PCOS : Nutrition Basics

Diet and exercise are important parts of managing PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome). This is because young women with PCOS often have higher levels of insulin (a hormone) in their blood, and many have trouble maintaining a healthy weight. Knowing the right types of foods to eat as well as the kinds of food to limit can improve the way you feel and may help you lose weight. Eating well, staying active, and maintaining a healthy weight (or losing even a small amount of weight if you’re overweight) can improve PCOS symptoms.

What do I need to know about insulin and carbohydrates?

The insulin level in your blood goes up after you eat. It goes up the most after you eat or drink something that contains carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are found in grains (such as bread, pasta, rice, and cereal), most snack foods (such as chips, cookies, and candy), sugary drinks such as soda and juice, and fruits and vegetables.

Are all carbohydrates the same?

No. Even if you eat two foods that have the same amount of carbohydrate, they may have a different effect on your insulin level. This effect has a lot to do with the type of carbohydrate the food has. Carbohydrate foods with fiber such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables are usually the best to eat if you’re trying to keep your insulin level down. Carbohydrate foods that are sugary or refined (such as soda, juice, white bread, and white rice) can cause insulin levels to go up higher. Foods and drinks like this are also not very filling (which means you may feel hungry shortly after eating them). Try to choose high–fiber, low–sugar carbohydrate foods most of the time.

Do I need to buy special foods?

No. You don’t need to go out of your way to buy special foods. Just like with any healthy eating plan, your meals should include a balance of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, plant–based protein, lean meats, and healthy fats. Most foods fit into a healthy eating plan for PCOS, but you should read food labels to help you pick out the better choices. Look for high–fiber grains such as brown rice, whole–wheat pasta, and whole–wheat bread rather than low–fiber grains such as white rice, pasta, or white bread.

Don’t be fooled by fat–free treats. They usually have a lot of added sugar. Also, some sugar–free foods (such as baked goods) are made with refined grains such as white flour and can raise your insulin levels the same way sugar can. Other sugar–free foods are carbohydrate free. These foods, sweetened with artificial sweetener, may be a good alternative if they don’t upset your stomach. There is currently no scientific data that suggests moderate amounts of artificial sweetener are harmful to our health. However, these foods and drinks are processed. Try to stick to the most natural, whole form of each food (ie, lemon sliced in water instead of diet lemonade).

Instead of:

  • Sweetened juice, canned fruit in heavy syrup, or sweetened applesauce

  • Starchy vegetables such as potatoes, corn, and peas

  • Refined grains made with white flour such as white bread and pasta, bagels, or white rice Sugared cereals such as Lucky Charms®, Fruit Loops®, or Frosted Flakes®, and other sweetened grains such as cereal bars (Nutrigrain Bars®), breakfast pastries (PopTarts®), and donuts

  • Sugary drinks such as soda or juice

  • Sugary foods such as cookies, cakes, and candy

  • Snacks such as potato chips, Fritos®, Doritos®, and tortilla chips


  • Fresh fruits or frozen/canned fruit without added sugar, or unsweetened applesauce

  • Non–starchy fresh vegetables or frozen/canned vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, and carrots

  • Whole grains such as whole wheat pasta, brown rice, oats, and whole wheat bread

  • High fiber cereals such as Kashi®, shredded wheat, and All Bran®. (Look for cereals that have at least 5 grams of fiber per serving or sprinkle ½ cup of bran cereal or unprocessed bran on a low–fiber cereal to increase the fiber)

  • Water or seltzer, flavored with fruit if desired, unsweetened iced tea

  • High fiber baked goods made from whole wheat flour and oats

  • Crackers and snacks with fiber such as Triscuits®, Wasa®, or popcorn

Are “carbs” unhealthy?

