PCOS weight loss: Diet and exercise tips
What is PCOS?
PCOS is a hormonal imbalance characterized by high androgens (male sex hormones like testosterone and DHEA) and either irregular menstrual cycles or polycysitc ovaries.
Being diagnosed with PCOS can be confusing and scary, especially if you’re receiving your diagnosis after a year of trying to conceive without any luck. It can be harder to get pregnant with PCOS, but it’s by no means a life sentence. It is entirely possible to improve your PCOS and get pregnant naturally with diet and lifestyle changes.
Is weight loss the answer?
When you were diagnosed your doctor likely told you to loose some weight and try medication like Metformin (a diabetes drug intended to address insulin resistance). Losing weight is easier said than done, right?
When it comes to weight loss for PCOS, it’s important to understand that your weight didn’t cause your PCOS. Something else, like insulin resistance from a standard American diet, is likely causing your weight gain and your hormone imbalance. The good news there is that addressing the root cause will help both issues!
This list is a good starting place for anyone wanting to improve their PCOS with diet and lifestyle. Each tip has the power to make big and lasting changes in your health. My advice - don’t just read the article, choose one or two of these ideas and implement them in your life. You’ll be surprised how quickly things can turn around!
#1 Focus on health
Your overall health has to come first. Here’s the thing. The things that are causing your weight gain are probably the same things causing your PCOS, your fatigue, your bloating, all of the things you’re experiencing.
Your weight gain isn’t isolated. It’s deeply intertwined with your hormonal health and your digestive health. When you shift your focus away towards being as healthy as possible, instead of only thinking about pounds, you’ll find so many more opportunities and strategies to improve your health which can very quickly lead to weight loss.
Write down all of the reasons you want to lose weight and overcome your PCOS. Are the reasons on your list fueled by love (the desire to be your best self) or hate (the desire to be anything but what you are now). If it were possible to hate ourselves skinny, it would have worked by now.
You are 100% worthy, right now. You are 100% loveable, right now.
Take a second to look at your list. Find the reason that is seated deepest in love. Hold on tight and let that reason be your motivation on this journey.
#2 Ditch processed food
The last two decades have been a wake up call. The food we grew up eating has slowly been wrecking havoc on our hormones, destroying our gut microbiome, and depleting our nutrients. Simply put, processed food was developed to be profitable - not to support your fertility.
One of the ways manufacturers make sure their product is profitable is by making it hyper-palatable. That basically means they’ve made it taste so dang good you can’t help but keep eating and eating. But it’s all a trick. It’s about money, not health. Processed foods don’t contain nearly the abundance of nutrients and healing components found in real food.
The foundation of any PCOS eating plan should be real, whole foods; vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, legumes, meat, and seafood. Choose a couple of the highest processed foods you eat regularly and find ways to swap them out for healthier version.
#3 Reduce snacks
Your body produces insulin every time you eat. Eating more often, such as when you snack in between meals, means insulin is circulating in your blood stream more often. Frequent snacking also prevents your body from accessing stored body fat for energy. Since you’re providing easy calories through snacking, your body never needs to dip into it’s own energy reserves (aka, body fat). Read more about how often to eat for PCOS here.
Start by eating three square meals each day. Plan ahead for breakfast, lunch, and dinner so that you’re never stuck without a meal. In between your meals, when you feel the urge to have a snack, check in with yourself and ask if you want the snack because you’re really hungry, because you’re tired and need a pick me up, or because you’re avoiding an emotion like boredom or frustration. If you truly do need some food, eat a protein snack. Beef jerky, a cup of bone broth, a hard boiled egg with avocado are all great snacks to give you energy without fueling the desire for sugar and refined carbs.
#4 Don’t restrict calories
This is the biggest lesson I can possibly teach! I know calorie reduction is what you’ve been taught your whole life, I know this is what doctors still suggest, but you’ve tried this. Either you or someone you know has spent most of their life on a roller coaster of dieting and calorie restriction and they’re no better now than when they first started. In fact, the roller coaster of calorie restriction often leaves you heavier than when you started.
