It can be totally overwhelming having all this conflicting advice on the internet and social media, don't you agree?
Especially if you are dealing with a hormone imbalance such as Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), when one 'expert' is promoting raw veganism and another is telling you to go Keto!
I want to simplify things for you.
Because I know first hand how stressful it is to navigate and gather reliable information these days.
And as someone who has PCOS myself, I know that stress can mess with our hormones and make us feel (and look) a whole lot worse!
So to keep things super simple, here are 3 food groups that pretty much every diet 'camp' agrees that women with PCOS should avoid...
#1 Refined sugar/carbohydrates
70% of women with PCOS are insulin resistant. When we eat carbohydrates, these eventually break down into glucose in the bloodstream. Our body produces hormone insulin in the pancreas, which helps to shuttle this glucose from our bloodstream, into our cells, where it is used as energy. If we constantly eat more carbohydrates or sugars than our body needs, this can lead to the cells becoming 'numb' to the effects of insulin.
I like the analogy of someone knocking at your front door constantly. At first you will get up and answer the door, but eventually it will become very irritating and you will ignore it!
This happens with your cells and insulin, resulting in excess levels of glucose and insulin in the bloodstream, which your body hates! To try and combat this, the glucose is sent to the muscle stores (glycogen), then to the liver and when they are both full, it stores as fat tissue.
Refined sugars and carbohydrates that are lacking in fibre and the nutrients needed to process them efficiently, are one of the worst foods for people in general, especially women with PCOS.
Crisps, biscuits, cakes, cereal, crackers, bread, flour, snack bars, dried fruit, fizzy drinks, fruit juice and chocolate bars should all be eliminated from your diet if you want to balance your hormones.
Stick with whole food carbohydrates like fruit, sweet potatoes, squash, plantains, quinoa, buckwheat and oats, however your ideal intake of these depends on your PCOS 'type', insulin sensitivity and activity levels.
#2 Poor quality fats
We are getting better at including fats in our diet, compared to 10-20 years ago, however I still regularly see people consuming inflammatory, poor quality fats like sunflower, soybean or canola oil, factory farmed meat, trans fats found in packaged foods and oxidised nuts and seeds.
Fat is important for cell communication, brain function and hormone creation! The quality and type of fat is crucial though. Omega 6 rich fats are pro-inflammatory and should be limited in the diet. We naturally receive some omega 6 from 'healthy foods' like almonds, brazil nuts and hemp seeds, however this needs to be in balance with the anti-inflammatory omega 3 fats found primarily in oily fish. Small amounts are found in chia, flax, hemp and algae, however the conversion from ALA to the active, beneficial EPA and DHA is very poor.
Poor quality fats have also been linked to insulin resistance, as they can damage cell membranes, meaning that receptors for insulin and other hormones cannot work efficiently. When it comes to PCOS, insulin resistance and inflammation are the two biggest drivers of symptoms such as acne, menstrual irregularities, hair loss and weight issues.
Our body uses these essential fatty acids to create prostaglandins, which are hormone-like compounds that aid in recovery at sites of tissue damage or infection. Prostaglandins also play a big role in hormonal symptoms such as migraines and period cramps! The more omega 6 (pro-inflammatory) fats we have relative to omega 3 (anti-inflammatory), the worse (and more painful) these symptoms are going to be.
The ideal ratio between omega 6 and omega 3 is 4:1, however the average person eating a Western diet tends to have a ratio that's more like 16:1. The goal is to increase your intake of omega 3 rich foods and limit consumption of foods highest in omega 6. Simple ways to do this are to avoid buying processed or packaged foods, eat out at restaurants less, swap your cooking oils to coconut oil, avocado oil, ghee or butter and consume high quality oily fish 3x week.
#3 Conventional dairy products
Even though I do see a lot of women who suffer with a dairy sensitivity, it's not the case for everyone. Part of the problem is that, similar to wheat, we process dairy products too much and our body doesn't recognise it like it would have 50+ years ago. When we pasteurise milk, this heats it at high temperatures to kill off any pathogens that may be present. Along with that, it also destroys beneficial bacteria and live enzymes that help our body to process the dairy. Consuming skimmed milk or 'reduced fat' dairy products also robs us of the important fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.
When animals are raised in unnatural environments and aren't fed the diet they are designed to consume, this also makes this food less tolerated and more inflammatory. Cows are designed to eat primarily grass, not soy, corn and grains they are typically 'bulked up' with these days. Even some products labelled grass fed or organic could mean that these animals have been fed organic feed for the majority of their lives and are only fed grass for a few weeks or months, as an adult.
Dairy is highly insulinogenic (stimulates a lot of insulin production) and also contains steroid hormones like oestrogen and testosterone as well as growth factors. If you are dealing with symptoms of inflammation, insulin resistance or skin problems like cystic acne, it is recommended that you avoid dairy, at least until your symptoms are under control.
As I mentioned, some individuals do well with dairy products, especially organic, full fat and raw dairy! My recommendation is that if you know you aren't dairy sensitive (confirmed by dietary elimination then reintroduction), insulin resistant or inflamed, then stick with this type.
If you are sensitive to cows dairy, but would like to include some dairy in your diet from time to time, sheep and goat products are often better tolerated, as is dairy from A2 milk producing cows. Again, this should ideally be full fat, organic and raw if possible. Butter and ghee are often well tolerated by many women with PCOS, as they are relatively low in dairy protein and don't stimulate insulin too much, unlike yogurt, milk and whey protein.
Hopefully this post has cleared a few things up for you! Before even thinking about what superfoods or supplements you need to buy, make sure you are addressing the basics, otherwise they are going to be a waste of time and money.
Don't worry, here are 3 food groups that are GREAT for PCOS. You didn't think I was going to leave you without any advice on what to eat did you?
For more nutrition recommendations, meal ideas and PCOS education you can download my free 'PCOS Mistakes Guide' and also follow me over on Instagram.