Part 2: Managing PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome) Print
PCOS Nutrition Part 2: Managing Associated Health Conditions
Part 2 of a 5 part series to explore PCOS nutrition written by Teagan Evans, University of Alberta Student in the Nutrition and Food Science program at the University of Alberta and reviewed by our Health Stand Nutrition Dietitian Team. Read Part 1 here.
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome or “PCOS” is an endocrine condition that affects many women around the world. Having PCOS results in hormone imbalances that cause increased production of male androgen hormones and as a result, cause distinct PCOS symptoms. If you missed our first article, here it is!
In the first post, we discussed how PCOS can result in increased risk of associated health conditions such as diabetes, heart conditions, weight issues, and metabolic syndrome. This post will focus on a more in-depth explanation of these conditions and what actions you can take to help manage them.
PCOS and Diabetes & Insulin Resistance
Diabetes and insulin resistance are the most common conditions associated with PCOS. Being diagnosed with diabetes means that your body in unable to properly produce or utilize insulin, a hormone that is essential to managing your blood sugar after you consume food. As a result, blood sugar levels can fluctuate to either very high or low levels and can put your health at risk.
What can you do about it?
Health care providers can prescribe various diabetes management medications and methods of measuring your blood sugar levels. These methods can be highly effective, especially when combined with a diabetes friendly diet and proper physical activity.
Nutrition and diabetes are a perfect match as there are so many different ways, foods, meals and dietary choices that you can make in order to help control your blood sugar levels. Type II diabetes is a risk factor for women with PCOS and this results in abnormally high amounts of sugar remaining in the blood because insulin is unable to function properly in storage or utilization of sugar.
As a result of this form of diabetes, it is very important to understand how various foods can affect your blood sugar. Carbohydrates, fat, and protein all influence your blood sugar in different ways. Carbohydrates are made up of glucose and therefore increase your blood sugar after consumption. Fat and protein do not directly increase blood sugar levels but can actually help manage your blood sugar levels when they are combined with carbohydrates.
Another strategy to help manage blood sugar levels is to eat every 3-5 hours to ensure that blood sugars remain stable. If blood sugar drops too low, there is a risk of hypoglycemia. To immediately manage low blood sugar levels, consume 15g of carbohydrates that can be quickly digested. This can include candy, juice, and sugar tablets – all can be broken down easily!
PCOS and Weight Concerns
Weight gain is a common symptom associated with PCOS. This can be due to a variety of reasons, including insulin resistance and diabetes, increased male androgen production, and stress associated with managing PCOS and everyday life.
What can you do about it?
Exercise and physical activity will always be highly beneficial to managing your weight, whether you have PCOS or not. Being active will not only help you manage your weight, but will also provide multiple benefits of increased energy, better sleep, and reduced stress.
Reduce large portion sizes
Another strategy is being mindful of extra-large portion sizes and avoiding over-consumption of food. Weight gain occurs when we consume more calories than our body utilizes over a long period of time. While the occasional indulgence and large food-consumption day will not lead to immediate weight gain, it is good to be aware of your portion sizes.
Meals prepared in restaurants are typically much larger than our necessary portion sizes. Sharing meals, ordering appetizers, or saving part of your meal for the next day can help reduce these extra-large portion sizes. Preparing meals at home is another way to manage weight as often there are less calories in home cooked meals.
Focus on wholesome foods
Typically, ultra-processed foods are packed full of salt, sugar, and fat and can be very high in caloric density. By focusing primarily on natural foods that have limited processing, such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean meats, legumes, nuts and seeds, your diet can become full of great nutrition.
Help for cravings and emotional eating
If you are struggling with the common challenges of cravings for sweet and savoury foods or emotional eating, you may also find the following articles on our blog helpful:
- How to stop overeating carbs and sweets
- How to manage sweets and treats without blowing your diet
- What to do instead of emotional eating
- How to navigate emotional eating
PCOS and Heart Conditions
Being diagnosed with PCOS increases your risk of various heart diseases and conditions such as cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, and associated conditions such as hypertension. The mechanisms causing women with PCOS to have increase cardiovascular issues risk is related to the alteration of hormone production and complimentary conditions such as diabetes, weight gain, and metabolic syndrome.
