gut problems and can lead to digestive distress like excessive bloating.
What foods are not allowed for a PCOS diet?
Again, an ideal PCOS food list is going to be unique to your specific health case but there are some foods that should be avoided when healing.
- Refined carbohydrates
Pasta, bread, cakes, white rice, and cereals are all examples of refined carbohydrates. These have been processed to the point where there is minimal nutritional value and all that remains is sugar and carbohydrates that spike blood sugar and perpetuate PCOS symptoms.
Now, a low-carb diet for PCOS isn’t necessarily the answer. Instead, choose healthy carbs from whole food sources like sweet potatoes. When you do this, your carb intake will likely decrease and you’ll be getting nutrients like fiber that end up helping your blood sugar levels - not harming them.
Did you know that the average American eats approximately 765 grams of sugar every five days? It’s this overload of sugar that leads to high blood sugar and insulin resistance.
Caffeine from coffee and other beverages can mess with your hormone levels. Some people handle caffeine better than others, so keep this in mind when deciding how much (if any) caffeine to consume.
Alcohol is extremely inflammatory so it might be best to avoid or limit your consumption while you are working to heal your PCOS as hormone imbalances and insulin resistance are impacted by high inflammation levels.
Soy is considered a phytoestrogen. These are plant-based estrogens that your body does not produce through the endocrine system. Instead, they are gained through eating phytoestrogen-classified plants. Out of all phytoestrogens, soy is the most well-known and can affect your hormones in a big way with studies linking (6) it as a trigger to PCOS.
- Conventional dairy
Conventional dairy products like cheese and milk come from cows likely treated with growth hormones that can potentially lead to inflammation and further hormone imbalances.
- Processed, conventional meats
Just like conventional dairy, processed meats are also treated with growth hormones and studies have found that processed meats are linked to higher levels of inflammation and cardiovascular disease.
Things to remember
In addition to changing what you eat, remember these principles when eating throughout your week.
- Stick to regular meal times
Skipping meals or constantly snacking can really mess with your blood sugar levels. Instead, try keeping your meal times consistent which will limit unnecessary snacking and reaching for quick junk food. But don’t overthink it! If you are hungry between meals, it’s ok to grab a snack!
- Eat a variety of foods
Different foods contain different nutrients so it's important to switch up what you are eating throughout the week. This will ensure your body is getting the nutrients it needs to thrive.
- Eat mindfully
Eating on the go as fast as you can out of stress can impact your blood sugar levels and lead to digestive distress. Instead, try to sit down for meals as often as possible, taking your time to fully chew your food. This will improve both digestion and blood sugar while helping you to recognize when you are actually full.
Grocery shopping tips
It’s easy to be overwhelmed when making a major diet change. Before going grocery shopping, sit down with your approved PCOS food list and plan out what meals you can make with the food you already have in your pantry and what items you’ll need to buy. This will help you streamline your shopping trip and limit the amount of time you spend looking at labels. Once you find brands and recipes that you like, you’ll be able to lean on a rotation of meals for easy shopping and cooking.
Seeking help from a functional medicine practitioner
If you struggle with PCOS you are not limited to a lifetime of debilitating symptoms and medication. Instead, you can take the steps to heal naturally through diet and lifestyle changes. In my telehealth functional medicine clinic, I focus on helping you uncover the root cause of your health problems through labwork and a comprehensive health history to determine the best course of action that addresses all areas of your health.
Ready to take the next step in healing your PCOS? Schedule a telehealth functional medicine consultation today.
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- Facts & Statistics Anxiety and Depression Association of America https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics
- Kassed CA, Herkenham M. NF-kappaB p50-deficient mice show reduced anxiety-like behaviors in tests of exploratory drive and anxiety. Behav Brain Res. 2004;154(2):577‐584. doi:10.1016/j.bbr.2004.03.026
- Crippa JA, Derenusson GN, Ferrari TB, et al. Neural basis of anxiolytic effects of cannabidiol (CBD) in generalized social anxiety disorder: a preliminary report. J Psychopharmacol. 2011;25(1):121‐130. doi:10.1177/0269881110379283
- Bergamaschi MM, Queiroz RH, Chagas MH, et al. Cannabidiol reduces the anxiety induced by simulated public speaking in treatment-naïve social phobia patients. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2011;36(6):1219‐1226. doi:10.1038/npp.2011.6
- Hill MN, Patel S. Translational evidence for the involvement of the endocannabinoid system in stress-related psychiatric illnesses. Biol Mood Anxiety Disord. 2013;3(1):19. Published 2013 Oct 22. doi:10.1186/2045-5380-3-19
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, DNM, IFMCP, DC is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.
Healing The Shame-Fueled Relationship
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