Healthy eating for a PCOS diet: What to eat (and what to moderate)

by | Jul 11, 2022 | Last updated Jul 20, 2022

  • Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) isn’t curable, but dietary changes and physical activity may help with symptoms.
  • Eating nutritious, whole foods may reduce PCOS symptoms and help with weight loss.
  • Limit highly processed foods, as well as foods that spike your blood sugar and increase inflammation.

For all that we don’t yet know about PCOS, we do know one thing: Mindful eating and physical activity can have a major impact on symptoms.

(You probably wouldn’t be here if you didn’t already know that.)

With so much contradictory information on the internet, it’s hard to know which healthy foods support PCOS.

We spoke to Noy Phimphasone-Brady, PhD, a clinical health psychologist about the impact that diet can have on PCOS. She’s treated countless patients with this complex metabolic and reproductive condition.

How does diet affect PCOS?

Diet affects PCOS in two ways: insulin (production and resistance),and weight management.

When we eat, glucose (sugar) enters our bloodstream, and our pancreas releases insulin to help our bodies turn that glucose into energy.

However, some people don’t respond well to insulin. They are insulin resistant (also known as insulin insensitive.)

“The problem is that a person with PCOS is essentially resistant to insulin,” says Dr. Phimphasone-Brady, “so they have higher blood-glucose levels.”

Excess glucose in the bloodstream gets stored as fat, she says. This is why PCOS (and specifically, insulin resistance) makes weight loss a challenge.

On top of that, carrying extra body weight can make insulin resistance worse.

If you’re insulin resistant, your pancreas makes more and more insulin in response to increased blood-sugar levels. 

Over time, insulin resistance worsens and the cells that produce insulin wear out. The result is that glucose isn’t taken up by insulin, which leads to high blood sugar, increasing the risk for  prediabetes or type 2 diabetes.

Insulin levels can also build up and can contribute to higher levels of androgens (male hormones). This is why PCOS can also cause symptoms like excess hair growth, irregular periods, acne, and infertility. 

How does all of this relate to diet?

Simple carbohydrates (like sugar, white bread, and fruit juice concentrate) and highly processed foods (like packaged cookies, soda, and pretzels) require more insulin to process. If you’re insulin resistant, these foods will lead to more excess glucose, which means more stored fat.

On the flip side, fiber-rich whole foods—like apples and broccoli—can help people with PCOS avoid blood sugar spikes and manage their weight more easily. 

Protein and healthy fats (like nuts, seeds, and avocados) can also help with weight management because they increase feelings of fullness. Studies suggest that eating protein early in the day can help prevent cravings later in the day.

But most people with PCOS don’t need to (and shouldn’t) follow a restrictive diet. 

Dr. Phimphasone-Brady says the key is balance. Focus on nutritious, whole foods (with treats here and there) to manage your glucose levels and lose weight.

Ready to make a lasting change?

A healthier you, wherever you are.

In short, no. There’s currently no dietary or other cure for PCOS—you can’t “reverse” the condition. 

“However, treatments are very effective, and PCOS can be easily managed,” says Dr. Phimphasone-Brady.

Lifestyle changes—like healthy eating and movement—can help improve your symptoms. Medication prescribed by your doctor can also treat symptoms related to PCOS.

Note: Consult with your health care provider before making any dietary changes.

There’s not necessarily a single “best” diet for weight loss for people with PCOS. 

In general, the same foods that help reduce PCOS symptoms also provide a foundation for weight loss. This means eating whole, nutritious foods that are rich in fiber, protein, and healthy fats, while limiting processed, sugary foods. 

In addition, there are specific strategies that can help with losing weight. These include:

Want more practical information about these strategies? Read about how to lose weight with PCOS

Be wary of any overly restrictive weight loss program. Although highly restrictive diets might help you lose weight in the short term, they’re hard to sustain for most people. 

And when the weight you lost returns, it can make your symptoms worse. (Remember: Weight gain can increase insulin resistance.)

In sum, the “best” diet for losing weight with PCOS is most likely one you can stick with. 

“There’s no specific diet for PCOS,” says Dr. Phimphasone-Brady. 

However, high-fiber foods are a great option because they can reduce the effects of glucose in the blood, improving insulin sensitivity. These foods also slow down digestion, so you feel full and are less likely to overeat.

Examples of fiber-rich foods include:

  • Lentils
  • Black beans
  • Chia seeds
  • Raspberries
  • Pears
  • Apples
  • Broccoli
  • Green peas
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Turnip greens
  • Brown rice
  • Whole wheat pasta
  • Barley
  • Quinoa
  • Bran flakes
  • Oatmeal

Because there may be a connection between PCOS and chronic inflammation, eating anti-inflammatory foods may also help reduce your symptoms.

Examples of anti-inflammatory foods include:

  • Tomatoes
  • Leafy greens like kale, spinach, and collards
  • Blueberries and strawberries
  • Cherries
  • Oranges
  • Lentils, beans, and other legumes
  • Fatty fish like salmon and tuna
  • Nuts like almonds, walnuts, and peanuts
  • Healthy fats like avocado and olive oil
  • Spices like turmeric and cinnamon
  • Dark chocolate (yes, please)

“There’s also good research to support supplements like vitamins D and B, omega-3 fatty acids, as well as pre- and probiotics,” adds Dr. Phimphasone-Brady.

Dr. Phimphasone-Brady’s main advice for people with PCOS? Get plenty of whole grains, lean proteins, fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and fiber in your diet.

You can accomplish this by gradually making healthy swaps for processed foods. For example, replace white bread with whole wheat. Instead of a sugary breakfast cereal, go for plain oatmeal sweetened with fruit and nuts.

These small adjustments can also help you reduce your cholesterol levels and risk for heart disease.

Ready to make a lasting change?

A healthier you, wherever you are.

If you have PCOS, you’ll want to limit your intake of high-glycemic-index foods that can increase inflammation and blood sugar. (Remember, PCOS is tied to insulin resistance, which makes it hard to convert glucose and leads to stored fat).

If you have PCOS, you’ll want to limit your intake of foods that spike your blood sugar. These are called high glycemic-index foods

High glycemic-index foods may also increase PCOS symptoms as well as increase inflammation

Other inflammatory foods include:

  • Highly processed foods like bacon and hot dogs.
  • Fried foods.
  • Some solid fats, like shortening and margarine.
  • Sugary foods and drinks.
  • Refined carbohydrates like white bread and pastries.
  • Red meat like burgers, steaks, and pork.

That’s not to say you should never eat these foods. In fact, restricting yourself too much can backfire.

If you beat yourself up every time you veer off your plan (we’re only human, after all), it can cause you to give up on your health and weight loss goals altogether. Healthy eating is all about balance.