What you can do about it?
Managing heart conditions and risk factors through your diet can be very successful. The Heart and Stroke Foundation estimates that 4 out of 5 heart and stroke episodes can be prevented through a healthy diet. Ensuring you are eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, choosing whole grains and complex carbohydrates, and a variety of protein sources from both lean animals to plant-based sources is a great place to start.
Heart heathy fats are another important part of managing heart and stroke risks and ensuring your cholesterol is at an appropriate level. Selecting fat options such as avocado, olive oil, and nuts are heart-healthy alternatives to products such as butter and other animal fats. Fat has a variety of different compositions and typically vegetable fat products (usually oils) contain unsaturated fatty acids which are known to have positive impacts on your heart and overall health. In comparison, animal products contain mostly saturated fats which can increase your LDL or lousy cholesterol and risk for heart and stroke.
One reason heart episodes and strokes occur due to blockages within our blood vessels that are created is because of high cholesterol sediments. As a result, many diets have been created to lower harmful blood cholesterol levels through dietary adjustment and focus on creating healthy habits and behaviours. Here is an overview of each of the recommended heart healthy diets:
- DASH: Dietary Approaches to Stopping Hypertension or “DASH” focuses on consuming foods that will reduce and maintain cholesterol levels. This includes protein sources from fish, plant sources, and some dairy while focusing heavily on consuming fruits and vegetables.
- Vegetarian: The vegetarian diet focuses on removing animal products from your diet and focusing on consuming plant-based alternatives. Animal fats can elevate your blood cholesterol levels.
- Mediterranean: Arguably the most popular long-standing diet, the Mediterranean includes all types of food, but focuses heavily on healthy fats, fish, fruits, vegetables, and whole grain carbohydrate sources.
- Mind: The “Mind” or Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurogenerative Delay diet is a combination both the DASH and Mediterranean diets. It focuses on a brain healthy diet; however, your heart also benefits from brain foods such as antioxidants, unsaturated fats, and nuts!
All of these diets alter slightly in their composition, however focusing on eating lots of fruits and vegetables, heart-healthy fats and protein sources, and consuming less salt and sugar will always be beneficial to creating a heart-healthy diet.
PCOS and Metabolic Syndrome
Metabolic syndrome is a combination of various risk factors and conditions that elevate your risk of various other heath conditions, such as diabetes, and heart and stroke issues. There are 5 key qualifications you must meet in order to be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome:
- High waistline circumference
- Low HDL cholesterol
- High triglycerides levels
- High blood pressure
- High fasting blood sugar
What you can do about it?
Managing metabolic syndrome can be complex as there are so many different conditions and risk factors associated with the syndrome. The best place to start developing your management plan is in discussion with your doctor and Dietitian as they can provide a plan for each component of your heath. However, there are many lifestyle changes you can make that will benefit your overall health.
Similar to the management steps provided above, getting adequate amounts of sleep, exercising regularly, and having a balanced diet full of fresh food will all be beneficial to managing metabolic syndrome. If you are an individual who smokes, aiming to reduce amount or eliminating smoking will be highly beneficial. As well, embracing stress management activities or reducing stress factors in your life will positively contribute to your overall health.
Looking for more support on nutrition for PCOS?
PCOS management isn’t always easy but we can help! If you are looking for a PCOS Dietitian reach out to us for help so we can assist you with helping you manage symptoms and your long-term health. Find out more about PCOS Dietitian services here: Nutrition counseling for PCOS.
Looking for more simple meal planning tips and healthy recipes for a healthier lifestyle? Sign up for our weekly newsletter for a healthy recipe of the week (and nutrition articles and videos with a balanced living philosophy to help encourage healthy habits but still save room for your favorites). Our nutrition newsletter is written by the Online / Calgary Nutritionists on our team who each hold a professional Registered Dietitian license to ensure you are getting credible advice.