This is because you weight is dictated by your body survival mechanisms. In nature, when there is drought or famine and food is scarce (aka calorie restriction) at first the body will use some of it’s own body fat for energy. This is why you do see some weight loss when you first start a diet. But if the famine goes too long, this tells the body that the world is unsafe, there isn’t enough food to go around, and once the famine ends (aka you stop your diet) your body will immediately refill all of the energy stores it lost, plus extra - in case the famine happens again. Now you’re heavier than you were and you feel like a failure. It does not work. Dieting and calorie restriction does not work.
This also brings it back to focusing on health. Health isn't about going hungry. So whatever diet template you choose, make sure you’re getting sufficient calories. This tells the body that there’s plenty of food out here, there’s no need to hold on to the weight.
Tune in to your body’s hunger signals. Eat when you’re hungry, stop eating when you’re full. I know, easier said than done! If you have a hard time with this, try using a hunger scale. On a scale from -10 up to +10, where 0 is neutral, not hungry and not full. Listen to your body and determine where you are on the scale. A rate of -10 would be literally starving and +10 would be stuffed to the gills at thanksgiving dinner.
Using this scale, the idea “eat when you’re hungry, stop eating when you’re full” means eat when you a reach a -3 in hunger and stop when you reach +3 fullness. Play with this concept to help your body learn how to self regulate again.
#5 Make Friends with Fats
Eating fat does not make you fat. As Americans have reduced their fat intake, obesity has only continued to rise. Fat is actually an essential nutrient. Most of your brain is made of fat. Cell walls are made of fat. Hormones are made of fat.
Fats, including cholesterol, are building blocks for hormones and all cell walls.
Getting a wide variety of fats in your diet is key for balancing hormones. Aim for a mix of saturated and unsaturated fats throughout the day.
#6 Get plenty of Protein
Protein is very satiating. It helps to manage your blood sugar and stave off sugar cravings. Studies have shown that increasing protein intake while reducing refined carbohydrates improves weight loss rates in women with PCOS (1).
Protein is also very important for pre-conception nutrition. Aim for at least 70 grams of protein per day when trying to conceive and increase to about 120 grams during pregnancy.
#7 Choose low glycemic load carbs
The glycemic load is the measurement of how much a serving of a particular food will increase your blood sugar levels. Choosing low glycemic load foods will prevent your blood sugar from spiking too high, which your body then has to respond to by flooding it with insulin, which furthers the development of insulin resistance.
Start by reducing high glycemic load foods such as bread, muffins, pancakes, cereal, crackers, and grains. Each day aim to fill half you plate in low glycemic load carbs like leafy greens, lettuce, carrots, broccoli, beets, squash, etc.
#8 Reduce fructose
Reducing fructose intake for a period of time can be very beneficial while working on insulin resistance. Fructose has been shown to increase the susceptibility of developing insulin resistance in the liver (2). Products with high fructose corn syrup should be removed and fruits with high fructose quantity can be removed for a period of three months while you work on focused, targeted healing for your PCOS. Oftentimes you can reintroduce higher fructose fruits later on.
Use these guidelines to reduce fructose while you work on healing.
High Fructose (avoid during healing phase)
All Dried Fruit
Apple (All Colors)
Moderate Fructose (Limit to one per week)
Low Fructose (Ok everyday)
#9 Move all day
Studies have found that moving all day long leads to better health than sitting all day and doing an hour at the gym. Studies also show that exercise is very important for PCOS. It increases circulation, it aids detoxification, it helps with hormone metabolism. Getting regular physical movement is far more effective than occasional movement.
Set a timer for yourself at work and make sure you stand up and move around for at least 5 minutes every hour. Walk around, bend over, lift things, squat down, use your body as much as possible throughout the whole day.
#10 Build up strength
I’m a big fan of the idea that exercise is simply a tool that helps you live life better. It helps you walk farther without getting tired. It helps you lift heavier things without hurting your back. Strength training is one of the best ways to increase your body’s ability to do stuff. Like when you have that baby you’ve been wanting for so long, strength training prepares you to pick her up 1000 times a day without wearing yourself out.
