Managing PCOS with holistic nutrition

A diagnosis of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) would be distressing for any woman. It is a complex condition that shows up as a constellation of symptoms, which must be approached in multiple ways. It is also a condition that is becoming increasingly common today, with 10-20 per cent of women affected. In India, it is estimated that approximately one in five adolescent girls have PCOS. 

The most common presentation of PCOS is multiple cysts in the ovaries, which disrupt female sex hormones leading to irregular periods. This makes it difficult for women of reproductive age to conceive. While this problem may require therapeutic interventions, there are other physical symptoms like difficulty in losing weight, an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease, acne, and hair loss which can also benefit from lifestyle interventions. 

The right food choices and consistent physical activity are vital components necessary to address the hormonal imbalance that is a driving force for many of the complications women face with polycystic ovary syndrome. 

Why is diet such a crucial part of PCOS management? 

One of the critical factors that lead to PCOS symptoms is persistently high insulin levels. Insulin is a hormone that the body uses to lower high blood sugar. If it has too much insulin, the body eventually stops responding to the hormone, leaving blood sugar levels persistently high, in a condition known as insulin resistance. 

This is why it is difficult for women with PCOS to lose weight. At the same time, the high levels of androgens (male hormones), which are responsible for the effects and symptoms of PCOS, thrive when there are large amounts of fat in the abdominal area. 

Studies have shown that losing just 5 per cent of your body weight may considerably relieve PCOS symptoms, which is why a healthy diet can go a long way toward reducing the risk of health complications. 

Pay attention to servings 

Ensure that each meal contains a serving of protein (animal or plant proteins), some healthy fats (avocado, nuts, seeds, olive oil, fatty fish) and predominantly vegetables (aiming for 50-75 per cent of your plate/bowl to be veggies).  While it is important to keep portions in mind, it is equally essential to ensure that you are not depriving yourself of essential nutrients. It will be more challenging to comply with healthy eating habits if you are always hungry and have low energy. 

The healthy swap 

Substitute refined carbohydrates with whole grain and vegetable alternatives. Refined carbohydrates act like sugar in the blood and spike blood sugar and insulin levels. At the same time, whole grains are buffered with fibre and essential nutrients and take longer to break down, keeping you fuller, longer. 

Break up with sugar 

Reduce or avoid added/refined sugars in your diet. Sugar increases insulin secretion and increases the risk of weight gain and diabetes.

It’s not just what you eat; it is also when you eat it. 

A regular eating schedule also helps your body normalize and control blood sugar more effectively. Consistent mealtimes usually lead to balanced sleeping habits that directly impact your stress hormones as well. On the other hand, being tired increases cravings and reduces your ability to stick to your new habits. 

Mindset matters 

The holistic approach to PCOS would be incomplete without addressing the impact of mental wellness on the condition and the results you can get for your efforts. Stress is known to release cortisol, which also worsens weight gain and insulin resistance, starting a vicious cycle that can be difficult to escape without the proper emotional and mental support. 

Lovneet Batra is a clinical nutritionist and the author of 50 Desi Super Drinks