No! Carbs (carbohydrates) give your body energy. Some people think that eating carbs will make them gain weight, but carbs will make you gain weight only if you eat more than your body needs. Many other important nutrients like vitamins and minerals come from carbohydrate foods, so eating no carbs is not a good idea. Because high–fiber carbohydrate foods are higher in nutrients and help you feel full longer than sugary low-fiber carbohydrates, it’s best to choose high-fiber carbs as often as possible.

What about foods that have fats and proteins in them?

Protein foods such as beans, hummus, nuts, peanut butter, tofu, eggs, fish, chicken, meat, and vegetarian meat substitutes, and fats such as olive oil, nuts, and avocado are important parts of a PCOS–friendly eating plan. Combining foods that contain protein or fat with a carbohydrate will help to slow down the absorption of the carbohydrate and keep insulin levels low. For example, instead of plain rice, have rice with beans and a little avocado.

Keep in mind that some fats are much healthier than others. Healthy fats are found in olive oil, canola oil, nuts, avocados, and fish. Choose healthy fats and proteins instead of butter, margarine, mayonnaise, full–fat cheese, creamy sauces or dressings, and red meat.

Do I need to follow a diet that is extra high in protein?

No. Really high protein diets (such as the Atkins diet) are not a good diet option for teens because they can be low in some important nutrients such as fiber, the B vitamins, and vitamin C. It’s also important to remember that even if you limit your carbohydrate intake, overeating fat or protein can cause weight gain. You should aim for a way of eating that has a balance of protein, healthy carbohydrates, and some fat.

What does low glycemic index mean?

Glycemic index is a term used to describe how a food affects blood sugar. The higher a food raises blood sugar, the higher the glycemic index. High–fiber carbs have a lower glycemic index than sugary or refined carbs. Combining a carbohydrate food with another food can lower the glycemic index because it allows your body to absorb the carbohydrate more slowly. For example, if you have a piece of candy immediately after a meal it will not raise your blood sugar as high as it would if you ate the candy on its own between meals.

What fruits and vegetables have a low glycemic index?

Vegetables such as asparagus, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucumber, green beans, spinach, tomatoes, and zucchini and fruits such as apples, berries, grapes, oranges, peaches, and plums have a low glycemic index. Fruits and vegetables with more sugar or starch have a higher glycemic index (such as dried fruit, tropical fruit, corn, potatoes, squash, and peas).

Should I avoid dairy, sugar, gluten, or soy?

There is no current scientific data to support restricting or avoiding specific food groups or types of foods in order to improve PCOS symptoms. Following the dietary advice presented here, in addition to exercising, are healthy ways to manage weight and decrease symptoms.

If I choose the right foods, do I still need to be worried about my portion sizes?

Yes! In addition to what you eat, how much you eat also affects your insulin levels. For example, your insulin will go up much more if you have 3 cups of pasta than if you have 1 cup of pasta. This means it’s usually better to have several small meals and snacks during the day than it is to have a few really big meals. Having more frequent smaller meals and snacks will keep your insulin level lower throughout the day.

What is the Nutrition Facts label?

The Nutrition Facts label explains what nutrients (components of food your body needs to grow and stay healthy) and how much of those nutrients are in found in one serving of the food. It’s located on the outside of most food packages, but isn’t on most fresh foods (such as fruits and vegetables or meats). The Nutrition Facts label can help you make choices about the food you eat.

Is it important for me to exercise?

Yes! It’s really important that girls with PCOS exercise, because exercise brings down insulin levels, can help with weight loss, is important for cardiovascular health, and can help improve mood. Exercise can be especially helpful in lowering insulin directly after a meal. So, if possible, go for a walk or find an enjoyable way to move your body after you eat a meal. Any increase in exercise helps, so find an activity, sport, or exercise that you enjoy. If you aren’t doing a lot of exercise now, start slowly, and build up to your fitness goal. If you only exercise once in a while, try to exercise more regularly. Work towards increasing your physical activity to at least 5 days a week for 60 minutes per day.

Source: Centre For Young Women Health

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