Receiving a diagnosis of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) from your doctor might feel like a gut punch (or a seriously stab-y cramping episode). But the fact is, 1 in 10 women have PCOS, making it the most common hormonal disorder among women of reproductive age. And while learning that you have the condition can be overwhelming, managing it doesn’t have to be.
“Most women with PCOS find out they have it when they go to the doctor because they aren’t getting their period regularly,” says Hillary Wright, M.Ed, RDN, and author of The PCOS Diet Plan. She explains that the genetic condition, which commonly involves the development of cysts on the ovaries and can lead to fertility issues, is linked to a higher level of testosterone. “I tell my PCOS patients that it doesn’t make them any less of a woman. All women have testosterone. All men have estrogen. It’s just a matter of balance,” Wright says.
Diet is the biggest part of the treatment plan—and what you eat is completely controllable.
But if left untreated, Wright warns you’re at serious risk for developing diabetes and heart disease. (And that’s in addition to the whole getting pregnant issue.) Here’s the good news: Diet is the biggest part of the treatment plan—and what you eat is completely controllable. Here, Wright shares her tips on how to manage PCOS, one meal at a time.
Scroll down for three food rules to follow if you have PCOS.
1. Go for unrefined carbs
Wright explains that a key reason why PCOS leads to other health problems is because it’s linked to insulin resistance—AKA your cells can’t absorb glucose properly—which can lead to weight gain and type 2 diabetes. “Managing insulin resistance through diet and lifestyle is twice as effective as through medication,” she says.
So what does that mean for your eating habits? Stay away from refined carbs (which spike blood sugar) and go for ones made from whole foods—like brown rice, oatmeal, legumes, fruits, and vegetables—instead. (Hey, all that gluten can cause inflammation anyway.)
2. Round out each meal with protein and healthy fats
When your meal has a balance of unrefined carbs, protein, and healthy fats, they all work together to manage that insulin resistance. “It helps the glucose in carbs get into your blood, getting the whole insulin response rolling, which tends to be overreactive in women with PCOS,” Wright explains.
So bust out your Vitamix and whip up an avocado-based smoothie with protein powder and a side of eggs. Or for dinner, stir-fry brown rice, cashews, and chicken (use coconut oil for an added boost of good-for-you fats). In this case, following the doctor’s orders tastes pretty good.
3. Pace your meals and add supplements
Since a big part of managing PCOS is keeping your blood sugar level, Wright says it’s best to have five smaller meals a day instead of three big ones. “It helps combat hunger, keeping the body from that fight-or-flight response,” she tells me.
Wright has also noticed that many of her patients with PCOS are low in vitamin D. Since diet alone might not be enough to get the recommended dose, she often advises them to take a supplement. But she says you should talk to your doctor before adding any supplements to your regime—what’s needed varies from woman to woman.
Wright says there’s one more key to managing your PCOS that goes beyond your meal prep: staying active. “Exercise is the physiological trigger for the production of glucose transporter proteins, which yanks the sugar out of the blood and into the cells so it’s easy to regulate your blood sugar normally,” she explains. “If you measure your blood sugar, go for a walk and then measure it again. It will be lower the second time.”
Turns out, the key to managing your PCOS boils down to little more than common sense: Eat a balanced diet, cut out processed foods, and get moving. (Bonus: These three rules might also be the secret to living a super-long and healthy life.) Now that’s advice every woman should follow.