Strength training also support your body’s ability to re-sensitize cells to insulin (aka, reverse insulin resistance). Insulin resistance often occurs in the muscle and liver cells first. Strength training primes your muscles to more effectively use energy, making the cells more sensitive to the messages of insulin.
Look for a strength trainer in your area who specializes in working with women. Women are not just small men and you will need a different type of plan than a man starting strength training. The PCOS
This is my new favorite thing and an awesome workout for PCOS! Rebounding is essentially a workout done on a small trampoline. It’s super fun, easy to fit into busy schedules, and the main benefit is that it improves your body’s detox ability by pumping your lymph system.
There are two systems in the body that transport fluid. The cardiovascular system moves blood and is pumped by the heart. The lymph system moves lymph and requires muscle movement to pump. Rebounding helps to move the lymph which helps your body better detox excess hormones, remove waste products, transport fat soluble vitamins, and support your immune system.
#12 Exercise with a buddy
Whether you’re taking long walks in the neighborhood, doing strength training, or rebounding at home, working out with a buddy is much more fun! Having a friend to keep you accountable to your own goals helps make the transition into exercising more often easier. Navigating PCOS alone is tough. Even if your friend doesn’t struggle with PCOS, having someone to talk with about the changes you’re making to improve your health is so valuable!
Set a weekly exercise date with a friend. You can take a class together, head to the swimming pool, do yoga at home, or whatever feels fun!
#13 Get plenty of sleep
Sleep is your body’s chance to detoxify and repair itself. Getting plenty of good quality sleep gives your body the chance to repair any damage from the day (from stress, environmental toxins, that glass of wine at dinner) and remove any used up hormone and toxins from the system.
Sleep is deeply healing. You may have noticed a theme in a few of these diet and exercise tips - when the body is stressed out, it holds on to weight. Lack of sleep is a huge stressor on the body.
Set a consistent bed time and wake up time for yourself. Aim for 7 hours as a minimum. Ideally shoot for 8-9 hours of good sleep each night while your body is healing.
#14 Avoid hormone disruptors
Hormone disruptors are practically everywhere these days. They’re toxins in make up, body lotion, and perfume. They’re found in plastics and common household products. They’re even in some foods like soy.
Hormone disruptors make PCOS worse in two ways. They prevent your body’s own hormones from attaching to cells correctly, so the cell never get’s the hormone’s message. They can also mimic your body’s own hormones in the blood stream, which makes your body think there is plenty of hormone circulating, yet the real hormones aren’t able to attach to the cells.
The best way to avoid hormone disruptors is to avoid plastic as much as possible. It’s impossible to avoid it completely, but the key areas that make a difference are never microwaving food in plastic, never putting hot food into plastic for storage (always wait until it’s completely cool) or switching to glass food storage containers, and avoid drinking out of plastic as much as possible.
#15 Reduce stress
Stress has a physical impact on your body. Any PCOS diet and exercise plan must include some sort of stress relief. That can look different for everyone, but I’ve found that the best stress relief is not actually long baths or trips to the spa. It’s the real work of addressing the sources of your stress.
So many of us walk around saying kind things to our friends, but we beat ourselves up in our own heads all day long. We must learn to let go of busyness, of worry, of judgement, of control and having to be right all the time. These are sources of stress that we create in our own minds that only make it harder to heal our bodies.
Stress relief is an ongoing practice. It’s not something you do once and you’re done.
The first step is listening to how you speak to yourself in your own head. If you wouldn’t say it to your best friend, don’t say it yourself.
Everything in this list addresses your overall health and supporting your body in a way that will encourage easy weight loss without restriction or punishing work outs.
Navigating PCOS is complicated. It takes emotional strength, resilience, and a deep knowing that you are more than your PCOS and you won’t let this hold you back from your dreams. Overcoming PCOS is possible. You are capable of making the changes that will heal your body. You don’t have to walk this path alone. If you want guidance and support getting to the root cause of your PCOS and creating an action plan to help your body heal, schedule a free nutrition assessment with me to get started.