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Women's Health

Does the "PCOS diet" actually exist?

Thu 6th February, 2020

Reviewed by: Dr. Vamsee Thalluri

If you suffer from Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), your body might find it hard to break down certain foods due to your hormone balance. Although this can seem extremely annoying and unfair, the good news is that research suggests​ your diet can have a positive impact on the symptoms of PCOS.

Here, we’re running through diet adaptations that are thought to help women with PCOS, so you can make positive lifestyle changes to manage your condition.

What is PCOS?

PCOS is a condition that affects 15 per cent of women who are of reproductive age. Often, women with PCOS will experience cramps and pain during their period and assume that it’s just the normal symptoms of menstruation.

However, for many women with PCOS, these symptoms will escalate and start to interrupt their day-to-day life until they realise that something isn’t quite right.

PCOS is diagnosed using the Rotterdam criteria, which requires two of the following three criteria:

• Infrequent or irregular cycles, lasting 36 days or more.

• Typical male face and body hair, signs of increased male hormones, or raised levels on a blood test.

• Polycystic ovaries on ultrasound.

Yep, that means polycystic ovaries alone don't instantly give you a PCOS diagnosis. Common symptoms include irregular or no periods, issues with weight gain, acne, unwanted hair, and difficulty falling pregnant.

In Australia, it’s thought that 70 per cent of women who have PCOS are either misdiagnosed or undiagnosed and most of these women only learn they have the condition when trying to conceive.

The underlying reasons for PCOS are still a bit of a mystery, and therefore managing the condition can be a nightmare for many women. However, a lot of women with PCOS swear by specific diets that are said to combat the symptoms.

Does PCOS make you fat?

Not necessarily, however PCOS does affect weight management and insulin resistance - making it harder for the body to use the hormone insulin.

This insulin resistance means that women with PCOS can find it harder to absorb and utilise carbohydrates, causing glucose to remain in the bloodstream.

Insulin is linked to feeding your fat cells, and as women with PCOS are unable to use the sugars and starches they consume in the form of energy, this can cause weight gain.

Insulin resistance can also make it harder to lose weight. Because this weight gain is instigated by male hormones, it is more likely to be held around the midsection, which is considered a lot more unhealthy as it sits around your organs.

What diets can work for people with PCOS?

It’s incredibly hard to assign a specific diet to a group of people, as each body is different. However, the following diets have been proven to help women suffering with PCOS by helping to boost weight loss and control insulin production.

The DASH Diet

The DASH diet is thought to be good for women who struggle with insulin resistance as it is rich in fish, poultry, fruit, vegetables, and lacks fatty dairy products and refined sugars.

The DASH diet refers to Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, which is considered a combination diet for anyone who is suffering from hypertension or high blood pressure.

A recent study found that this diet can help reduce insulin resistance and belly fat over a period of eight weeks, which is ideal for women suffering from PCOS.

A Low GI Diet

A low GI diet can be great for women who want to stabilise their insulin levels and regulate their periods. The low GI diet relies on foods that raise your blood sugar levels in a slow and steady way, so that insulin spikes are reduced. This can greatly help women who suffer with PCOS, as it can regulate periods.

A recent study​ on women following a low GI diet showed that menstrual regularity improved in 95 per cent of cases.

A high fat, low carb diet

Many women with PCOS find that consuming a normal amount of carbohydrates can lead to weight gain. However, when some of the refined carbs in a woman’s diet are replaced with healthy fats, studies have shown that​ women with PCOS can see improved insulin levels.

When following a high fat, low carb diet it’s important that the carbs being reduced are the refined carbs like white bread, white pasta, and sugary cereals. These carbs should be replaced with healthy fats like avocado, oily fish and olive oil to boost insulin regulation.

Carbohydrates are not the enemy, and some complex carbs can be helpful in maintaining a healthy weight.

However, in women with PCOS, reducing overall carb intake can improve hormonal imbalance. Carbohydrate intake causes an increase in insulin levels as carbs are broken down.

A low carb diet has also been proven to lead to additional weight loss of up to 5 per cent in women with PCOS.

For more information on PCOS and how to manage it, take a look at our guide to PCOS.